Every Christmas without fail, I find myself watching the 1944 movie "Going My Way" starring Bing Crosby as the Irish American priest sent to close the parish of an aging Irish priest wonderfully portrayed by Barry Fitzgerald. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won for best picture as did the two actors. Two years later, Crosby reprised his role in "The Bells of St. Mary’s," earning another Academy Award nomination. These two movies and "Boys Town," a biopic about real life Irish priest Edward Flanagan, which won an Academy Award for Spencer Tracy, forever cemented the Irish priest in people’s minds as the perfect priest: kind, spiritual and empathetic. It always makes me wonder what happened to this breed of Irish priests.

Father Flanagan celebrating Christmas with the young kids of Boys Town, Nebraska.

Father Flanagan celebrating Christmas with the young kids of Boys Town, Nebraska.

Growing up in an Irish Catholic home, it was not unusual to have Irish priests visiting on a regular basis. (One actually lived with us for six months.) My father and maternal grandparents were all from Ireland where the clergy had a mystical presence among the population.

My mother told me that Irish custom dictated the oldest Irish son would inherit the family farm and land. That left the other males in the family with few good choices. One alternative was another choice that guaranteed respect, admiration and room and board: the priesthood.

My parents belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest Irish fraternal organization in the US. There were at least eight families in our neighborhood that had a son a priest and one family had two. My high school produced three priests from the same class. My father had arranged for me to be on the altar as a server for two of the ordinations, probably thinking that was as close as he would come to having a priest in the family.

During the nineteenth century, Ireland had produced so many priests the bishops recommended they go into mission work. Most of them came to the United States and many  of them rose to prominence and power in the American church. The initial influx in the 1830’s concentrated on the northeastern states but later spread across the United States with the rest of the expanding country.

At the end of the nineteenth century Irish-born priests exceeded 4,000, making them the most common foreign born priests in the US. The trend continued for the next six decades, filling American churches with pastors and assistants. By 1900, 59% of the priests in the diocese of New York were born in Ireland. In the early years of the twentieth century, 62% of American bishops were Irish-American, half of whom had been born in Ireland. In the 1950’s an astounding 80% of the priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were Irish born.

My father told me that when the Irish came to America at the end of the nineteenth century there was little opportunity and much prejudice in most of the professions. What was left for them and where they eventually rose to power were politics, law enforcement, the trades and religion.

We grew up in a city neighborhood about four miles north of Capitol Hill. Our parish was the Church of the Nativity. The parish was so large that it had a pastor, an Irishman named Monsignor John Coady and three assistants. There were four daily masses and thirteen on Sunday. The assistants changed every few years, but I remember a majority of them had Irish names.

John McCloskey was named the first bishop of New York in 1864. He later became the first US cardinal in 1875. The first bishop of Washington was Patrick O’Boyle appointed in 1948 after the diocese was created by taking geography from Baltimore. He remained for 25 years, retiring as a cardinal. He was replaced by two other Irish men who would later become cardinals, Theodore McCarrick and James Hickey

Look at all of the major cities in the twentieth century and you will find sons of Eireann. Cardinal Francis Spellman was the bishop of New York for 28 years, Richard Cardinal Cushing in Boston for 26 years, Dennis Dougherty in Philadelphia for 33 years, Patrick Feehan of Chicago for 22 years and James McIntyre of Los Angeles for 22 years.

Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Fulton Sheen, the bishop of Rochester became a TV star with his highly rated weekly TV show. They presided over a sprawling network of churches, schools and hospitals.

These men oversaw the greatest period of clerical growth in church history. Discontent and outspokenness were not tolerated. The church was not a democracy. Many of its critics claimed it was a tightly held “old boys club” with little regard for new ideas. Its hierarchy was rigid and unbending in its application of the rules. Vatican II caused a rupture in the tranquil seas.

For generations, Catholics saw the church as eternal, timeless and unmovable. Vatican II unleashed a sea of changes, none more important than recognizing that Catholicism is shaped by historical events. When the Church announced that the Church, its worship and beliefs, were subject to change, it opened the way for debate and dissent – mass in English, birth control and the Vietnam War were all prime topics. The result was the beginning of a steady erosion in existing priests and vocations culminating in the devastating pedophilia scandals of the 1990’s.

Ireland, once a source of endless replenishment, saw the same precipitous decline as America, just a little later. Two years ago, Irish seminaries had 22 candidates, last year 12. Ireland now has 1965 active priests to serve its 26 dioceses. Project the number out at the current rate of replacement and in 25 years the number of priests in all of Ireland will be 450.

Ireland, like other European countries, was overwhelmingly Catholic. Today, only 33% of its people claim to be regular church-goers. It would be a sad day that the only country that claims the same man as patron saint and national hero would lose its religious identity. It is also is a tragic irony that the country once called the Federal Reserve of priests would actually run out of them.

Here's the trailer to the 1944 movie, "Going My Way," starring Bing Crosby:

* Kevin Dowd, brother of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, is an occasional columnist for IrishCentral.

A still from the 1944 movie, Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby.