Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Powers’ ‘The Last Catholic in America’ depicts church of the past

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published August 29, 2013

Two weeks ago, on the Solemnity of the Assumption, I found myself with my 2-and-a-half-year-old son in our neighborhood parish church for a 9 a.m. Mass, a Mass which turned out to be a “school Mass.”

We arrived early to ensure a good seat, and I got my son settled. No sooner had we chosen the missal to keep him entertained than a nice woman approached us from the aisle, leaned into my ear, and said, “I’m sorry, but you’re in the second-graders’ seats.”

Understanding at last why it had been so easy to find a parking spot, I asked, “Where may we sit?”

“Over there,” she replied, and we were consigned to a corner of the church that actually has a better view of the back exit than it does the altar.

Then in they came, in row upon row of plaid skirts, khaki pants and oxford cloth shirts adorned with solid navy blue ties. It was really an impressive sight, those neat pressed lines of Catholic grade school students.

And I thought immediately of John R. Powers’ hilarious—and often sad—first novel, “The Last Catholic in America.”

John R. Powers grew up in the Irish-Catholic south side of Chicago, in a neighborhood known today as Mt. Greenwood, but one which is remembered by some residents—and enshrined by Powers in his books—as Seven Holy Tombs, because the community was bordered by several cemeteries. Powers was born in 1945, and when his first novel appeared in 1973, it was a reflection of the life he had known as a child. He wrote, he said, simply about what he knew. And what he knew was life as a Catholic schoolboy in 1950s urban America.

The book was a great success, and spawned two sequels that complete a trilogy about Catholic youth in pre-Vatican II America. “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up” appeared in 1975, and was made into a highly successful long-running musical that is still performed today. The third book, “The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God,” was published in 1977. All three books feature Eddie Ryan as the main protagonist, but it is really Powers himself who speaks through the character.

When Powers published “The Last Catholic in America,” it was one of the first books in a wave of memoirs, fiction and oral history that would become known as a kind of Catholic nostalgia revival. Today, we have dozens of such books, but few of them resonate as well as Powers’ novels. As the late Father Andrew Greeley writes in his introduction to the Loyola Classics edition of the book, “The people who read Powers’ books knew Eddie Ryan’s world. Like him, they’d left a lot of it behind, but also like him, they sometimes wondered if they’d left too much.” Greeley goes on to assert that “The Last Catholic in America” endures as “a classic tale for today’s church, which is slowly rediscovering what it must retrieve from its past.”

Eddie Ryan is the main character in “The Last Catholic in America,” though he’s not the only voice in the novel, which is really more like a collection of episodes, short stories or vignettes. Eddie, who tells the multiple stories in the book through memory, has been reminded of his Catholic school upbringing while on a commercial air flight across the country for business. In the course of his reminiscence, he actually finds himself back in his old neighborhood, where he ruminates on his past. The portrait that emerges is in many instances quite funny, and at some points poignant—even sad—but what is most disturbing is what Eddie has become: a “fallen-away Catholic.”

As Sister Edna explains it in the book: “A fallen-away Catholic has lost the gift of faith. …  Usually fallen-away Catholics don’t just decide one day that they no longer want to be Catholics. It’s a gradual thing. They begin skipping their morning prayers. They stop going to confession every week. They no longer say their rosaries. Then, sooner or later, weakened by their lack of prayer, they fall into a mortal sin: they deliberately eat meat on Friday or, for no good reason, they skip Mass on Sunday. … I know it’s hard for some of you to believe this now, but even among the people in this class, there are probably a few who will eventually lose their faith and become fallen-away Catholics.”

That is, indeed, what has happened to Eddie Ryan as an adult. In one of the best chapters in the book, Ryan remembers the agonies and ecstasies associated with his first experience of confession. Then, he remembers his last confession: “Kneeling in a confessional in some city’s cathedral. When the priest asked me if I was sorry for my sins, in a moment of indifference, I gave him an honest answer. He shouted. I left. By then, there was more than a darkened window separating us. Down the steps of the cathedral knowing, no, hoping in my mind that I was right, yet realizing I was never again to feel that resurgence of faith in my own and the world’s immortality. Never again to experience the exhilaration of rising from the spiritually dead. Never again to be free from sin, free from sin, free from sin.”

Such honesty prevents Powers’ book from succumbing to mere nostalgia and bathos, yet the book’s cast of characters also gives the novel a sense of realism and relevance. We meet a motley assortment of neighborhood figures like Garbage Lady Annie, Dirty Shirt Andy, Felix the Filth Fiend and overwhelmed parents, clergy and nuns. In many instances, the book drifts away from the Church altogether. Eddie is a Cub Scout; he’s forced to get a crew cut; he visits forbidden drugstores, goes to ball games at Comiskey Park, and skates at a notorious roller rink.

This assortment of characters and situations actually reinforces one of the book’s great themes, that of Catholic identity and Catholic community. For the child Eddie, “the vast majority of residents thought you needed a visa in order to get out of the neighborhood for more than one day at a time. … We children of Seven Holy Tombs believed that the edge of the earth lay two blocks beyond the cemeteries.”

The sense of community that Powers emphasizes in his book is in many ways lost for us today. The idea that our parishes are defined by our neighborhoods, and not by personal taste, has vanished. Don’t like the pastor? Go somewhere else. Bored by the liturgy? Go somewhere else. Sick of the music? There’s another parish on the other side of the county. In Powers’ time, and Eddie Ryan’s, your parish defined you, and you defined the parish. You were born into it, like it or not, and it shaped your identity. In exchange, you actually knew the pastor and the vicars; you knew the people in the pews, and for better or worse, you all put up with one another.

In fact, people born after Vatican II who read Powers’ work will probably be shocked at the difference between the Church in the 1950s and the Church today, especially if they happen to be students in Catholic schools or parents of children in parochial schools. Powers’ depiction of Catholic school and parish life is profoundly different from what we experience today.

When my toddler son and I attended Mass on Assumption, I watched those school children carefully. After all, I’ve put one boy through three years of Catholic school, and I have another who’s just starting. The priest who presided at Mass was the complete antithesis of those described in Powers’ novel. He was friendly, encouraging, inviting. There wasn’t a threatening or demeaning thing about him. On the other hand, there also weren’t any nuns. Yet as the Mass went on, I observed yawns, and whispers, and giggles. I was pleased to see that not everything has changed since Powers’ day!

If you are a Catholic who was educated in the Church prior to Vatican II, you must read this book. If you are a post-conciliar Catholic, you should read this book as a funny and poignant reminder of our collective past.

John R. Powers died on the 17th of January this year, ironically on the memorial of St. Anthony the Abbot. For years after his success as a novelist and playwright, he had made his living as a popular motivational speaker. Whether as writer or as speaker, whether as part of the Church or out of it, Powers’ Catholic identity compelled him to connect with others.

David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.