The Story of Father James Renshaw Cox, the Strip’s Champion of the Jobless
    The famous March on Washington by Fr. Cox’s Jobless Party in January 1932 began in the Strip at St. Patrick’s Church and continued through western Pennsylvania, and  then onto Washington, D.C. There, Fr. Cox’s followers gathered en masse at the Capitol building to hear speeches and witness the presentation of a Jobless Party petition to several congressional representatives.

    The famous March on Washington by Fr. Cox’s Jobless Party in January 1932 began
    in the Strip at St. Patrick’s Church and continued through western Pennsylvania, and
    then onto Washington, D.C. There, Fr. Cox’s followers gathered en masse at the Capitol building to hear speeches and witness the presentation of a Jobless Party petition to
    several congressional representatives.

    As the topic of priests, good and bad, monopolizes the news, it seems like a fine time to look at the Strip’s most famous priest: Father James Renshaw Cox—once so highly regarded by his supporters, the Jobless Party, that they nominated him as their candidate for president of the United States in 1932.

    Father James Renshaw Cox

    Father James Renshaw Cox

    Fr. Cox was born on March 7, 1886, to a Methodist father and Catholic mother, in Lawrenceville. He once said, “I have no more ardent supporters than my Protestant relatives.” Not a rich kid, he worked his way through Duquesne University driving a taxi and sweating as a steel-mill hand. After graduating, Cox opted for the priesthood and studied at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe. Ordained a priest in 1911, he worked at Epiphany Church in Pittsburgh before he went off to France to serve as a chaplain during World War I. He claimed he was the first priest to offer Mass on an airplane. Maybe it was on this first trip to Europe that he visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France, where he believed his eyesight was saved. Apparently he had poor vision, even as a child.

    When he returned from Europe, he went back to school at the University of Pittsburgh. The first Catholic priest to graduate from Pitt, he earned a graduate degree in economics, which clearly dominated his reaction to the disastrous American Depression that began in 1929.

    In 1924, Fr. Cox was assigned to St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip; he was the youngest priest ever appointed there. Built in 1865, St. Patrick’s was a huge church and the first parish in Pittsburgh. The building ran from today’s train station along Liberty Avenue to 17th Street.

    Though St. Patrick’s lost many members, there were lots of poor homeless people living in the Strip. Fr. Cox had helped set up a Shantytown on church property after he arrived in the mid-1920s. In no time, he had become the Pastor of the Poor, made up mainly of 300 men who had lost their jobs, then their homes, and finally their ability to feed their families. The huts were made of old wood, paper, and burlap. They had no heat, no electricity, no water, no toilets. Fr. Cox felt that caring for the poor was his duty. He believed he was carrying out the ideas proposed in encyclicals by popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.

    Fr. Cox also set up kitchens to feed the desperately poor. Over time, he distributed two million meals and five million food baskets. No questions asked; he cared about his parishioners and the poor in general. While some Catholics still believed they should have as many babies as possible, Fr. Cox filled the pews and the huge basement of the first St. Patrick’s with people who wanted to hear about natural birth control.

    Fr. Cox hired “under-employed” cab drivers to help construct houses of a sort on the surrounding church property—an area that quickly earned the title of Shantytown. The priest’s followers, known as the Jobless Party, elected him “mayor” of Shantytown. Yes, the local papers covered the story. The Pittsburgh Press carried a photo of one resident shoveling snow away from Fr. Cox’s houses in 1932. Fr. Cox turned the church into a relief center, offering three meals a day, clothing, shoes. No ID required. You didn’t have to be Catholic to get a meal or other help.

    Pittsburgh architect David Vater notes that shantytowns were growing up outside major cities across the country during the Depression. They were called Hoovervilles, blaming economic conditions on President Herbert Hoover’s inability to handle the Depression.

    Chatham Village on Mount Washington was also built from 1932 to 1936 to serve those who lost their homes during the Depression. The builder, the Buhl Foundation—credited with helping to fund and establish Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western Pennsylvania, the Buhl Planetarium, the Institute of Popular Science, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra—could afford to build a fine community, which still exists and was declared a national historic monument in 2005 by the National Parks Service. Vater, a resident of Chatham Village, nominated it for this recognition.

    When Fr. Cox’s followers supported him for president, he accepted and became the second Catholic (after Al Smith) to run for the office. He tried to campaign, but realized quickly that he didn’t have the money to do that. He threw his support to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The newly elected president rewarded him with a few leftover bricks from the White House to use in the second St. Patrick’s on 17th Street at Liberty Avenue. The president also appointed Fr. Cox to several committees where he could continue his work on behalf of the poor.

