Every one of the men who has served as Archbishop of New York has been Irish either by birth or heritage, and none has been further removed from his Irish roots than a second generation.

Their stories are the basis of the new book by George J. Marlin and Brad Miner: Sons of St. Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York from Dagger John to Timmytown.

Sons of St. Patrick is a deep-dive into the history, personalities, and faith of a people who are much more than the green beer of St. Patrick’s Day indulgences might suggest. Miner and Marlin talk about some of what they learned, and what they make of it.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Do archbishops really matter anymore?

Brad Miner: Less than in the past, although it’s not for lack of trying. They matter less, because Catholics matter less, and Catholics matter less, because most are no longer aware of what their Church teaches and expects of them, or do know and are in a kind of passive rebellion. There was a time when Catholics as Catholics were a significant political and social force, and looked to their archbishops for guidance on a whole range of issues. Some archbishops – John Joseph Hughes and later Cardinal Francis Spellman – used that power in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes bold.

Do you have a favorite?

Miner: I’d have to say John McCloskey, New York’s second archbishop and America’s first cardinal. He may well have been the most admired man ever to hold the job. And people admired him from the time he was a young man until the day he died. We include an illustration in Sons of St. Patrick that is the cover of Harper’s Weekly from October 24, 1885, showing the massive crowd outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral for McCloskey’s funeral. He was a holy man and a great leader, which is why Pius IX chose him as the human symbol of America’s coming of age: We were no longer “mission territory” thanks to McCloskey. He was Cardinal Edward Egan’s favorite, too.

Marlin:  My favorite is Francis Cardinal Spellman, who served as archbishop during the “Golden Age” of the Catholic Church in New York and America.  Throughout his record breaking 28-year administration, Cardinal Spellman leveraged this power to become the nation’s leading religious spokesman and an advisor to presidents, governors, members of Congress, and mayors.  His residence at 452 Madison Avenue was rightly called the Power House, and politicians of every stripe visited to seek the Cardinal’s blessing on bended knee.

What surprised?

Miner: We begin the book with a chapter on the years before New York became an archdiocese in 1850. The story begins with the 17th-century Jesuit missionaries who came down from Canada, and there are some pretty horrific tales of torture and hardship. One man wrote to his superior that he had never realized a man could be so hard to kill. I had been vaguely aware how hard life for Catholics had been in earlier centuries in America, but the amount of sorrow and struggle surprised me.

What most inspired?

Marlin:  The faith, dedication, and loyalty of Catholic immigrants who donated their hard-earned nickels and dimes to build hundreds of churches, schools, rectories and convents throughout New York City and its surrounding counties in the 19th and 20th Century.

What was so astonishing about the first Archbishop John Hughes’s accomplishments?

Miner: Nothing – once you got to know him. Objectively, I suppose it’s that he succeeded at all, because when he came to New York as a 20-year-old, he was not very well educated and had few prospects, and you’d have probably guessed he’d spend his whole life working as a gardener, which was what he did when he first immigrated. But he had an iron will. No obstacle was too daunting for Dagger John. And although he fought many battles, his enduring legacy is surely the status that Catholics enjoy in the U.S.

The Know Nothings and other nativists – and not just nativists – believed that because Catholics were loyal to a “foreign power,” the Vatican, they could not be loyal Americans. Hughes won that war of words and ideas, and although nativism as a force went on for some time (it affected Al Smith’s presidential loss in 1928), Dagger John put a dagger in its heart.  

The New York Times review of your book declared the Church “in decline.” As experts in its history, what say you?

Miner: Well, this goes back to your earlier question about the extent to which archbishops matter. I said “less.” Is the Church here in decline? Yes. But it’s mostly a spiritual and demographic decline. Again: Too many Catholics know too little about the faith and have become Christmas-and-Easter or holy-day-only Catholics. I’ll bet not two-in-ten Catholics know that every Sunday is a holy day of obligation. As to demography: Cardinal Dolan has had the unenviable task of shuttering some churches and consolidating others, because – especially in New York City – the old catchments that once flourished are no longer situated in growing Catholic neighborhoods. The numbers are declining. And this is true among the area’s newer immigrants from south of the border, in that not a few of them have abandoned Catholicism, even before they left the countries of their birth. That said, New York is still a vibrant Catholic archdiocese, never to be counted out.

[Read more of this interview today on National Review Online.]