Pious Roman Catholic, Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack, and the bloody docks of NYC


I recently posted a general review of the 1954 landmark film, “On the Waterfront” (see here), but I would like to further explore some of the historical and religious aspects of the movie that were mentioned in the “Who Is Mr. Big?” documentary that was included in the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

The “Waterfront” story was based on the wholesale corruption of those who controlled New York City’s and New Jersey’s docks. The labor required to load and unload ships on the bustling 19th-century New York City piers was both physically demanding and dangerous and was increasingly left to the Irish immigrants. By the 1920s, the Irish completely controlled the docks. William “Mr. Big” McCormack (see photo) controlled all of the stevedore companies. Joe Ryan, the figure-head president of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the inspiration for the Johnny Friendly character in the film in reality reported to McCormack. That would be like the cat taking orders from the mouse. Racketeering and inhumane labor practices were rampant on the docks with nowhere to appeal. McCormack had city, state, and national politicians in his back pocket.

The Irish pier bosses also fostered close ties with the Catholic archdiocese of New York City. The relationship was symbiotic. McCormack, Ryan, and their associates contributed heavily to the diocese and the church big wigs, in return, blessed all union endeavors. Ryan attended daily mass at Guardian Angels church near the Chelsea piers in Manhattan. The pastor of the church was monsignor John J. O’Donnell, Cardinal Spellman’s right-hand man and “chaplain” of the murderous ILA. O’Donnell once commented on the union’s bloody boss, “He keeps his hands off the spiritual things of my church and I keep my hands off his business.”


When a loose cannon, Jesuit “liberation theology” priest, John Corridan, began making inquiries into the working conditions on the docks, O’Donnell warned him to back off “or else.” The subsequent investigations of waterfront crime relied heavily on Corridan’s observations and experiences. Karl Malden’s father Peter Barry character in the film was based upon Corridan.

The Irishmen who ran the piers dishonestly and often with blood on their hands were practicing and “pious” Catholics. Spellman and the archdiocesan hierarchy just looked the other way because the money was good and everyone respected each other’s “racket.” And Spellman had his own personal indiscretions to deal with. Jesus Christ was not present in any of these men. None of them knew the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It was all about power, control, and cash. That’s just the way it was.

I imagine priests had the same “see no evil…” relationship with the Mafioso Dons in the Italian enclaves. Where was the priest at Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding reception in “The Godfather”? You know that in real life Mafioso weddings the priest would have been feted as one of the most honored guests.

Postscript: Generations of “Waterfront” viewers have been stymied by the scene at the 1 hour and 29 minute mark when an apparently wealthy older man shuts off the television after watching the waterfront crime commission proceedings and tells his butler not to take any more calls from Johnny Friendly. Who exactly was this mysterious figure? The suspense is over. Screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, was referencing Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack.

24 thoughts on “Pious Roman Catholic, Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack, and the bloody docks of NYC

    1. Corridan was certainly not in lock step with the diocesan bosses. Was he a “good” man? “Only God is good” – Luke 18:19. Did Corridan believe the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ? I sincerely doubt it. According to a 1953 article from Schulberg, “Waterfront Priest,” Corridan didn’t talk “religion” with the longshoreman but rather concentrated on the “bread ‘n’ butter, dollars ‘n’ cents issues” that confronted them.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That was probably prudent, just to talk dollars and cents, as they seemed to just be culturally Catholic and didn’t let the Gospel enter their hearts.

    Also, “Liberation Theology” didn’t exist in the 20’s. It started in the 50’s and 60’s in Latin America. The Jesuit was apparently just closer to the Lord than were the archdiocesan paper pushers.


    1. I certainly don’t agree with dismissing Spellman and O’Donnell as “paper pushers.” Spellman was the most powerful representative of Catholicism in America from 1939 to 1967.

      I’m sorry that my chronology wasn’t specific. Corridan was active on the waterfront from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Although the term “Liberation Theology” wasn’t coined until the early 1970s, advocates recognize the movement had its roots primarily in the 1950s in South America. But Jesuit Corridon was definitely practicing an early form of LT on the docks.

