Subscribe to our monthly Woodstock Reflections podcast in either video or audio format, by pasting these URLs into iTunes!

Ministry in the Rust Belt: A Bishop's Perspective

By Most Rev. George V. Murry, S.J., Bishop of Youngstown

April 19, 2009

Bishop Murry was the keynote speaker at a Woodstock dinner held in the Riggs Library at Georgetown University on April 19, 2009. Believing that the Church fills a void that government social services can never fully meet, he addresses the Church’s response to the social and economic needs of the poor, the immigrants, and the uninsured of the Diocese of Youngstown.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Woodstock Report No. 95, October 2009.



Thank you for your presence here this evening. I am grateful to Father LoBiondo for inviting me to speak at this annual dinner. For nearly 40 years, the Woodstock Theological Center has engaged in theological and ethical reflection on issues of importance in our time. The Church in the United States, and beyond, has greatly benefited from the work of this institute of higher learning and I can only encourage you to continue your support for the Center as one theological response to the many complications of our multifaceted world.

The topic I want to speak with you about this evening is ministry in the Rust Belt and the best place to begin is in the Cathedral of St. Columba in Youngstown, Ohio. As you enter the Cathedral, one of the first things you notice is the huge mosaic that runs from floor to ceiling behind the main altar. The mosaic is entitled “The Blessing of the Nations.” In the upper right hand corner is a depiction of the creative hand of God. In the center, is the Blessed Virgin Mary being spoken to by the Angel Gabriel. Saints Peter and Paul are presented as symbols of the early Church. Below them begins a procession of patron saints.

Saints Cyril and Methodius represent the Slavs; St. Boniface, the Germans; St. Stephen, the Hungarians; St. Louis, the French; St. Stanislaus, the Poles; St. Patrick, the Irish; St. Casmir the Lithuanians. At the time only blessed, now Saint Martin de Pores represents both African Americans and Hispanics and St. Thomas More the English. Saints Maron and Nicetas represent the Maronite and Romanian Rites. St. Nicholas Tavilic represents the Croatians and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the first American Saint, represents the Italians.

These 14 saints correspond to the first wave of newcomers who immigrated to what was called “The Steel Belt” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is now called the “Rust Belt.” These were the people who historically formed the life of the local Church when Youngstown became a Diocese in 1943. They built our parishes, schools, charitable centers and health care institutions. They built our economic and social landscape.  Today, new immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Guatemala continue that tradition, but it began long ago in a search for new opportunities and a better life.

The mosaic on the wall in St. Columba Cathedral captures an important reality. The Church in the Rust Belt is an ethnic church. It is not the “Irish dominated” Church of the east coast. In some respects, ministry in the Rust Belt is similar to ministry in every other part of the country. But in one respect it is very different because various economic forces have required the church to become intimately involved in the promotion of economic opportunity rooted in justice. Allow me to give you an overview of the Rust Belt region and then turn to the ministry of the Church in that region.

The area commonly known as the Rust Belt is defined broadly as beginning west of the Boston-Philadelphia-Washington corridor and continuing on into eastern Minnesota. The region extends southward to the beginnings of the coal mining areas of Appalachia, north to the Great Lakes and includes the manufacturing regions in southern Ontario and Quebec in Canada. The two factors which propelled the areas’ economy for nearly 80 years were the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing

The term “Rust Belt” signified the collapse and restructuring of the steel industry with the resultant loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Contraction of manufacturing jobs dislocated workers particularly in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Syracuse, Duluth, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Erie, Bethlehem, and Gary, forcing the area, which also had been central to the automobile industry, to either diversify or decay. Emerging technologies in this region, including hydrogen fuel cell development, nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, polymers, and wind power, have shown some promise for revitalizing the economy, but widespread redevelopment is still unrealized, except in Pittsburgh.

In the center of the Rust Belt is Youngstown, Ohio, located in the Mahoning Valley. The city was named for John Young, an early settler from Whitestown, New York, who established the community's first saw and grist mills. Prior to the establishment of the State of Ohio, this area was part of the Connecticut Western Reserve, a section of the Northwest Territory designated for settlers from the state of Connecticut during the 17th century.

