Why My Catholic Colleagues Should Care About Chinatown

Why My Catholic Colleagues Should Care About Chinatown December 8, 2013

Chinatown in San Francisco, CA. In the background you can see the Bay Bridge. - by Christian Mehlführer, 27 November 2006 (San_Francisco_China_Town_MC.jpg) (CC BY 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons

It occurred to me when I mentioned Artur Rosman and Cosmos the in Lost in yesterday’s update on the Mark Driscoll plagiarism fiasco that I have a lot of friends who would identify as Roman Catholic theology and history buffs. Whether or not they are officially Roman Catholic or not remains an open question. If you want to know about my own convoluted theological history, you can read about the mess here.

The point, however, is that this group of Catholic theology and history friends and colleagues has often felt worlds apart from my real research interests in Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific geographies of religion and secularization. To be sure, some have expressed private interest in what I am doing. But it is telling that they often confess ignorance, saying that they’d like to help and would be interested in reading my stuff, but what I’m doing is really far outside their research interests.

I’d like to issue a friendly and collegial challenge to them. It’s because today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception for no apparent reason, it seems, except that it’s the anniversary of Pius IX’s promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus in 1854.  I happen to think that precisely because of this reason, these Catholic scholars and writers should all suddenly care about San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I took a Holy Cross priest with me just for fun. We went into Chinatown to take pictures of the built environment, especially to identify what kind of religious geography we might be looking at. We saw all the sites that would become key places for me in terms of my study on Cantonese Protestants: First Chinese Baptist Church, the YMCA, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, Donaldina Cameron House, etc.

I discovered that Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown was the first church in the world named for the Immaculate Conception when I was conducting initial field work for my doctoral project in 2011. I took a Holy Cross priest with me just for fun. We went into Chinatown to take pictures of the built environment, especially to identify what kind of religious geography we might be looking at. We saw all the sites that would become key places for me in terms of my study on Cantonese Protestants: First Chinese Baptist Church, the YMCA, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, Donaldina Cameron House, etc.

As we ended our tour, we decided to pop into Old St. Mary’s. I’m glad we did.

There was a small museum that greeted us as we entered. The display explained that Old St. Mary’s was the first church in the world to be named for the Immaculate Conception. The dogma’s promulgation in 1854 coincided with the moments in which this cathedral–the first of its kind in California–was laying down its finishing touches. The museum display said that this church was also the tallest building in San Francisco at the time. Over time, however, the seat of the Catholic bishop moved to another St. Mary’s (this one named for the Assumption) because it was said that Chinatown was sort of a hotbed for prostitution and crime. You could say that episcopal power moved from dogma to dogma.

The museum display raises far more questions than answers.

For one thing, it suggests that the presence of Old St. Mary’s in early San Francisco Chinatown was a bit of a racializing and class presence. Yes, of course, prostitution and crime were a problem, but the museum display implies that those were nuisances, not missionary opportunities in which Protestant women like Donaldina Cameron at the Presbyterian Church worked.

But here’s the interesting thing: the ministry to Chinatown seemed to have grown since the seat of the bishop left and the Paulist Fathers came in. By the 1950s, the National Council of Churches’s Cayton and Lively Report on the Chinese Protestant churches in America suggested that Catholicism among Chinese Americans was far more prevalent than Protestant Christianity because Catholics allowed Chinese Americans to keep their popular beliefs, and the model for that sort of practice was the Paulist Fathers’ ministry at Old St. Mary’s. This then led to the formation of the National Conference of Chinese American Churches (CONFAB) in 1955 at First Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown, where influential Chinese Protestant clergy such as the Rev. Edwar Lee, the Rev. James Chuck, and the YMCA’s Alan Wong proposed that Chinese churches should get involved in their local communities and tap their language and cultural heritage, almost precisely as the Catholics were doing. This launched CONFAB members into community work with the War on Poverty and the Asian American Movement’s strikes in solidarity with the Black Student Union at San Francisco State College in the 1960s. It also created the praxis-oriented field of Asian American liberation theology, whose institutional home was housed at the Pacific Asian Center for Theologies and Strategies (PACTS) at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

If Old St. Mary’s has been this influential, you would think that this would be all the rage among my Catholic colleagues. I mean, what we have here is the long precursor to Second Vatican Council documents like Nostra Aetate, the ‘Harmony in Faith‘ document on Asian American Catholics put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the increasingly influential and interesting work from Jonathan Tan on popular Asian Catholic practices, not to mention also the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s investigation into Georgetown’s Peter Phan.

But for all these connections with the Asian American Movement, my Catholic priest friend on the field trip didn’t even know that Old St. Mary’s was named for the Immaculate Conception. Sure, he could tell me lots about the politics around the Papal States around Pius IX’s time, but he couldn’t comment on anything about the Americas, let alone Asian Americans. My sense is that many of my Catholic theology and history colleagues might be in the same boat. Correct me, please, if I am wrong on this score.

Yet if Old St. Mary’s is this central to both Catholic and Asian American history, then it follows that Old St. Mary’s should be why Catholics care about Chinatown. It means that Asian American studies and the work of Catholic academia needs a rapprochement. After all, this is not just a ‘lived religion’ argument I’m advancing à la Robert Orsi, Meredith McGuire, Nancy Ammerman, or even Jonathan Tan himself. I’m saying that this cathedral was named for an official dogma, one that those with affinities with the most official of official Vatican pronouncements should care about. I’m saying that it’s this very official site that has deep linkages with Asian American religion, with deep spillovers even into Protestant circles. I’m saying that this matters because what happened in this site and its effects outside of Catholic circles foreshadowed precisely developments in very official Catholic theology at Vatican II and within a conservative USCCB. These linkages suggest, in short, that Asian American religion has mattered for a very long time right under everybody’s noses, and if Catholicism is as James Joyce put it (‘here comes everybody’), then everybody really ought to care much more about religion in Asian America.

Photo by me

 

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