Jay Dolan transformed the writing of American Catholic history a quarter-century ago by telling the story from the bottom up instead of from the top down. In recent years a number of parish histories have appeared that reflect and expand this new methodology. They successfully relate the life of a local faith community to the larger religious and secular world of which it is a part, and reciprocally illuminate that bigger world from the perspective of this local community. St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village offers a fruitful opportunity for this kind of history. During the life span of this parish, the Catholic community in New York City has grown from a mere thirty or forty thousand to over three million in two dioceses. St. Joseph's Church began as a poor immigrant parish in a hostile Protestant environment, developed into a prosperous working-class parish as the area became predominantly Catholic, survived a series of local economic and social upheavals, and remains today a vibrant spiritual center in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular neighborhood. Its history provides a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of Catholicism in New York City during the course of the past 175 years. The history of this parish is worth telling for its own sake as the collective journey of one faith community from immigrant mission to pillar of society and then to spiritual outpost in the Secular City. However, it has significance far beyond the boundaries of Greenwich Village because it documents at the most basic and vital level of Catholic communal organization the interaction between change and continuity that has been one of the most prominent features of urban Catholicism in the United States over the past two centuries.
Thomas J. Shelley is Professor of Historical Theology at Fordham University. He is the author of numerous works, including Slovaks on the Hudson: Most Holy Trinity Church, Yonkers, and the Slovak Catholics of the Archdiocese of New York, 1894-2000 (CUA Press, 2002) and The History of the Archdiocese of New York (1997); he is coeditor of The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (1997).