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Joseph L.


Rev. Ronald Bieganowski

English 5710

16 December 2010

Oscar Hijuelos’ Catholic Vision

As Shaped By New York’s Catholic Past


In a pivotal scene in Oscar Hijuelos’ novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, the protagonist finds

himself trapped inside an elevator at his place of work in mid-town Manhattan (Hijuelos, 96-8).

The event sets in motion a powerful religious experience for Edward Ives, culminating in an

epiphanic vision wherein he beholds “the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each

defined by a different-colored powder… spinning like a great pinwheel over Madison Avenue

and Forty-first Street” (Hijuelos, 101). In this scene, Manhattan becomes for Ives a spot of

concentration for the cosmic powers, a locus rich with the meaning that lies beneath the surface

of physical realities. Here, the vision of Hijuelos’ novel expands beyond the ostensible chaos of

a New York minute to glimpse a moment of Divine transcendence, an expansion of sight typical

of the author’s Catholic imagination. In this paper, we will see how Hijuelos paints his picture

of Edward Ives’ life with colors borne upon the winds of New York’s Catholic past.


In 1951 – coincidentally, the year of Hijuelos’ birth – the bestselling novels of the year

included a book by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Francis Joseph Spellman (Morris,

225). The Foundling tells of an orphan being discovered at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-

town Manhattan by a recently returned-home veteran of World War I. Profits from the novel

were to be given in support of the Sisters of Charity (founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton)
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whose orphan home, The New York Foundling, had been serving the city since 1869 (“Books”;

“Foundling”). The Sisters’ work, spreading from their first location in Greenwich Village,

became one of the longest-standing Catholic presences in New York City, and by the 1920s had

made quite an impact on the life of the metropolis, with the number of orphans under their care

at times totaling several thousands (Collins). Institutions such as this one became “the building

blocks of Catholic New York” (Golway, 17), laying the foundation not only for the success of

Spellman’s book, but also for the artistic vision of Hijuelos’ novel.

Edward Ives’ early years as a foundling are a very significant influence in the story of the

protagonist. In this regard, his background impacts some of the most essential relations in his

life. For instance, Edward’s unknown background, along with his dark skin, causes a rift with

his wife Annie’s family, which in turn becomes a source of firmer solidarity for the couple

(Hijuelos, 45). His foundling’s origins strengthen the marriage again in the event of the birth of

Edward’s beloved son, Robert. Annie is at first reluctant to raise the baby, and Ives painfully

leaves the decision in her hands. But as she reflects on this, “how [Edward] had been a

foundling” and how much pain it must have caused him to contemplate giving away his first-

born, Annie is inspired with renewed love for her husband and decides to keep the child

(Hijuelos, 50). Thus, by extension, Ives’ identity as a father to his child originates in connection

with his own experience of having never met his own real father.

Another influence of his past can be discerned in Edward’s predilection for orphans and

immigrants: “his foundling’s loneliness” (Hijuelos, 21) connects him to his best friend, the

Cuban orphan Ramirez (Hijuelos, 64), and it becomes the inspiration for Ives’ charitable work in

his community (Hijuelos, 87). The final relation in Ives’ life touched by his orphaned origins is

his relationship with his faith. In Edward’s Catholic vision of the afterlife, he imagines a type of
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Edenic existence where, significantly, “even orphans and foundlings would be welcome – or

especially welcomed” (Hijuelos, 105). Furthermore, during his frequent contemplation of the

Christmas story over the years, Ives would be moved to extreme emotion by consideration of the

mystery that lay between him, “an unwanted child,” and his Savior, “most wanted child in the

history of the world” (Hijuelos, 4). Ives is presented by the author in this particular prayer both

at the beginning and the end of the book, indicating – if the novel’s title were not enough – the

extreme importance that Christmas had in shaping Ives’ personality. It is noteworthy that at one

crucial point in the story, just as Ives is beginning the process of reconciliation with his son’s

murderer, Edward’s parentless background is mentioned once more, here as an assertion of his

very identity, as well as in connection with his religion: Hijuelos describes him as “Mr. Ives of

the mystical experience, foundling beginning, and saintly demeanor” (Hijuelos, 173).

