St. Patrick’s Day: Once divided, how two Catholic immigrant communities came together

Some saints are forever linked. Peter and Paul for being the fathers of early Christianity. Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian were twin brothers and early martyrs of the church.

Then there’s Saint Patrick and Saint Joseph.

These two saints aren’t linked by history. In fact, they didn’t even live at the same time. They are linked by the calendar since their feast days always fall during Lent. More importantly, through the immigration that took place in the United States over a century ago, these saints came to symbolize the way in which Catholics from different countries publicly manifested their devotion.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on March 17 and is widely celebrated as an Irish holiday. St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity in the fifth century, forever changing the belief system of the island nation. As a result, the feast day has been appropriated by the Irish who moved to the United States, starting in the mid-1800s, and continues to this day with iconic parades. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York is the world’s largest, featuring an estimated 2 million revelers. This year marks its 257th celebration.  

St. Patrick’s Day may be a commercial success thanks to shamrocks and green beer, but St. Joseph’s remains largely a religious feast.

The feast of St. Joseph, two days later, commemorates Mary’s husband as well as serves as Father’s Day across most of southern Europe, including Spain and Italy. That is among the reasons why Italian immigrants who came to the United States 100 years ago celebrate that day with street festivals and by building elaborate alters in his honor. San Giuseppe, as he is known in Italian, is also the patron saint of Sicily – another reason why immigrants, and now their American-born descendants, have a special place in their hearts for him.

It was those two cultures – and their different ways of celebrating Catholicism and venerating saints – that confronted itself near at the turn of the last century at a time when immigrants were flooding into New York in search of both work and a better life.

“People who immigrated to America in the past, like those who do so today, bring with them the traditions and expressions of their faith from the ‘old country,’ whatever country that might be,” said Boston College history professor James M. O’Toole, author of the book The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. “For Irish Catholics, that's a devotion to St. Patrick, for Italian Catholics, it's St. Joseph, for Mexicans and other Hispanics, it's Our Lady of Guadalupe, and so on.”

“I don’t want to stir up controversy, but universally St. Joseph has higher rank than St. Patrick. In the United States, St. Joseph ‘wins’ liturgically.”
— blogger Jennifer Gregory Miller,

While St. Patrick’s Day has become secular and widespread in the same vain as Valentine’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, Italian-Americans choose to place an emphasis on St. Joseph. In other words, St. Patrick’s Day may be a commercial success thanks to shamrocks and green beer, but St. Joseph’s remains largely a religious feast. On the liturgical calendar, the feast of St. Joseph’s is considered a holy day of obligation – when Catholics must attend mass – while St. Patrick’s Day is not.

“Of course, I don’t want to stir up controversy, but universally St. Joseph has higher rank than St. Patrick. In the United States, St. Joseph ‘wins’ liturgically,” wrote blogger Jennifer Gregory Miller in a piece for “Although I’m comparing… the two different saints’ days as they fall in Lent, the Church rejoices at both of the saints. St. Patrick and St. Joseph don't need to be pitted against each other, but it is important to understand the liturgical differences of the two feast days.” 

In cities such as New Orleans, known for its annual Mardi Gras celebrations and its large Catholic population since the early 1800s, the city’s tourism board highlights the festivities of both saints each year. Both get separate parades in their honor through the French Quarter, but the one commemorating St. Joseph is in the same style used back in some Italian villages. During those festivals, the saint is usually adorned with gifts – money or food – and paraded through the streets. It remains a draw for tourists as well as the local Italian-American community.

It is these different styles of worshipping that pitted the Irish and Italians 100 years ago. Large waves of Irish immigrants had arrived in New York in the late 19th century. By 1854, as many as 2 million had left Ireland bound for America. With little money and in desperate search for work, the Irish made up a quarter of the population of Boston, Philadelphia and Buffalo within a decade. Irish life revolved around the Catholic Church and many helped establish Catholicism in the United States. The Irish community helped in the construction of the iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the Archdiocese of New York is headquartered, since its completion in 1878.

Another wave of immigrants, this time from Italy, took place between 1900 and 1914. In that time, U.S. Census data shows that almost two million Italians emigrated to the United States and flooded into New York. Like the Irish, they were mostly farmers fleeing poverty from the country’s rural south. These immigrants, too, needed jobs.

Irish and Italians may have both been Catholic, but they didn’t get along at first. They had nothing in common – from language and food to their way each worshipped – and the competition for work pitted the communities against one another. The Irish drank beer and ate corned beef and cabbage to commemorate St. Patrick; the Italians preferred wine and zeppole – fried pastries filled with custard – to honor St. Joseph. The Irish professed their faith inside the church, while the Italians put on extravagant street festivals and paraded around saints on their shoulder. The Irish viewed the practice as pagan.

The differences didn’t end there. There was also resentment brewing on both sides. In his book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians, journalist Paul Moses chronicles how New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan wasn’t pleased when in 1884 the Vatican leaned on him and his mostly-Irish bishops to do more to help poor Italian immigrants. When Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived from Italy to help New York’s struggling Italian immigrant community, Moses writes, she was confronted by a testy Corrigan.

“The Irish had to deal with the Italians if they were to raise the status of the Catholic faith in Protestant America,” Moses noted.

This rift was so big that Corrigan even told Cabrini (who would later be canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII in 1946 for her efforts in helping the poor) to go back to Italy. She refused. Like the two communities, Corrigan and Cabrini eventually worked out their differences over time. Irish-Italian intermarriage and decades of integration would eventually lead to reconciliation.

This weekend, people of all faiths will commemorate both saints by enjoying corned beef and cabbage, and topping off the meal with some zeppole for dessert. It’s all become part of the shared American experienced and America’s acceptance of immigrants and their customs.

“As newer generations of immigrants replace those who came earlier, the original meanings might change,” O’Toole said. “St. Patrick’s Day may still be a kind of ‘Irish holiday,’ but increasingly it seems to me to be an opportunity for more general celebration, regardless of ethnicity and coming just as winter, we hope, is waning. On our campus [at Boston College], for instance, I’m struck every year by the sight of all the Asian kids wearing ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish’ T-shirts.”