Fr. Steven Avella in Rome

Over the summer, Professor Steven Avella was in Rome working at the Archivio Segreto Vaticano.  In this post, he shares some of his discoveries while researching reports on Catholic dioceses in the U.S. in the 1920s.  While there, he met up with our colleague Sarah Bond, assistant professor of ancient and early Medieval history, who was also conducting research in Rome.  Included are some photos from Sarah’s trip, including one of Pope Francis blessing a crowd of Harley Davidson bikers.


In 1922, Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) ordered his representative in the US (until 1984 called the Apostolic Delegate) to conduct a visitation of all the dioceses of the United States to ascertain their financial condition, the status of native (US-born) priests, the extent of Catholic charitable and educational outreach and other social conditions. These reports are now open to researchers and, as I suspected, they, and other documents, provide a wealth of information about Catholic life in the US during the first part of the 20th century.

The author of most of these reports was Archbishop (later cardinal) Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi (referred to by most clerics by his not-so-complimentary nickname, “Big Fu”.) I have surveyed his reports for the state of Iowa and find the information fascinating and frank. He rather closely examines diocesan finances, looking for instances of mismanagement or excessive debt. He offers comments on the ethnic composition of the diocese and the relative strength or weakness of Catholic numbers in relationship to the wider population. He most interesting descriptor is of the geography and topography of the lands embraced by the diocesan boundaries. As he is sending this to his superiors in Rome, he always has to compare the size of the diocese to Italy. He gives a blow by blow of the occasional reorganization of diocesan boundaries which shows the bishops to be quite adept at gerrymandering…they trade counties like kids used to trade baseball cards!

I have also studied virtually all his reports of western dioceses and here the reporting is even more instructive. He is amazed by the size and diversity of Catholic dioceses in the west and is awed by its beauty.IMG_1528

Several other things emerge in these reports. He is brutally frank about the bishops he meets. He seems to think all of them have “carrattere nervoso” without understanding that his visit likely puts them on edge. But he is quite blunt about those who cannot manage funds or people or are just plain odd (eccentricita). He is quite praiseworthy of the Jesuits who work among the Indian tribes and equally laudatory of the religious communities of men and women who minister among the growing Mexican populations of the West—including Kansas and Nebraska. But his sharpest words are for the occasional encounters he has with Jim Crow. To his superiors in Rome he verbally lacerates a bishop in Missouri who insisted on maintaining two Catholic cemeteries for whites and blacks. He recommended a strong directive from the Vatican to American bishops—(in my rough translation): “to bring to the hearts of American Catholics a deep understanding of the equality of all human persons in our Redeemer Jesus Christ.” This was in 1923…I doubt whether the Vatican sent the directive–or even if they did, if the bishop listened. “Big Fu” also noted that the local bishop ran scared of the well-to-do Catholics who endorsed this affront to Christianity and humanity.



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