Youngstown's industrial development changed the face of the Mahoning Valley, which during the early 19th century was distinguished by farming. The community's burgeoning coal industry drew thousands of immigrants from Wales, Germany, and Ireland during the mid-19th century, and with the establishment of steel mills in the late 19th century, Youngstown became a popular destination for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Greece. As the 20th century began, the community likewise saw an influx of immigrants from non-European countries including modern day Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.

By the 1920s, the steady wave of newcomers had produced a nativist backlash and the Mahoning Valley became a center of Ku Klux Klan activity. The situation reached its climax in 1924, when street clashes between Klan members and Italian and Irish Americans in the neighboring city of Niles led Ohio Governor A. Victor Donahey to declare martial law. By 1928, however, the Klan was in steep decline and three years later, sold its headquarters and ceased to exist, at least in the public eye.

The growth of industry also attracted people from within the borders of the United States and from Latin America. By the late 19th century, African Americans were well represented in Youngstown and the first local congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1871.  A large influx of African Americans in the early 20th century owed much to developments in the industrial sector. During the national Steel Strike of 1919, local industrialists recruited thousands of workers from the South, many of whom were Black.  This move inflamed racist sentiment among local Whites and for decades, African-American steelworkers experienced discrimination in the workplace. Migration from the South rose dramatically during the 1940s, when the mechanization of southern agriculture brought an end to the exploitative sharecropping system, leading onetime farm laborers to seek industrial jobs.

The city's population became even more diverse in the post-World War II era, when a seemingly robust steel industry attracted thousands of workers.  During the 1950s, the Hispanic population grew significantly and by the 1970s, Santa Rosa de Lima Roman Catholic Church and the First Spanish Baptist Church of Ohio were the largest religious institutions for Spanish-speaking residents in the Youngstown metropolitan area.

For those who live in or near Youngstown, a day that always will be remembered is Monday, September 19, 1977, otherwise known as “Black Monday.” The City of Youngstown was the second largest producer of steel in the nation, surpassed only by Pittsburgh. On that day, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company announced the closure of a large portion of its operations. That event, widely regarded by historians as the beginning of the end of the old area steel industry, set off a chain reaction. U.S. Steel reduced production and laid-off thousands of workers in 1979 and 1980 and Republic Steel declared bankruptcy in the mid-1980s.

In the wake of the steel plant shutdowns, the community lost an estimated 40,000 manufacturing jobs, 400 satellite businesses, $414 million in personal income, and from 33 to 75 percent of school tax revenues. An overview of the statistics illuminates the depth of the problem. 

In 1950, there were approximately 65,000 wage earners in the primary metals industry. By 1978, that number had dropped to 35,000 and by 2008 to 3,500. That is a 95% decline in the percentage of persons working in the steel industry between its heyday and today’s world of mini mills.

Average household income in 1970 hovered around $44,500.00. Today the same average income is $36,200.00. In 1970, 82% of the population received its income from wages and salaries. By 2000, that number had dropped to 73%. There has been a marked increase in the percentage of people relying on social security or retirement benefits: from 25% in 1970 to 33% in 2000; and on persons relying on public assistance: from 4% in 1970 to 9% in 2000. Unemployment was low in the 1970s: 3%, but rose to 6% in 2000 and now stands at 13% as of February 2009. The poverty rate for our Rust Belt area also has increased from 6.8% in 1970 to 32.6% in 2007.

Obviously, the economy of the Rust Belt was in a downward spiral long before the present economic difficulties arose. Not surprisingly, given the ethnic heritage of Youngstown’s people and their tradition of hard work, the Mahoning Valley found ways to survive.

A major participant in that effort has been the Church. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown is comprised of six counties in Northeastern Ohio. Two hundred and fifteen thousand registered Catholics are served by 113 parishes, 6 high schools, 35 elementary schools, 100 active and 50 retired priests, some of whom are still very active. Within the diocese are three “small industrial cities:” Youngstown, Warren and Canton. Also located within the diocese is the General Motors Lordstown Plant, the fourth largest GM plant in the world and the second most productive; Canfield, the Ohio town with the highest per capita income; and an expanding health care industry centered in Youngstown and Canton. In the southern part of the diocese can be found an abundance of agricultural enterprises ranging from meat packing to cheese production, mushroom and corn harvesting and, now, shrimp farming.

