Pope Francis in the City of Brotherly Love

Through a new documentary and in her recent book, Associate Professor of History Sally Dwyer-McNulty covers Pope Francis and Catholic Philadelphia, among other topics 

POUGHKEEPSIE (Sept. 29, 2015) – The recent visit to America by Pope Francis generated tremendous interest nationally. Here at Marist, Francis's visit, particularly his stop in Philadelphia, was of special interest to Dr. Sally Dwyer-McNulty, associate professor of history. Dwyer-McNulty was a consultant on the new documentary film series, Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic PhiladelphiaSally Dwyer-McNulty

Her recent book, Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), also includes a good deal of information on Philadelphia's Catholic community. As the publisher states, the book "reveals the transnational origins and homegrown significance of clothing in developing identity, unity, and a sense of respectability for a major religious group that had long struggled for its footing in a Protestant-dominated society often openly hostile to Catholics."

"The city has the unique opportunity to host a remarkable religious leader, whose interest in the poor, the direction of modern values, and the healing role of the church resonate with many Philadelphians, in and outside of the Church," Dwyer-McNulty says. "Catholicism is deeply intertwined in the history of Philadelphia. Barring the nativist violence of the mid-nineteen century, Catholic immigrants found a welcoming home there."

Dwyer-McNulty explains that "as the number of Catholics in Philadelphia grew, the faithful directed their resources towards the construction of parish churches, schools, and charity organizations. These institutions helped to imprint Catholicism on the city alongside other faith traditions."

Urban Trinity film logoThe current Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, attended one such Catholic institution  St. Joseph’s Preparatory High School. This Jesuit school, founded by the same religious order of which Pope Francis is a member, is just one of a number of Catholic institutions that was involved in the papal visit, as well as the World Meeting of Families, which preceded it.

"It was certainly a visit to remember," Dwyer-McNulty said.

Pope Francis and Common Threads

Pope Francis is mentioned in Common Threads. Dwyer-McNulty sees Francis as a Catholic leader who understands the power of symbols and uses them effectively.

"While he does not appear to be altering any church doctrine, he nevertheless has won enormous attention and support for his candor and humility," she says. "His simple papal attire and living conditions go a long way in reinforcing his message of building a "healing church" with a preference for the poor."

Francis's well-publicized decision to forego ornate red shoes for simple black ones is just one example of his awareness of the symbolic power of his clothing.

More broadly, Common Threads traces the symbolic and practical significance of clothing within American Catholic culture, from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Common Threads book cover

Incorporating extensive research into school uniforms, clerical garb, and nuns' habits, Professor Dwyer-McNulty argues that clothing has served as crucial means of community identity for Catholics in this country. The book has been praised for "the depth of [its] religious history" (Colleen McDannell, University of Utah) and lauded by David Morgan of Duke University as "a splendid piece of scholarship and a fine read."

The Boston Globe wrote that "Dwyer-McNulty identifies the tension between American simplicity and Roman opulence as a major theme in the country’s expression of Catholicism."

Publishers Weekly said,  "The history of clothing in a Catholic context is fascinating—or at least it is from the hands of Dwyer-McNulty..., [who] shows how clothing, both clerical and lay, has been so many things to American Catholics—a form of rebellion, a manner of disguise, a way of asserting one's identity or reminding oneself of it to ward off temptation."