The celebration of Pentecost is a perfect occasion to think about the history–and the future–of the United States as a nation of immigrants. Like the crowd assembled in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, America is home to people “from every nation under heaven.” Most American cities have ethnic neighborhoods that attest to this heritage. Columbus, Ohio is a typical city in this respect and serves as a helpful reminder that people came to America from many different places and for many different reasons, but in their common struggle for freedom, they all helped to build the nation that we inherit today.
Columbus in particular was built by immigrants from many different cultures, but many of them shared the common faith of Catholicism. The name of the city itself is a testament to the importance of immigration in American culture. Historians and anthropologists refer to events in the Western Hemisphere as either pre- or post-Columbian because of the impact of his voyages on human migration. Columbus himself was a very devout Catholic, so it would undoubtedly please him to know that the city that bears his name is filled with beautiful Catholic churches built by the people who followed in his footsteps.
One of the more famous neighborhoods in Columbus is the German Village just to the south of downtown. The neighborhood is built on land originally intended for refugees from British Canada who lost everything for supporting the cause of independence. These first immigrants to the Ohio Country later sold the land to Germans who began arriving in the early 19th Century. The ceilings of St. Mary Parish have beautiful artwork with pictorial representations of the Litany of Mary captioned in German Fraktur script.
Farther to the south, other neighborhoods built by Eastern European immigrants around the turn of the last century have fallen on hard times, but are being restored to new life by more recent arrivals. St. Leo Parish in Merion Village no longer serves the local neighborhood, but is now used to offer the only Mass in Korean in the diocese. St. Ladislas Parish in Hungarian Village was merged with Corpus Christi Parish and now is one of many Parishes that offer Mass in Spanish.
To the north of downtown are the remnants of ethnic neighborhoods for the Irish and Italian communities. In the Irish slum that used to be known as “Flytown,” St. Patrick Parish has shamrocks carved in the pews and in stained glass throughout the church. Nearby in the old Italian Village, St. John the Baptist Parish offers Mass in Italian and sponsors the annual Columbus Day parade and Italian heritage festival.
To the east, St. Dominic Parish is located in the heart of the King-Lincoln neighborhood and was originally built by Irish and Italian immigrants, but now serves a predominantly African American community after merging with the now defunct St. Cyprian Parish. Farther to the north and east, St. Matthias Parish is of more recent construction and offers Mass in Nigerian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Haitian Creole French.
This virtual tour of ethnic neighborhoods brings to mind the election of Pope Francis, and all the different flags in St. Peters square as people gathered in breathless anticipation of the announcement of the new pope. America is like that every day. We have a duty as Christians to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation.” As Americans, we are blessed to have the whole world coming to our door. Unfortunately, in large part due to anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment, that door does not stand wide open as it did prior to the introduction of quotas in 1924.
In those days, there were no entitlements. Immigrants came to America with nothing but the clothes on their back, but they did not seek government assistance and wouldn’t have gotten any even if they asked for it. Instead, they worked hard for a better life and saved as much money as they could to help build these beautiful old churches as well as hospitals and schools to provide for the needs of their families and of the next wave of immigrants that was to follow behind them. In the debate over immigration reform, we have a duty to pass on this rich legacy and the institutions of the Catholic Church to a new generation.