    Shantytown

    Shantyown, a haven for homeless and jobless Pittsburghers, near St. Patrick’s Church, in the early years of the Great Depression.

    At some point, Fr. Cox managed to have the first St. Patrick’s named the American Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. Perhaps he noticed that “only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes,” and he wanted to see pilgrims crowding his gigantic church in the Strip. However, it burned down in 1935.

    Fr. Cox took the order to rebuild St. Patrick’s seriously; but with a reduced membership, he knew he didn’t need a large building. Many of Fr. Cox’s parishioners had already moved out of the Strip, as the produce and other commercial businesses moved in. He therefore created a chapel full of history and Irish mementos and a pair of holy stairs that some mount on their knees as they pray their way to the second floor. The church is regularly mobbed on St. Paddy’s Day and offers Mass at 12:10 on Thursdays. A great archangel, dressed in a green skirt with wild orange wings, stands near the altar, and looks like an Irish flag of sorts. The second St. Patrick’s is a splendid chapel with walled and blooming gardens. Planned by Fr. Cox, it opened at 17th Street and Liberty Avenue in 1936.

    By 1993, St. Stanislaus Kostka opened its large and lovely space and embraced the name and memory of the city’s first Catholic church. It became St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish. The name arrangement was both alphabetical and age appropriate. The church is located at 57 21st Street.

    Fr. Cox was a public-relations genius. Trying to share in some of Lourdes’s popularity was an inspired PR move, whether or not he viewed it that way. More significantly, he maintained a program for 33 years over radio station WJAS. It started with Mass and sermons and expanded to other issues. The local newspapers reported on his sermons and activities at St. Patrick’s.

    Fr. Cox’s crowning achievement may have been the organization of the first major march of any kind on Washington, D.C., in January 1932. Some 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvania men, some wearing their World War uniforms, became known as Cox’s Army. Those who walked slept overnight in jails, churches, barns, homes, or by the roadside. Some drove their cars and trucks to D.C. Skeptics asked who was paying for their gas. It turned out that Andrew W. Mellon, a prominent Pittsburgh zillionaire who served as Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury, told his Gulf Oil stations to give the marchers free gas. Hoover accepted Mellon’s resignation shortly thereafter. Cox’s Army was met by representatives of both houses of Congress, and then Fr. Cox and 14 of the unemployed poor talked with President Hoover. Their leader suggested the president consider promoting government jobs and projects and permitting unions to protect the workers. The Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press both covered the story.

    The celebratory return of Fr. Cox’s followers to the steps of St. Patrick’s after the march on Washington in 1932.

    The celebratory return of Fr. Cox’s followers to the steps of St. Patrick’s after the march on Washington in 1932.

    By 1934 the city moved occupants of Fr. Cox’s Shantytown into a far better indoor location than the Strip offered. The city burned down their former homes at St. Patrick’s.

    Like a bishop, Fr. Cox believed in pilgrimages. While at his first in France, he felt his eyesight was restored at the Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. When he led a tour to the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré shrine in Quebec City, Canada, some 500 pilgrims followed him.

    After suffering several strokes, Fr. Cox died at Mercy Hospital in 1951. He’s not buried with the other priests at Calvary Cemetery, but in his family’s plot there. His legacy is that of a fine priest, as concerned with life on Earth as much as life everlasting.

    Ann Curran, a two-time graduate of Duquesne University, has written for the Pittsburgh Catholic, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Magazine. She served as editor of Carnegie Mellon Magazine for two decades. She is the author of four books of poetry: Placement Test, an editor’s choice, and Irish Ayes, both published by Main Street Rag; Me First and Knitting the Andy Warhol Bridge, both published by Lummox Press. The latter received a Pushcart Prize nomination.
    Sources and Acknowledgements: University of Pittsburgh Archives; archivist Gerard F. O’Neil, author of Pittsburgh Irish: Erin on the Three Rivers; David Vater, architect and fellow resident of Chatham Village; Aunt Margaret Scanlon Shierson, who kept important papers and photos; Grandmother Margaret Scanlan Scanlon; inspiring third cousin Fr. James R. Cox; Great-great grandmother Bridget Enright Cox; my husband and in-house editor, Edward D. Wintermantel; and the great, great joy of our lives, daughter Cristin Francis Curran Wintermantel.