Ministry in the diocese has been focused on three important areas: traditional ecclesiastical ministry; collaborative social action; and health care for the poor. I am sure that you understand what I mean by the term “traditional ecclesiastical ministry.” It is the ordinary and extraordinary ministry that takes place in any one of your parishes such as weekend liturgical celebrations, sacramental preparation, education, counseling, and ministry with youth as well as the emergency services provided by Catholic Charities.

These ministries give life and hope to the Catholics in the area as they raise their families and live their faith. But there are two other areas of ministry that have proven essential, especially given the economic challenges the areas faces. They are collaborative social action and health care for the poor.

My predecessor as bishop of Youngstown, Bishop James W. Malone, co-chaired an Ecumenical Coalition, that attempted to assist workers and the community to buy out the steel mills slated for closing in 1977.  Other leaders of this movement included Bishop John Burt of the Episcopal Diocese, Bishop James Thomas of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Reverend John Sharik who was the executive presbyter of the Eastminster Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church USA, and Rabbi Sidney Berkowitz of Rodef Shalom.

The Ecumenical Coalition released a powerful holiday season pastoral statement on December 12, 1977.  With the announcement of mass layoffs and plant closures, these bold religious leaders called upon corporations to exercise social responsibility and declared that "the purpose of economic life is to serve the common good and the needs of people" (Origins, January 26, 1978, vol. 7, no. 32, page 507). One interesting note for future historians was that one of the ghost writers for this pastoral statement was John Carr, currently the Executive Director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, who was a staff person at the USCCB at that time.

The Ecumenical Coalition organized for emergency social services, advocacy and a new corporate approach to the crisis. It called upon community-based agencies to work together to provide food, rental assistance and job trainings to families affected by the layoffs and closures. The Coalition further started a technical group lead by Fr. Ed Stanton, who was the director of the Social Action office of the Diocese of Youngstown, to engage in a feasibility study and develop a worker-community owned company to take over the operations of the mill.  This Coalition also developed an arm to organize the community to advocate for public policy changes in financial investment in the steel industry and to raise local capital to use as leverage for federal investment.  The Reverend Charles Rawlings, a Presbyterian minister working for the Episcopal diocese, led this effort.  Tying together the disparate pieces of this project was Attorney Staughton Lynd and others involved in the legal aspects of this creative approach to the new realities. Unfortunately, the project met with failure in April 1979 when the national government opted to invest in Chrysler, rather than Youngstown steel. Nonetheless, the effort was creative and groundbreaking.   

While the Coalition's efforts failed to create necessary investment and a new worker-community owned mill, several positive outcomes resulted. Through the efforts of these teams of people, the federal government did make available money for a feasibility study led by economist Gar Aperowitz who worked for the financial investment firm of Lazard Freres in New York City.  That study provided positive projections about various aspects of the steel industry.  Further, the community organizing arm of the Ecumenical Coalition raised $4,014,927.26 in local investments for the new steel venture.  This represented 4,138 individual pledges with 19 banks cooperating and 45 Churches and temples in the Mahoning Valley pledging their support to this local investment pool.

The cooperation initiated by the Ecumenical Coalition was a church lead response to the economic crisis which created the Rust Belt. Cooperatives and employee-owned businesses are now a fixture in Ohio and in many other parts of the Rust Belt. These types of businesses are a direct result of the social teaching and work of the Church.

Another area of Church involvement in economic opportunity is the Regional Chamber. During the past several months, members of our diocesan social action staff and I have been involved with an initiative planned by the Regional Chamber of Commerce of Mahoning-Trumbull counties. “Project 360” is designed to achieve a more vibrant economy and enhance the quality of life in the Mahoning Valley. Some of the goals of the Project include: 1) to retain and expand local business and attract new businesses; 2) to improve the community’s image; 3) to achieve excellence in education; 4) to strengthen advocacy for Federal and State monies; and 5) to stimulate business start ups. 

