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Contours of a Spiritual Universe

On a Catholic childhood in New England.


I was raised as a Catholic by Congregationalists in Dalton, a small paper-manufacturing town in the westernmost county of Massachusetts. At the time that my mother, Sarah Pomeroy, a Protestant, married Martin Glendon in the rectory of Saint Agnes Church (in those days, “mixed marriages” could not be celebrated in the church itself), the Catholic Church required the non-Catholic spouse to sign a document agreeing that any children of the marriage would be raised as Catholics. For my mother, that was a serious obligation, not because it was a contract but because it was a promise.

In the large Pomeroy clan, in which my brother, Martin; my sister, Julia; and I were raised, it was not only my mother who took the promise seriously. Grandmother Pomeroy gave me a Rosary for my First Communion (along with a little book called One God, with a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim on the cover). When I stayed with aunts and uncles during summer holidays, they made sure I went to Sunday Mass, driving me to the church and waiting outside in their car until the service was over. Grandfather Pomeroy was not much of a church-goer. He was, as his minister said in the funeral eulogy, a man who believed in “simple virtues, the democratic process, and the future of America.” The minister made special mention of Theodore Pomeroy’s ecumenism long before the word came into vogue:

He respected the faiths of other men, and he had a personal and deep faith of his own. “I’ve seen them all,” he used to say, “they all have good men and work for the same things.” Several years ago when a Roman Catholic priest spoke in our church for the first time, he was at the head of the line to shake his hand and say that he thought it was a “wonderful thing” to happen to both our faiths.

The Pomeroys were not the only people in my family with an appreciation of religious and ethnic differences that went beyond tolerance. My father’s brother Mickey and his Protestant wife, Margaret, had three children, one of whom, my cousin Lowell, became a Sulpician priest, and another, my cousin Barbara, an Ursuline sister. During all the years before Barbara traded in her traditional religious attire for polyester pantsuits, Aunt Margaret made Barbara’s habits on her old Singer sewing machine. Without doubt, the kindness and goodwill of our Protestant relatives played an enormous role in the religious commitments my cousins and I made later on.

The spirit that guided those wonderful old Yankees was a marvelous blend of their religious beliefs and the ethos of neighborly accommodation that pervaded the almost-lost world of small New England townships.

My father was quite content to leave the religious education of his children in the hands of the Pomeroys and the nuns who came from Pittsfield once a week to teach Sunday School at Saint Agnes parish. Thanks to those Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Baltimore Catechism, I acquired a rudimentary but sound foundation in Catholic doctrine.

One of the more consequential Catholic sensibilities I acquired at this time came from an article I read in high school. I was just becoming dimly aware of the problem that proponents of psychological, economic, and biological theories tend to treat their theories as total philosophies, and I came across a newspaper column by Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of the University of Notre Dame. He wrote that “when you encounter a conflict between science and religion, you’re either dealing with a bad scientist or a bad theologian.” The sentence jumped out at me, and it is no exaggeration to say that it had a powerful influence on my intellectual development. Years later, when I got to know Father Ted, it was a joy to be able to thank him for that gift. His advice not only helped me on the perilous journey from childhood beliefs to adult faith but also served to channel some of my adolescent energy toward a robust but critical engagement with the natural and human sciences.

In the 1940s, there were still many similarities between Dalton and the self-governing New England townships that Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831. Dalton is nestled along the Housatonic River in the Berkshire Hills, with some five thousand inhabitants, and when I was growing up, it was the size that Aristotle envisioned for an ideal city. There was still a town meeting, where citizens decided many important matters, and a Board of Selectmen, of which my father was the first Irish Catholic Democrat to be elected chairman. My grandfather Pomeroy was chairman of the town Republican committee.

By the 1940s, Catholics of Irish, Italian, and Polish descent accounted for about half of Dalton’s inhabitants. There was a small African American community, whose ancestors had come north on the Underground Railroad and established a thriving tree surgeon business, and one Jewish family—that of the high school English teacher who taught me to love poetry. He later became the principal and then the superintendent of schools. The town doctor, a gruff old Scot who liked to recite Tennyson to his patients, made a point of letting everyone know he was an atheist.