Hijuelos’ authorial choice to make Ives an orphan and to have this be such a foundational

part of his personal and religious character is not incidental. According to historian Bernadette

McCauley, the Catholic presence in New York City in 1920 – right around the time of Ives’ birth

– would have been no more strongly felt than in the care provided to abandoned women and

children by the various religious communities (McCauley, 104). Whether Hijuelos was familiar

with Cardinal Spellman’s The Foundling or not, the coincidence in story elements is telling of

the way in which New York’s history shapes the Catholic imaginations of both Hijuelos and the

prelate. One can imagine Hijuelos himself immersed in the task of research which he portrays

Ives undertaking in his story, “sitting at a table reading an archaic book of statistics, put out by

the New York City Department of Child Welfare, which had information about the number of

orphans and abandoned children in New York in the 1920s” (Hijuelos, 16). Through such

research Hijuelos would inevitably have read of the Sisters of Charity, who did have a home in
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Brooklyn, which perhaps forms the real-life basis for the fictive orphanage of Saint Stephen’s

where Ives spends his early years (cf. Lutz). In any event, the Christian solicitude for orphans,

embodied in the work of Mother Seton’s nuns, certainly shaped the Catholic ethos of New York

City in a significant way; and this influence is plainly evident – either intentionally or

coincidentally – in Hijuelos’ vision.


As mentioned above, Annie Ives’ family was hostile and prejudiced toward her husband.

In elaborating upon the background of this bias amongst Annie’s Gaelic family, Hijuelos wryly

summarizes the sad narrative of immigrant history in places like Manhattan: “[Annie’s]

grandparents had come over to New York at the turn of the century, at a time when people spit

on their kind of immigrants, and now they could sit on their porch watching their grandkids spit

on other kinds of immigrants” (Hijuelos, 45). The historical narrative of racial tension is woven

throughout the novel, from Ives’ own encounters with bigotry to the circumstances surrounding

his son’s death. Edward’s friends at Malloy’s bar offer to take up a collection to have Gomez,

the murderer, killed (Hijuelos, 145-7); and Gomez himself, in a letter to Ives after his release

from prison, describes how the culture of “the joint” had been dominated by strife among the

various races (Hijuelos, 203). Interrupting this refrain of racial hatred is Ives himself, who

throughout the novel acts as peacemaker among divergent cultures; in fact, the main emotional

crisis of the story describes Ives’ own reluctant chilling toward Hispanic culture after his son’s

death eventually resolving in his reconciliation with Gomez (cf. Hijuelos, 10-13; 243). This role

of straddling racial divides in many ways mirrors an important part played by historic Catholics

in the life of New York City, illuminating another important point of contact between the

Catholic history of Manhattan and the Catholic imagination of Oscar Hijuelos.

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From its earliest days, the Catholic experience in New York was one of racial diversity.

Most histories of New York’s Catholic heritage tend to focus on the immense influence of the

Irish, and justifiably so; as Charles Morris observes, Irish Catholics’ opportunity to shape the

Church on these shores benefited from their ability to speak English and their relatively early

migration (Morris, 51). Nevertheless, this belies the fact that, as one commentator puts it,

“change has been a constant for New York City parishes” (Gibson, 56). For instance, in the

early waves of Italian Catholic immigration to Manhattan (1870s-80s), it was discovered that –

for one reason or another – these members of the Church were ‘falling away’ upon their arrival

(Brown, 31). Quickly a plan was developed in order to ‘missionize’ this demographic; this

development, in turn, became a working model for New York parishes in the management of

future immigrations, including Hispanics’ (Brown, 34-8). In nearby Brooklyn, “a systematic

outreach to African Americans and Hispanics” took root as early as 1914 (McNamara, 48;

Badillo, 55); and the Island of Manhattan soon followed suit. Under the leadership of Jesuit

Father John LaFarge, beginning in 1926, a interracial dialogue took hold of the city, culminating

in LaFarge’s formation, in 1934, of the Catholic Interracial Council (Keane, 110-14). Although

this ministry focused mainly on African-Americans, it laid the groundwork for the welcome

which the Archdiocese showed to Hispanics and Latinos in coming decades.

