Cartoons brought to the forefront at Catholic exhibit

The Catholic Historical Research Center, in the former Our Lady of Ransom School, will be displaying editorial cartoons and other drawings.

Prominent Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast often painted Catholics in a negative light, particularly as a threat to the country’s public school system. SOURCE: CATHOLIC HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER

It’s a scary sight.

Bishops, depicted to look like alligators, descend upon the shores of America, ready to devour fearful children. The background is dominated by a building resembling the Vatican.

Thomas Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoon, which ran in Harper’s Weekly in the 1870s, is one of about 50 that will be on display at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Historical Research Center, housed in the former Our Lady of Ransom School in Castor Gardens.

The exhibit, dubbed “Cartooning Catholics,” features a wide range of editorial cartoons and comics, from Nast’s 19th-century drawings to modern depictions that are also critical of the church.

In addition, the collection includes cartoons from the now-defunct Catholic Standard & Times, which paint the church and its people in a far better light. 

A Catholic Standard & Times cartoon from 1964 paints a positive picture of Catholic education. SOURCE: CATHOLIC HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER

Patrick Shank, an archivist at the center who curated the exhibit, said it is meant to trace how Catholics were depicted in the secular press, as well as how they saw themselves and expressed their own viewpoints through cartoons.

“I think it’s a really fun exhibit,” he said. “It kind of shows a way to get a history you wouldn’t normally expect.”

Several pieces from Nast, a prominent cartoonist who is credited with popularizing the modern image of Santa Claus, appear in the exhibit. 

“Nast was very fearful of Irish-Catholics coming in and kind of changing the cultural landscape of America,” Shank said. “He saw the rise of parochial parish schools and high schools as an attack against public schools.”

Shank said some of those same themes appeared when he was searching through the more modern anti-Catholic editorial cartoons from the 1970s through today.

By contrast, the Standard & Times art portrays Catholic schools as places for a well-rounded education. There are also cartoons from newspapers showing Catholic perspectives on the Cold War and civil rights movement, Shank said.

The exhibit features some original sketches by Robert F. McGovern, a well-known artist in Philadelphia who made wood carvings and other pieces for a number of churches in the archdiocese.

Shank said the display will also feature Marvel comics based on the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope John Paul II and others as well as some strips from “Family Circus,” a comic created by the late Bil Keane, a Northeast Philly native.

An opening reception will be held Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the center, 6740 Roosevelt Blvd. There will be a discussion with illustrator Robert Humble, a tour of the archives, drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

Registration on Eventbrite is encouraged but not required. The event is free. 

Shank said the exhibition will be open for free to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. “Cartooning Catholics” will be on display for one year. ••