Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Growth, ethnic conflict plagued Hoban's time as head of diocese

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9, 1921, more than a thousand Catholics packed St. Peter's Cathedral to celebrate the Jubilee anniversary of Bishop Michael J. Hoban, who presided over the Diocese of Scranton. 

It was a well-deserved honor.

Hoban's tenure was marked by both tremendous growth and ethnic conflict. 

The Diocese of Scranton, founded in 1868 when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was officially divided, comprised the 11 counties of Northeastern Pennsylvania and represented Catholics from nearly every country in Eastern and Western Europe.

While Hoban presided over the dramatic growth of parishes and the quality of parochial education in the diocese, he was also subject to a series of lawsuits brought against him by dissident parishioners in both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. 

These conflicts resulted in the creation of the Polish National Catholic Church, but without Hoban's wisdom, mediation and humility, the schism would have reached even greater proportions.

Michael John Hoban was born on June 6, 1853, at Waterloo, N.J., to Patrick and Bridget Hannigan Hoban, both of whom were Irish immigrants. 

Shortly after, Patrick, a contractor for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, relocated his family to Hawley.

Michael received his early education in private schools. At age 14, he entered St. Francis Xavier School in New York City and, a year later, matriculated to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. 

When his father died in 1871, Hoban cut short his undergraduate education to care for his widowed mother and younger siblings. Returning to college at Fordham, the young scholar felt called to the priesthood and, in 1874, enrolled at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. 

The following year, he was sent to further his studies at the Pontifical North American College at Rome. On May 22, 1880, Hoban was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Raffaele Monaco La Valletta. 

Upon his return to Northeastern Pennsylvania in July 1880, his career progressed with astonishing speed. After serving two years as a curate in Towanda, Hoban was transferred to St. John the Evangelist Church in Pittston, where he assisted the Rev. John Finnen. 

Four years later, in 1885, he received his first pastorate, being appointed to St. John's Church at Troy in Beadford County.
In 1887, Hoban was named pastor of St. Leo's Church in Ashley. Over the next decade, he would establish a church and rectory, taking pride that his parish was, as he said, "begun in simplicity and poverty but laid on a foundation of hope."

Hoban's keen intellect and compassion for the working class and poor were recognized by the diocese and, on March 22, 1896, he was appointed coadjutor to Bishop O'Hara, the same day of his ordination as bishop.

For the next three years, Hoban assisted aging O'Hara in ordaining priests, administering the sacrament of confirmation, dedicating churches and conducting the annual conference of the clergy. 

He was also responsible for one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the young Diocese, a decision that led to the establishment of the Polish National Catholic Church.

At the turn of the 20th century there were nearly 200 Polish parishes scattered throughout the United States. 

The Catholic Church simply could not meet the demand for creating new Polish churches. 

Because there were no Polish bishops and the parishioners were forced to accept the pastor that was appointed by the bishop, many Polish Catholics felt as if the Irish-German hierarchy had little concern for their welfare and viewed themselves second-class members of the Church.

When these Poles tried to establish their own churches, those places of worship were declared to be the sole possession of the bishops of the various dioceses. 

They were also ordered to give up teaching the Polish language and culture in their parish schools. 

Outraged, they expressed their discontent through mass upheavals in several Polish communities throughout the country.

One of the trouble spots was the Scranton Diocese, which boasted a membership of 200,000 Catholics. 

In the autumn of 1896, a delegation of Polish anthracite miners who made up the congregation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church, requested lay representation in parish affairs. 

They were refused. 

A group then tried to block entrance of the priest, Father Aust, into the church. 

Bishop O'Hara called the police and a riot developed. 

Some 20 persons were arrested. 

Within weeks, some 780 of the alienated parishioners organized a new parish called St. Stanislaus, and a few months later purchased land for a new church. 

They invited a young Polish-born priest, Father Francis Hodur, to become their pastor.

Hodur, then pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Nanticoke, had endeared himself to working-class parishioners by participating in social work and publishing one of the first parish newspapers, "The Guard." 

Hodur felt "called" to defend the interests of the Polish dissidents and accepted the invitation to become the pastor of the new Polish church.

On March 21, 1897, Hodur celebrated Mass in the unfinished structure that was to become St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church. 

Two hundred and fifty families claimed membership in the new parish. 

Soon the movement spread beyond Scranton into the Wyoming Valley, with like-minded parishes in Duryea (St. Mary's), Wilkes-Barre (Holy Cross) and Nanticoke (Holy Trinity). 

Collectively, these parishes would unite to become the Polish National Catholic Church and the Rev. Hodur accepted responsibility as their leader.

Bishop Hoban, who was carefully monitoring these activities, suggested that Bishop O'Hara take a hard line with the renegade priest. 

But O'Hara was hesitant to do so and the situation worsened. 

In April, Hodur began to use his newspaper as a vehicle to give advice and encouragement, but also to criticize the existing church hierarchy. 

Acting on Hoban's advice, Bishop O'Hara met with Hodur and warned him of the possibility of excommunication. 

The message had little impact.

In February 1898, Hodur went to Rome to seek recognition of American-Polish problems; something the American hierarchy refused to do. 

Rome denied recognition and though the incident strained relations with the Scranton Diocese, O'Hara still refused to act. 

Hodur's newspaper editorials became more vitriolic. 

He made Irish Catholics the scapegoats for almost every injustice Polish Catholics faced. 

He also called for ownership by Polish parishes of property built by their members, parish-wide elections of administrators of such property, and no appointment by bishops of non-Polish priests to such parishes without the consent of the parishioners.

Finally on Sept. 29, 1898, Hodur was excommunicated for clerical disobedience. 

Though Bishop O'Hara handed down the decision, it was clear that it had been made by Hoban. 

Hodur read the document to his congregation, then burned it and threw the ashes outside the doors of St. Stanislaus Church. 

The dissident parishioners welcomed the news as the church bells rang, people sang and embraced each other.

On Dec. 24, 1900, Mass at St. Stanislaus was for the first time sung in Polish. 

Other Polish parishes quickly followed the lead. 

Four years later, the first Synod of the new Polish National Catholic Church was held in Scranton with 147 clerical and lay delegates representing two dozen parishes and 20,000 parishioners in five states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

The Synod also adopted a constitution, elected a lay-clerical Supreme Council and unanimously elected Father Hodur bishop and administrator of the new church.

Bishop Hoban continued to deal with the effects of the schism long after he was appointed O'Hara's successor. 

In February 1899, Hoban inherited the Diocese of Scranton with its 100 parishes, 152 priests and 32 parochial schools. 

Under his leadership, the diocese expanded to include 202 parishes with 341 priests, 65 parochial schools and three colleges. 

He was also harassed by Hodur, who used his newspaper to openly criticize him and all the other priests of the Diocese as being engaged in a widespread conspiracy to deny Polish Catholics of their ecclesiastical rights.

Hoban worked hard to embrace the Poles who remained in the Diocese. 

He met with those who expressed concerns over church practice and successfully defended the Diocese in lawsuits that were brought against it from the dissident Polish parishioners in both Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. 

His charitable approach stemmed the tide of ethnic conflict and prevented other Polish parishioners from joining the schism. 

He died in 1926 at the age of 73.