Date of Award



Edward Cahill

Second Advisor

Amy Aronson

Third Advisor

Sectarianism, Citizenship, New York, 19th Century, Religion


My senior thesis for American Studies, entitled “Sectarianism and Citizenship: Church and State Debates in Nineteenth Century New York,” examines the origins of Catholic integration into mainstream American Society, particularly by looking into the changing landscape in New York during the mid-1800’s. American citizenship was defined in terms of Protestant nationalism, and, as such, American institutions also had strains of American Protestantism. I contend that this American Protestant hegemony was challenged in New York by the growing presence of Catholics in the city. Through natural birth rates and immigration, the Catholic population in New York dramatically increased, and forced the Protestant majority to confront the reality of an ever-growing minority in defining what it meant to be an American citizen.
In my paper, I highlight several reasons Catholics did not meet Protestant notions of American citizenship. These reasons are the supposed mob-mentality of Catholics caused by the Church’s hierarchy; Irish Catholic’s familiarity with sectarian conflict in their homeland; the amount of Catholics who strained the nascent social welfare system; and fears of Catholic superstition.
I argue that Catholics were able to overcome these disparagements by challenging two of the institutions principally responsible for reinforcing Protestant citizenship: schools and hospitals. I examine how John Hughes, the Catholic bishop of New York, was able to utilize the political system, previously dominated by Protestants, in order to change the educational structure in New York. I also look at how Catholics, particularly through the work of nuns, provided welfare options to the poor in New York. Not only did these two conflicts challenge the established institutional norms, but also upended the social structure, as the role of nuns in these conflicts was instrumental in changing perceptions of women and families in American society. In all, examining these conflicts provides a useful understanding of the origins of Catholic challenges in expanding the notions of citizenship in America.