Friday, January 7, 2011

Father Cox and the Great Depression

The economic woes of recent years have sparked a renewed interest in the Great Depression, which was a defining event for millions. The backbone of the response to the Depression from 1933 onward was the massive engagement of the federal government under the aegis of the New Deal.

But there also were many local, private initiatives. One of the more significant was that of Father James R. Cox, a Catholic priest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In fact, he was one of the most visible champions of the jobless during 1932 and 1933.

His ministry was anchored in his stewardship of Old St. Patrick’s Church, located in the city’s hard-scrabble Strip District. He served there for more than a quarter-century, beginning in 1924. Most of his work up until the early 1930s was of a typically spiritual nature but the Depression changed that.

Perhaps most notable was the creation of a shantytown next to his church, which provided shelter, food and provisions to those in need. There are few primary sources related to Father Cox, but some of his account books survive, and they provide insights into the magnitude of the operation.

During the week of November 27, 1932, for example, the program distributed 417 overcoats, 261 coats, 48 hats, 41 pairs of shoes and 99 pairs of hose. One hundred twenty haircuts and 60 shaves were given. Meals also were provided, and they ranged from a weekly high of 18,727 to a low of 11,321 during 1933. He also sought to adapt some of his efforts to a short-lived community known as “Coxtown” in nearby O’Hara Township.

Earlier, he led about 25,000 unemployed men on a march through Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., to present a petition to President Hoover in January 1932. His “Resolution of the Jobless” asked for public works, federal aid to those in need, loans for farmers and heavy taxes on the rich.

Frustrated with the lack of progress and dissatisfied with both presidential candidates in 1932—Hoover and Roosevelt—Father Cox launched a quixotic Jobless Party candidacy, focusing on what he considered the “dictatorship of Wall Street.”

During his two-month campaign he spoke to crowds varying from 600 to 8,000, according to crude campaign records, in a barnstorming tour through nine states, with an emphasis on Ohio. In Davenport, Iowa, he said, “You can’t save a man’s soul when he is starving.”

There were other interesting aspects of his public life, including a condemnation of Depression-era demagogue Father Charles Coughlin. But with the fullness of the New Deal, Father Cox focused more on his pastoral role, including leading spiritual pilgrimages. When he died in 1951, one local newspaper called him “the pastor of the poor.”

Father Cox represented a new sense of social engagement in the Catholic Church, which can be traced to two key papal encyclicals responding to the times: Rerum Novarum in 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. These documents somewhat parallel the Protestant Social Gospel, and point toward greater involvement among religious denominations in the Great Depression and beyond.

For more background on Father Cox see:

For photos on him and his activities see:

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