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American Federation of Catholic Societies


Catholic societies existed in the U.S. as early as the 1830s, but the notion of a federation of these societies developed only after Pius IX commended the work of the Belgian Catholic Union in 1871. Influenced by the pope's recommendation that unions be formed throughout the world, Richard Clarke, a New York lawyer, drafted a constitution for local unions, hoping to federate them into a national union. Although this hope was not realized, attempts to unite Catholics continued. In 1889 and 1893 Catholics met at lay congresses where the delegates were urged to join Catholic societies. Before the first congress, Martin griffin, editor of the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal, suggested a federation of Catholic societies, and a diocesan federation began in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1890. For the next 11 years agitation continued for a national federation to muster forces against the "violation of Catholic rights" in education, native missions, employment, and other areas. Finally in 1900 and 1901, organizational meetings were held for this purpose in Philadelphia, Pa.; New York, N.Y.; and at Trenton and Long Branch, N.J.

The result of these efforts was the American Federation of Catholic Societies, a loose union of organizations wherein the members retained their autonomy and identity. It existed until 1920, although the last public meeting took place in 1917. Except for 1905, annual conventions were held; between conventions Anthony Matre, national secretary, handled routine matters, aided by the executive and advisory boards composed of officers and members of the hierarchy. In 1911 the federation formed a social service commission with Bp. Peter muldoon, of Rockford, Ill., and Rev. Peter dietz, of Milwaukee, Wis., as chairman and secretary, respectively. During its 18 active years, the federation tried to mold Catholic public opinion; it informed its members on pertinent topics, both Catholic and secular, and worked to block harmful and aid helpful legislation both locally and nationally. Outstanding Catholic laymen such as James Edward Hagerty, sociologist at Ohio State University; Frederick Kenkel of the Catholic Central Union; and David goldstein, converted socialist, were featured by the federation in its Bulletin, in its Weekly Newsletter, and on its lecture platforms. The federation also conducted a campaign of decency in entertainment and inaugurated an early system of evaluating the morality of motion pictures. To some extent it contributed to the Americanization of immigrant Catholics and provided some early precedents for cooperation between the clergy and laity.

When Catholic action was needed at the beginning of World War I, the federation failed to take the initiative because it was busy reorganizing. However, it did pledge its wholehearted support to the Knights of Columbus and the newly formed National Catholic War Council. When the latter was continued after the war as the national catholic welfare conference (NCWC), the federation was absorbed into it and eventually disappeared with the formation of the National Councils of Catholic Men and Women, NCCMW.

Bibliography: a. f. gorman, Federation of Catholic Societies, 18701920 (Doctoral diss. unpub. U. of Notre Dame 1962).

[a. f. gorman]

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