May Their Memory Be a Blessing

Msgr. John P. “Doc” Monaghan (1890-1961)



Trade unions have their roots in the craft guilds of the Middle Ages. Although workers associations existed in Colonial America and the Early Republic, the first actual American trade union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Trainmen, was founded in Detroit in 1863. Strikes and riots were frequent in the late 19th century but by the 20th century, organized labor had become a conventional institution in American society. It was in this setting of labor-management relations that a parish priest and English literature professor, Msgr. John P. “Doc” Monaghan, came to be one of the most influential priests in New York and the nation.

John Patrick Monaghan was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, on Feb. 12, 1890, the son of Patrick and Patricia (McCormick) Monaghan. Young John emigrated to the United States, graduating from St. Francis College in Brooklyn and St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.   Monaghan completed his seminary training at the North American College in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood there on July 17, 1917. Assigned to St. Peter's Church on Staten Island, Father Monaghan taught at St. Peter's Boys and Girls High Schools, while pursuing a doctorate in English literature at Fordham University. From 1922 to 1938, he taught religion, history and English at Cathedral College, Manhattan. According to Father Thomas Lynch, in his 1992 master's thesis from St. Joseph's Seminary, “Above All Things the Truth: John P. Monaghan and the Church of New York,” Father Monaghan won the esteem, friendship, and respect of countless seminarians and young priests at Cathedral. While there, Father Monaghan resided at Corpus Christi Church, Morningside Heights. Through the influence of Corpus Christi's pastor, Father George Barry Ford, Father Monaghan deepened his love for the liturgy, making the Latin Mass more accessible to parishioners by adopting Father Ford's “Dialogue Mass,” which included the presence of a priest in the pulpit who would simultaneously translate into English the Latin Mass prayers for the congregants. Father Lynch pointed out that Father Monaghan's service at Corpus Christi coincided with the Great Depression, and many would flock to Corpus Christi to hear his message of social and economic justice rooted in the love of Christ.

On Feb. 27, 1937, Father Monaghan and 11 laymen founded the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), in response to the growing interest in the rights of workers fostered by the the papal encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and Pope Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931. Through the work of Catholic labor theorist John C. Cort and Jesuit Fathers Philip Carey and John “Pete” Corridan (the inspiration for Karl Malden's “Father Pete Barry” in Elia Kazan's 1954 film “On the Waterfront), the social teachings of the Church were conveyed to everyday workers through the  ACTU labor schools located cities throughout the United States—modeled upon Carey's and Corridan's Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations, founded in New York in 1934.  Under the pseudonym “Don Capellano,” Father Monaghan's regular columns for the ACTU newspaper, The Labor Leader, had one overarching theme—the “sacredness of human work”—as Father Lynch noted.  

In 1939, Father Monaghan was appointed pastor of St. Margaret Mary parish, Midland Beach, Staten Island, where he seamlessly transitioned from scholarly professor to that of a kindly, solicitous and engaging pastor filled with pastoral practicality and spiritual wisdom, while continuing his work as chaplain of ACTU and writing for the Labor Leader. According to Msgr. Thomas Shelley in his 2007 work “The Archdiocese of New York: The Bicentennial History 1808-2008,” nearly 60 percent of the men in the parish were unemployed, leading Father Monaghan to assert “We are a poor parish and we are going to do great things as a poor people.”

With a few exceptions, the mobilization of industry toward the war effort witnessed cooperation between management and labor. However, in the immediate post-war era, labor-management conflicts re-emerged. On Jan. 13, 1949, members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)-affiliated United Cemetery Workers Union Local 293 voted to strike after failed negotiations with the Trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral (who administered Calvary Cemetery, Queens, and Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne) over demands for a shorter work week at current rates of pay. In February, Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, offered an 8 percent raise under the condition that the cemetery workers leave the union. The strike continued and bodies remained unburied. On March 3, 1949, 100 seminarians from St. Joseph's Seminary were dispatched by Cardinal Spellman to dig graves. The use of seminarians as strikebreakers was vehemently criticized by Father Monaghan, and ACTU members, as well as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker. The cemetery strike ended on March 11, accompanied by an anti-communist oath administered to the workers.

Despite Cardinal Spellman's displeasure with Monaghan's support for the cemetery workers, the Cardinal appointed Father Monaghan pastor of the prestigious St. Michael's parish on West 34th Street in 1954. In 1957, Monaghan was elevated to Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII at the request of Cardinal Spellman.

After a long illness, Msgr. Monahgan died at St. Michael's rectory on July 26, 1961. In the funeral homily, Msgr. John Cartwright, rector of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., spoke of Msgr. Monaghan's stongest attribute—Christian friendship: “Our Lord who had friends and loved them...will allow us to remember that this priest on whom the multitude had such claims, was also in private a ministrant of the unofficial sacrament of friendship. We are all proud that our lives were specially enriched by contact with this life that enriched so many...we thank God  for one without whom we should have all been the poorer.”

 Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American Catholic Church historians and a close friend of “Doc” Monaghan, asserted: “[Msgr. Monaghan's] influence on the clergy was the most marked that I have ever known.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES The articles in this series on priests who have served in the Archdiocese of New York are planned to run monthly throughout 2021. Father Michael Morris, pastor of Regina Coeli parish in Hyde Park, and Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley will write the profiles.