It was Cardinal Spellman, explains Latino scholar David Badillo, who began New York’s

outreach to Spanish-speaking immigrants in earnest, during the 1940s – the same time as Ives’

coming of age in Hijuelos’ novel (Badillo, xx-xxi). This period also roughly coincides with the

time that Ives’ friend Ramirez departed Cuba – in 1938, a year before Spellman’s appointment to

the See of New York (Hijuelos, 161). The correlation of dates is revealing; Cardinal Spellman’s

increasing influence and power in New York’s race relations lend to Hijuelos’ fictional
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characterizations a peculiar verisimilitude and relevance. To take an example: Ives’ affinity for

Spanish-speaking peoples leads him to lobby for change in his employer’s hiring practices, in

order to include Spanish-speaking employees – a move described as taking place “long before it

became the fashion” (Hijuelos, 59). Similarly, Spellman’s leadership in accepting Spanish-

speaking immigrants was markedly progressive; as Morris describes the Archdiocese’s response

to the mass Puerto Rican immigration of the 1950s: “considering the times… [it] was almost a

miracle of open-armed enthusiasm” (Morris, 264).

Spellman also ceased formation of ethnic parishes in New York, considering them forces

of segregation. The new model – “an ‘integrated’ or mixed parish” – had a powerful effect on

the racial relations of Latinos in Manhattan (Badillo, 66, 80). On the one hand, Spellman’s move

was unpopular in that it made it more difficult for Spanish-speaking immigrants to form

community. On the other hand, Spellman’s plan resulted in the barillos which did form being

multi-national neighborhoods, incorporating Spanish speakers of diverse immigration; and they

were even ecumenical, since community building took priority over religious differences which

formerly separated Latinos of opposing confessions. These “pan-Latino” communities thrived

under Spellman’s influence into the 1950s (Badillo, 81-3); during which time, in the novel, Ives

and his family relocate to one on the Upper West Side. Their new neighborhood is depicted as

having churches of all denominations, populated by a panoply of ethnicity, including “Puerto

Ricans and Dominicans and Cubans” (Hijuelos, 56, 140). The home in which Ives would spend

most of his life, in which his son would be murdered, was built by a Catholic plan. Perhaps

Hijuelos’ vision of Ives’ pan-ethnic openness was similarly constructed.

In the case of Ramirez, the defining point of connectivity with the Catholic history of

New York is in the early 1960s, when the Church throughout America cooperated with the
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Federal Government to relocate Cuban refugees to various Dioceses. The Archdiocese of New

York was the site of the largest influx of these refugees outside Miami, with Catholic Relief

Services resettling over 10,000 Cuban immigrants in Manhattan (Badillo, 100). These new

immigrants gave a distinct character to Cuban American experience in every place they settled:

throughout the 1960s, a growing sense of cultural heritage (cubanidad) and a determination to

return to their homeland and overthrow the dictator (la causa cubana) became the dominant

tropes of Cuban American life (“Identity,” 173, 176). These sentiments can be traced in the

characterization of Luis Ramirez. One particular scene, taking place in 1967, captures the

essence of these influences in Ramirez’s personality. He is described by Hijuelos as “[speaking]

about the changes that had taken place in Cuba, to which he’d hoped to one day retire” and later

“[talking] about one day opening a restaurant in midtown, serving good Cuban cuisine”

(Hijuelos, 116-17). These details illuminate how Ramirez’s experience as a Cuban American is

marked by the two central themes of Cuban “exile,” a depiction made all the more credible by

the historic events in New York that coincide with the time in the novel – events facilitated there,

in large part, by the Catholic Church.


In The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley details the various factors which shape

Catholics’ worldview, especially in America. While the works of larger religious communities

and the power of the Church hierarchy and institutions do indeed figure significantly in

Catholics’ lives, Greeley promotes as far more influential the things closest to home: “Parents,

relatives, neighbors, friends, teachers, classmates, local clergy, lovers, and above all spouses

are… the most powerful sources of the Catholic sensibility” (Greeley, 179) – which is to say, in

a word, the local Church. The local Church, specifically the phenomenon of “the neighborhood
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parish,” Greeley holds to represent “the distinctive Catholic view of human networks” (Greeley,

127). The neighborhood parish is the particular version of Catholic localism unique to the

American Catholic experience, particularly in places like New York City. Greeley attributes this

phenomenon to immigrant Catholics’ tendencies to distinguish themselves from receiving

communities, localizing within those communities as sub-cultures based upon “intense and

sometimes limiting relationships” (cf. Greeley, 126).†

In Hijuelos’ novel, Ives’ life is colored in many and varied ways by the vibrancy of the

local Church as lived in the neighborhood parishes of New York. The first example – and

arguably the most significant – is the influence of local priests. One of Ives’ oldest friends,

dating back to the time he first met Annie, is Father Tom Bernhardt, who provides valued

counsel to Ives throughout their friendship. He is the first person to whom Ives is willing to

reveal the story of his mystical vision (Hijuelos, 104), and it is he who suggests to Edward that

he will feel better if he forgives his son’s murderer (Hijuelos, 204). In bringing about that

reconciliation, there is another priest who is also instrumental: Father Jimenez, who arranges

