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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI historian connects Providence politics with Catholic Church - Ballots and Bibles shows how new Americans gained influence

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 25, 2004 -- Providence was an industrial city in the mid-19th century. Although the Statue of Liberty didn't sit in Narragansett Bay, the city offered a beam of hope for Catholic immigrants seeking jobs.

The Irish began trickling into Providence during the 1820s, the French Canadians arrived after the Civil War, and the Italians disembarked on the Providence banks beginning in the 1880s.

Rather than being greeted with open arms, the immigrants were shut out of public life, primarily by restrictive voting laws put into place by politicians who wanted to maintain the Protestant status quo.

"Politically all the cards were stacked against the immigrants," says Newport resident and University of Rhode Island historian Evelyn Savidge Sterne whose book "Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence" was published last month by Cornell University Press.

Until 1888, immigrants couldn’t vote unless they owned real estate, thereby disqualifying the majority from having any say over their government.

Until 1928, anyone in the state who voted in city elections had to own property to vote. The legislature, itself, was unfairly apportioned. Small towns had a disproportionate number of seats.

"Rhode Island is unique," says the historian author who combed through 40 years of The Providence Visitor, the Catholic diocesan newspaper, searched parish records, scanned voting statistics, and scoured census records for her book. "No other state had such blatantly anti-immigrant voting regulations. While other states had restrictions, they were much more subtle."

The immigrants eventually gained their political power, but not through the labor unions--the union movement in Rhode Island remained weak until the 1930s--nor through a political machine.

Rather it was the Catholic Church, Sterne argues, that served as a launching pad for political activism by its rank and file members in the early 20th century.

"Catholic parishes, without knowing it, provided political education and skills," says Sterne noting that an entire social life could be built around a parish. Parishes offered a wide variety of societies to join.

Their officers learned leadership skills, fundraising skills, and even parliamentary procedures. In addition, the parishes offered numerous recreational activities, debating teams, and hosts of lectures. "The parish served as a mini-government in a way," explains the assistant professor of history.

"The year 1905 was a turning point," says Sterne. "The census revealed that for the first time Catholics were a majority."

Realizing that they were not enjoying economic or political power in proportion to their numbers, Catholic lay societies began to see themselves as political vehicles and started to lobby the legislature and hold voter registration drives.

Sterne is one of a few social historians to lift religion from the corners of public life and place it right in the center of the story of how newcomers at the turn of the 20th Century helped define America.

"I chose Providence because it was an ideal case study of the Catholic Church and ethnic politics," she says. "And because little had been done on it."

Sterne began the book in 1995 as part of her dissertation from Duke University. Her research was funded by a post-doctoral fellowship from Yale University, grants from the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization at Brown University and the American Historical Association and by two grants from the URI Council for Research.