The project has made a number of important advances in recent years. One example is the expansion of the Youngstown Business Incubator that supports micro businesses in the high-tech industry. Another is an effort to engage bloggers to provide critical though positive news about the Valley in order to increase the community’s profile and self-esteem.

Further, as a member of the Cabinet of this Project, I was able to secure diocesan membership in the Regional Chamber.  My Catholic Charities Director represents my office at their non-profit Round Table dialogues which engage in planning for economic and social development.  The Chamber staff person assigned to the non-profit sector has been a new ally in assisting Catholic Charities to negotiate the federal and state budget and regulatory systems, with special attention to the new opportunities found in the federal Stimulus Bill.

On a grassroots level, our Diocesan Social Action office assisted several parishes in the late 1990s to start a faith-based organizing effort called ACTION (Alliance of Congregations Transforming Our Neighborhoods). Action includes 12 Catholic inner city and suburban parishes, along with several other Christian congregations and community groups.

ACTION became an affiliated member of the national Gamaliel Foundation that trains local and parish leaders to engage in social analysis followed by social justice. The group uses funds from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) to pursue its current agenda of organizing and advocating around issues of crime and violence, health care access, immigration, a new community college, and unemployment.

Based on new demographic realities, the Office of Social Action helped form a state-wide project which has been funded by CCHD. Centered in the Diocese of Youngstown, the Immigrant Worker Project trains, organizes and advocates for newly arriving Hispanic immigrants.  The Immigrant Worker Project grew from a study commissioned in 2000 by the Catholic Conference of Ohio to analyze the assets and needs of migrant workers. As in other parts of the United States, the Bishops of the six dioceses of Ohio noted the rapid increase of newcomers from Mexico and Central America working in our fields, farms and small factories.  The Immigrant Worker Project empowers these newcomers to become active members of their parishes and communities, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, and protects workers from various labor violations.

The Diocesan Social Action Office is now leading a program at the parish level to deal with the current economic crisis related to the auto industry and its suppliers, as well as home foreclosures.  Through our “Sharing Hope” initiative, we are assisting parishes to respond to the needs of newly laid-off workers and their families by piloting and developing job banks and work placement networks.  Several pastors have provided homily hints to their brother priests, helping them preach about the current economic climate and the Church’s teaching on human dignity, work and labor.  At the same time, our Social Action staff continues to interact with local unions and retiree groups to find better ways to deal with unemployment and underemployment.

Catholic Charities social service agencies also work to prevent foreclosures.  Our HUD certified agencies have obtained new federal stimulus monies to help place newly homeless families back into affordable housing and to serve a new round of families facing foreclosures due to unemployment. This work is a testament to the fact that even thirty years after the steel crisis, the Church in Youngstown remains engaged and committed to advancing economic justice.

Along with promoting economic development, the Church in Youngstown also strives to be of service to those members of the community who cannot afford health insurance. With many good manufacturing jobs gone and constant fears about the solvency of companies such as Delphi and General Motors, many individuals and families have lost access to health insurance. Similarly, many small businesses today cannot afford the cost of insurance and, thus, choose or are forced not to engage in a health care plan for their employees.

Our Catholic hospitals and Diocesan Catholic Charities have worked independently and conjointly to meet this problem. One response from our Catholic hospitals is their annual Charity Care program.  In 2008, two Catholic health care systems in the Diocese provided over $60 million in uncompensated care and community benefits. In several counties, as well, our Catholic health care and Catholic Charities organizations have created a prescription drug program for low and moderate income persons. This program helps our client’s access previously unaffordable medications.

This commitment to charity care, exemplified by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine and their collaborators, bears witness to the Church’s believe that we must serve both the spiritual and the very physical needs of this Rust Belt community. It is characteristic of the how ministry is lived in northeastern Ohio, as well.

Beyond any doubt, the Diocese of Youngstown has been greatly influenced by an increase in poverty, an increase in unemployment, a decrease in household income, and a decrease in general population.  But just as the Church was involved during the steel mill closings of the 1970s, it remains involved today, striving to bring Christ to our people and our people to peace and security. The ancestors of those found in the mosaic in our Cathedral are our greatest assets. Working with and through them, we can see the signs of a strong future, spiritually and economically.