Ives’ first meeting with Gomez and also the last, when Ives finally pardons the young man

(Hijuelos, 142, 239). And of course, there is the man closest to Ives, the man who is called but

never ordained due to his life being cut short: Robert, Ives’ only son. Robert’s decision to

pursue the priesthood has a profound effect on Ives, even before Robert is killed; in fact, it seems

to be the catalyst of the spiritual crisis that climaxes in Ives’ vision of the four winds (Hijuelos,

77ff.). In any event, the priesthood in Ives’ life is not a peripheral matter, an esoteric concern of

abstract doctrine; rather, as envisioned by the Catholic author Hijuelos, the priesthood is a local

reality which reifies the import of sacramental faith in day-to-day experience.

I would add to this that this tendency would certainly have been exacerbated in this country by the unfriendly
reception which the first waves of Catholic immigrants received; even if they’d wished to “assimilate,” the culture of
resentment and distrust toward them (e.g., the Know Nothings) would have made this impossible.
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A second example of the impact of the local Church depicted in Hijuelos’ novel are the

church buildings themselves. According to a search on the Archdiocese of New York’s website,

there are ninety-six parishes in Manhattan county; given the size of Manhattan, and assuming at

least one church building to every parish (although there may be more), that means an average of

four Catholic churches per square mile. Little more need be said of how the Catholic heritage of

New York’s past has created a formidable physical presence amongst the streets of New York.

Nor is it difficult to see in the action of Mr. Ives’ Christmas how this real-world fact translates

into Hijuelos’ imagined world; in fact, we need look no further than the first page of the story.

Edward Ives is introduced as a man who, years ago, “would head out during his lunch hours,

visiting churches, to think and meditate,” sometimes venturing as far as Saint Patrick’s

Cathedral, “where he’d become lost in a kind of euphoric longing” (Hijuelos, 3). The pastime

does not derive from a motivation that is uniquely Catholic; but the opportunity to pursue that

pastime finds provision in the expansive presence that the Church established during its

remarkable history in Manhattan.


We have suggested that Oscar Hijuelos’ Catholic imagination, as evident in the action of

Mr. Ives’ Christmas, is a sense molded by the historically wrought presence of Catholicism in

New York City. Care must be taken, though, to understand how this artistic vision operates in

setting the scene for Edward Ives’ life. We may tend to think of that historic Catholicism as a

separate font of creativity, a set of images alongside the secular New York images of Central

Park and the Empire State Building. According to this mechanism, Hijuelos’ Catholic

imagination would be no more than an inclination to see certain things as more prominent than

others might see them to be: circling certain landmarks on Manhattan’s map because those are
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the sites the author prefers to visit. Conceiving of the Catholic imagination in this way errs,

though; and to explain how and why, we will begin with Hijuelos’ own reflection on the matter.

In an interview about the novel he lovingly calls “Ives,” Hijuelos describes the manner in

which he came to write the book. It seems an academic friend of his had “scoffed at” Hijuelos’

faith; “baffled” by the other’s atheism, Hijuelos’ observed: “That a city as confusing and

contradictory as New York is tolerable… is due to the fact that there are people who believe in

something greater than themselves” (Gonzalez). Those who do not believe are “tone deaf,”

Hijuelos explains: “They hear a piano being played and they only hear ‘thunka-thunk.’ There is

this wild jazz going on called religion and some people don’t have the chops” (Gonzalez,

emphasis added).

For Hijuelos, there is meaning behind the external forms of New York’s Catholic past,

like the notes which lie in potency on a piano’s keys before being struck by someone who “has

the chops.” To an imagination like Hijuelos’, this meaning runs deeper than the mere shaping of

historical events; it connects with the hearts of those who hear it, revealing what seems to be

mere noise and chaos in everyday life to be a busy music straining on the ear. Thus, in the

Sisters’ care for foundlings can be glimpsed the righteousness of the God who has solicitude for

orphans (James 1:27); in the respect shown to the immigrant in a foreign land is the kindness of

the God who loves the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:18); and in the sanctuaries of Churches is the

answer to Ives’ “euphoric longing.” In all, and in unexpected places like bustling New York

City, Hijuelos finds the wild jazz of religion, for which he clearly has the chops.
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