A conversation with postdoctoral fellow Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C.

Author: Shane Ulbrich

Stephen Koeth feature photo
Stephen M. Koeth

Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., recently completed his doctorate at Columbia University and joins the Cushwa Center as a postdoctoral fellow for 2020–21. A Holy Cross priest and a graduate of Notre Dame (B.A., M.Div.), he received a Research Travel Grant from Cushwa in support of his dissertation, “The Suburban Church: Catholic Parishes and Politics in Metropolitan New York, 1945–1985,” which also received the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award in 2019. He has published articles in The Journal of Church and State and U.S. Catholic Historian. We caught up in early August to discuss recent work, moving back to Notre Dame, and plans for the coming year. 


Shane Ulbrich: We last corresponded in this form after you visited the Notre Dame Archives in 2017. Refresh us a bit about your dissertation. Did it take any new directions in later phases?

Stephen Koeth: My dissertation explores the effects of postwar suburbanization on American Catholicism by studying the dioceses of metropolitan New York, especially the Diocese of Rockville Centre in suburban Long Island. Established in 1957, the diocese was one of the fastest growing Catholic communities in the country throughout the 1960s and was hailed as the nation’s first suburban diocese and as a model for the future of the U.S. Church. My project details how New York’s Catholic leaders grappled with the rapid exodus of the faithful from urban ethnic neighborhoods to newly built suburbs, and how Catholic sociologists and intellectuals—including Andrew Greeley, John Cogley, and Phyllis McGinley—assessed the effects of suburbanization. 

I argue that postwar suburbanization revolutionized the sacred space of the parish by elevating the nuclear family and the suburban home over the communal spaces of the ethnic neighborhood and parish. I show how suburbanization altered the relationship between clergy and laity by creating new avenues for lay leadership and initiative and thereby undermining the clergy’s exclusive control of Church life. In this way, I argue that postwar suburbanization was a crucial catalyst of religious reform even before the Second Vatican Council. Finally, I argue that the economics of suburbia undermined Catholic education and spurred Catholic voters’ conservative turn as suburban mortgages and property taxes made parochial schools difficult to afford and inspired a growing tax revolt. 

As I moved from archival research through the writing process, my dissertation didn’t so much change direction as come more clearly into focus. It became clear that I should highlight how suburbanization reshaped conceptions of the parish, of Catholic education, and of relations between clergy and laity. But I also found I had more to say about how suburbanization had affected ecclesial finances, gender and race relations, and understandings of ethnicity, among many other topics. As I expand the dissertation, I look forward to addressing these additional effects of suburbanization, ultimately making the case that, for good and for ill, suburbia created the American Church as we experience it today.


SU: You were offered the invitation to join the Cushwa Center in early March—just a week or so before pandemic shutdowns began throughout the United States. You defended your dissertation in April and moved from New York City to Notre Dame in mid-July. You’ve offered some historical perspective on this year’s events in other contexts. Now a few months further on, do you have any new insights to share?

SK: Back in the spring, when the pandemic was just beginning and we were in the most severe form of lockdown, I noted that churches around the country were holding drive-in services in order to offer their congregations some form of communal gathering while observing social distancing. Although the context was quite different, I immediately saw parallels in my study of postwar suburbanization. As the suburbs boomed and car ownership expanded, ministers and priests used drive-in theaters for Sunday worship because they had not yet been able to build a church in the rapidly developing suburbs and because they felt the convenience appealed to a car-crazed culture. Although a drive-in setting was never an option for my parish on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as the pandemic has dragged on I’ve been surprised that the drive-in or outdoor Mass hasn’t been more popular in suburban parishes. Instead, parishes seem to have opted to have Mass indoors despite the fact that social distancing requirements have, in many instances, significantly limited the size of the potential congregation. It will be interesting in the long term to see what the coronavirus pandemic does to rates of Sunday Mass attendance, which in recent years had already begun declining again after a brief period of stability.

In the intervening months I’ve been interested in other connections that exist between my research and several of the spring and summer’s newsworthy events. Of course, the death of George Floyd back in May has spurred renewed attention to racism and racial inequalities. One of the crucial racial disparities in American life is in the area of housing and historians have shown how racial exclusion was built into the postwar suburbs from the very beginning. In my research, I uncovered examples of white suburban Catholics fighting against racist housing policies and, although these activists were in the minority, I’d like to further explore their efforts and the opposition they met from fellow Catholic suburbanites.

Finally, Catholic education and the expansion of parochial schools into the postwar suburbs were an important part of my dissertation. As the pandemic drags on, Catholic schools from parish elementary schools to universities are struggling with decisions about if and how to reopen. Most of these schools are tuition-dependent and amidst the widespread unemployment caused by the pandemic they have seen enrollments decline even as the costs of reopening with preventative health measures mounted. Already this has led to the closure of over 20 Catholic elementary schools in the New York metropolitan area alone. Again, the long-term effects of the pandemic on the already fragile Catholic school system will be fascinating to watch unfold.


SU: You’ve studied at Notre Dame (B.A., M.Div.), The Catholic University of America (M.A.), and Columbia (M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D.). What have you taken with you from each of those places in terms of intellectual formation? What’s been distinctive about each?

SK: I have indeed been very lucky to study at several wonderful academic institutions. Each of them is unique, of course, in its institutional structures and traditions, and I definitely noticed the greatest cultural difference at Columbia, which is the only non-Catholic school I have ever attended! But I think what I took from each place was shaped less by institutional differences than by what I needed most at a given stage in my intellectual formation and by the diversity of faculty and students I encountered at each school. At Notre Dame, my early mentors helped develop the love of history and of the Church that my parents had instilled in me into an intellectual pursuit. At Catholic University, professors and peers assisted me in developing the research and writing skills that are at the heart of our discipline. And at Columbia I had the opportunity to engage with historians working on an even broader range of subject areas, to have their areas of expertise inform my study of American Catholicism, and to practice making the case to scholars of other sub-fields that the history of Catholicism is crucially important to the proper understanding of American history.


SU: We’re excited to have you back at Notre Dame. This will be an unusual year, to say the least, as a lot of things at Cushwa and the University more broadly will be happening in modified form. What are your plans for the coming months in terms of research and other priorities/engagements?

SK: My first introduction to the Cushwa Center was over 20 years ago when, as an undergraduate history major here at Notre Dame, one of my professors invited the members of our Irish American history class to a lecture sponsored by the center. I look forward to assisting in the adaptation of the center’s usual programming to the context of coronavirus. Since I’ll be living with and ministering to the men of Stanford Hall, I’m interested in ways that I can introduce undergraduates to American Catholic history and especially to the work of the Cushwa Center and the scholars it supports. Coronavirus precautions will make this slightly more challenging this year, but I think integrating classroom learning with the personal formation that occurs in residence halls is one of the most unique and important things we do here at Notre Dame. And for all the challenges of the current moment, I think it’s an exciting time to convince students that the study of history is crucial to understanding the present and building the future. 

On a personal level, I hope to spend this year working on the research that undergirds my dissertation. If the pandemic allows, I’ll travel to a few additional archives for further research and will then be expanding and revising the dissertation in hopes of publishing it as a monograph. Now that I’m back under the Dome, I’d eventually like to develop a research project I began under the tutelage of Leslie Tentler at Catholic University. Catholic Boy magazine, which was published at Notre Dame by the Holy Cross Fathers between 1948 and 1970, provides unique insight into the evolving concept of American Catholic masculinity and sheds light on the Church’s interaction with communism, ecumenism, and civil rights among many other topics. I’d like to dive back into the University’s collection of these magazines and see where it leads.