The two churches with the largest congregations were on opposite sides of Main Street. A stranger driving through Dalton might well have taken Saint Agnes Catholic Church for a Protestant meetinghouse. From the outside, it was a white wooden building like many seen on New England village greens. But inside, its stained-glass windows, the Latin liturgy, the Stations of the Cross, and the statues of Mary, Joseph, and Saint Agnes told that it had been built by a different kind of immigrant than the early settlers.

For me, my mother’s solid gray granite Congregational meetinghouse and my father’s church with its heavenward spire marked out the contours of a spiritual universe where much was held in common. Life had been hard for almost everyone during the recent Depression, members of both communities “took in” people who could not fend for themselves, women knitted socks for our soldiers during the war, and schoolkids assembled “care packages” for suffering Europeans when the conflict ended. Every school day began with saluting the flag and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, with the Catholic kids falling silent after “Deliver us from evil” and the Protestants carrying on sturdily with the “For Thine is the kingdom” part until the Catholics came in again for the final “Amen.”

By being immersed in both the Congregationalist community focused on social justice and the pious Catholic one, I learned to hold both commitments, to the common good and to the life of faith, as one. By the 1950s, Congregationalism in Dalton bore few traces of its stern Puritan origins. Unlike the Catholics, who took the obligation to attend Mass very seriously, most of the town’s Protestants had a more relaxed attitude toward Sunday services. My mother’s church was, however, a beehive of charitable and social activities.

The women organized a never-ending round of events and benefits that the whole town, Protestants and Catholics alike, thoroughly enjoyed: bake sales, potluck suppers, white elephant sales, talent shows, clambakes, and so on. During Lent, Congregational families saved spare change in colorful little calico sacks, which were brought to church on Easter Sunday for distribution to worthy charities. When my sister, Julia, and I traveled to the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, it was on a bus chartered by a group of Berkshire County Protestants determined to do their part in delivering on what Martin Luther King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, would call the promissory note of equality. Some were following in the steps of their ancestors who had fought in the Civil War.

The groups and events at Saint Agnes had a very different focus. There were no suppers, no sales, no shows, but many novenas, recitations of the Rosary, benedictions, and adorations of the Blessed Sacrament. After every Mass we prayed for the conversion of Russia. During Lent, we fasted, confessed our sins, did penance, and promised to amend our lives. Exactly contrary to the oft-asserted theological distinction, Dalton’s Protestants were virtuosos of good works while the Catholics were virtuosos of faith. Immersed in both cultures, I was destined to be a student of comparative law and government.

Rome and its popes barely figured in the routines of Catholic life in Dalton. When our parish priest Father Leo Shaughnessy announced one Sunday in 1957 that Pius XII had relaxed the rule on abstention from food and water from midnight until after receiving Communion the next morning, it caused quite a stir. People gathered outside after Mass to discuss this remarkable innovation. For many, it was a relief to be told that we could now at least have a glass of water in that period. But others were uneasy about departing from the requirement of strict abstinence before receiving the Holy Eucharist. “Those Italians,” said one man, “can drink all the water they want, but I’m not doing it.”

It was not that we lacked the sense of belonging to a universal Church. For me, Catholicism before Vatican II was a window opening out to the world beyond the Berkshires. Its ceremonies spoke of a history before Plymouth Rock, and its liturgy linked us to every Catholic on earth. Through the words and gestures of the Latin Mass we were connected to villagers in places where it never snowed, to inhabitants of great cities like Rome and New York, and to our own ancestors buried in faraway lands. The Church enabled the sons and daughters of millworkers to understand themselves as members of the rich tapestry of world history, and in the unfolding mystery of salvation.

This essay is adapted from In the Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West (Image, 2024).

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law emerita at Harvard University and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.