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August 25, 2023
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v2.1 Reference

Ingrained Habits

Growing Up Catholic in Mid-Twentieth-Century America

Born Catholic. Raised Catholic. Americans across generations have used these phrases to describe their formative days, but the experience of growing up Catholic in the United States has changed over the last several decades. While the creed and the sacraments remain the same, the context for learning the faith has transformed. As a result of demographic shifts and theological developments, children face a different set of circumstances today from what they encountered during the mid-twentieth-century. Through a close study of autobiographical and fictional texts that depict the experience, Ingrained Habits explores the intimate details of everyday life for children growing up Catholic during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. These literary portrayals present upbringings characterized by an all-encompassing encounter with religion. The adult authors of such writings run the gamut from vowed priests to unwavering atheists and their depictions range from glowing nostalgia to deep-seated resentment; however, they curiously describe similar experiences from their childhood days in the Church.

Mary Ellen O'Donnell uses examples from her own family's experiences to frame this story of change within an American Catholic life. Her analysis of the literature about pre-Vatican II Catholicism points to a perceived insular environment infused with religious authority in multiple contexts. The book includes a chapter about each of the three distinct, but linked, settings considered in the study—the institutional parish/school, the family home and the ethnic neighborhood. These places offered discrete introductions to and lessons about the faith, but they combined to constitute an enveloping Catholic world. As the larger institution of the Church was changing across the decades of the mid-twentieth-century, a generation of Catholics was being formed through particular details within daily routines. Ingrained Habits, through the literature it surveys, brings us to the classrooms and confessionals, kitchens and bedrooms, sidewalks and stoops where it happened.

About the Author

Mary Ellen O'Donnell is an independent scholar.


"O'Donnell provides a lively narrative of an age and ethos of Catholicism, of an experience that is perhaps alien to children today but still recognizable."—D. A. Brown, emeritus, California State University, Fullerton, Choice Connect

"O'Donnell is an engaging, clear writer and combines autobiographical and historical details to effectively illustrate the historical experience of growing up Catholic in the mid-twentieth century."—Journal of American History

"As a retrospective on the Catholic memoir of those who came of age in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, it offers a unique window."—Catholic Library World

"O'Donnell provides a lively narrative of an age and ethos of Catholicism, of an experience that is perhaps alien to children today but still recognizable. Recommended for lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."—Choice

"Ingrained Habits weaves together with subtle sensitivity the author's contemporary Catholicism and the memories of some of America's greatest writers. Their mid-century Catholicism is a sensual, tactile world of candles burning in grandmother's bedroom and musings about the power of the swallowed host. O'Donnell warmly evokes the overlapping worlds of church, family, and school that structured Catholic life for decades. Ingrained Habits is a must read for anyone who wants a textured portrayal of how a religion touches both body and soul."—Colleen McDannell, author of The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America

"Ingrained Habits offers readers a new way of understanding what it meant to grow up Catholic in the mid-twentieth century. Using a variety of memoirs and novels—some of which are relatively unknown to many—O'Donnell offers a fresh approach to documenting the ways Catholicism in the United States was lived in the school, the home, and the community during the years immediately preceding Vatican II. The book is a welcome addition to the growing field of American Catholic Studies."—Margaret McGuinness, Professor of Religion, La Salle University

"Deftly captures the cultural memory of those who grew up with the structures and sway of mid-century Catholicism. Drawing on memoirs and other personal accounts, O'Donnell reveals how the experiences of parish, family, and neighborhood helped to forge an indelible sense of Catholic identity among members of that generation. It's a story whose cultural repercussions have had a profound influence on the history of U.S. Catholicism and which continues to bear on contemporary debates within the church today."—Thomas Rzeznik, Seton Hall University

"This study is fascinating for its focus not only on church and school but also on family neighborhood as components of Catholic religious belongingDrawing on key primary sources, [O'Donnell] portrays in vivid strokes a now-fading but powerfully intimate and insular world of American Catholic families devoted to family prayer, veneration of saints and icons, conservative sexual and gender values, and the advancement of Catholic catechism and cultural values."—Journal of American Ethnic History

"O'Donnell's insightful, elegantly written account of a particular 'cultural Catholicism' makes a valuable contribution, capturing the 'feel' of European American Catholicism in this period It is especially effective in opening a window on women's experience of what O'Donnell calls 'Catholic culture.' It is highly recommended."—Catholic Historical Review

9780813237855 : ingrained-habits-odonnell
Paperback / softback
192 Pages
$29.95 USD

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