      You presume that the longshoremen who Corridon worked with were primarily cultural Catholics and didn’t have the Gospel in their hearts. Catholics and evangelicals define the Gospel entirely differently. For Catholics the “good news” is receiving sacramental grace and then attempting to successfully obey the Ten Commandments and church rules over a lifetime in order to merit Heaven. That’s actually very bad news because no one can obey the Law. In contrast, evangelicals rejoice in the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! Now THAT’S Good News! Spellman, O’Donnell, and Corridon officiated at mass every day but what they were proclaiming wasn’t the Good News. The first two had blood on their hands and were busy building their ecclesiastical empires and lining their pockets. Corridon’s work was admirable to a degree but he didn’t point men to their most important need for the Savior.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think your understanding of Catholicism is a bit reductionist. There are man charisms within the Church, and there are many, many Catholics who celebrate the Good News joyfully.

        Yes, there are bad priests. There are bad Protestant pastors too. I don’t know which of the 30,000 opposing Protestant denominations you adhere to, but I think that ad hominem arguments against Christian truth doesn’t reveal anything.


      2. A few of your more thoughtful apologists are careful not to perpetuate the 30,000 myth.

        But I praise the Lord for the various denominations. It took many generations of Reformers to move the church farther and farther away from the vestiges of Roman error. Evangelical churches may differ on secondary doctrines but we’re united in the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Presenting the RCC as some monolithic source of truth won’t work with me. Just ask cardinal Burke. In fact, why waste another second of your time defending Rome? Your popes now say all non-Catholics and even atheists will merit Heaven if they “follow the light they are given” and are “good.” Rome’s dreary liturgicalism and legalistic detail are superfluous which is why only 22% of Catholics attend mass every Sunday.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Go back to Egypt and chains? Oh my! I was weighted down with heavy religious chains for 27 years, with no real spiritual joy because of my sinfulness. I’m now free in Jesus Christ because of His imputed perfect righteousness. I don’t have a single plea, not one.

        I pray that you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone. Accept Him and let Him unlock your chains.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. God bless you. I do accept Jesus Christ as my Savior. But I think there is a misunderstanding about the faith vs. works doctrine. I think the word “justification” was used in two different ways historically. It’s kind of a stale debate that gets continued by people for some reason.

        Catholics know it is not by their works (that it is solely by Grace) that we are saved but that works (like taking care of the poor and elderly and blogging about Christ) are the outpouring of that faith in the world.

        Do you ever read any of the writings of the early Church fathers?


      5. Catholics claim they “know” salvation is not by their works, but then will immediately turn around and confess they must “cooperate with grace” and do their part to merit Heaven. Works come after justification through faith in Christ alone. Catholics put the cart before the horse and say sanctification merits justification. It’s not semantics but the difference between being saved and unsaved. Works are your bottom line despite your protests to the contrary. But I still don’t understand why you continue to defend Catholicism when your popes say even “good” atheists are able to merit Heaven.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I defend Catholic Christianity because it is the fullness of truth.

        No pope ever said anyone ever “merited” Heaven. I think that’s called Pelagianism.

        It is humility to say that as much as we know about God, there are an infinite number of things about Him that we can’t know. If an atheist never heard the Gospel message, then God might have mercy, yes? Is God’s infinite mercy not possible?

        I do know that what Catholics believe is much closer to what Christians believed in the first couple of centuries of Christianity.

        If you want more complete answers, I recommend taking a look at catholic.com and being open. Have you ever read Scott Hahn’s book, Home Sweet Rome or Patric Madrid’s Surprised by Truth?


      7. As for Catholics and merit you had better start reading your CCC.

        “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.” – Paragraph 2010

        As for poor Hahn:

        Liked by 1 person

      8. I will pray for you.

        There’s a distinction in the meaning of the limited word, “merit.” Perhaps that caused some confusion. Virtue is its own reward (like the reward mentioned in MT 12), but ultimately it is God’s grace and mercy that gets us into eternal union with Him. Maybe this will help understand what I meant.


        Good luck with your church. I am sure there is nothing else I can write that will make sense to you today. Keep searching.

        p.s. You got Dr. Hahn’s book title wrong in your post.


      9. Thanks, for the word correction. I will pray that you will someday accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith ALONE. Nicodemus, no doubt a very “good” man was challenged by Christ to break from his authoritative and imposing religious institution and accept Him by faith ALONE. You must face that challenge as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. The church fathers agree and disagree with each other on various points of doctrine. I’ll go by Scripture rather than the writings of men. Paul warned that works-righteousness judaizers were already entering the church in his day. Did the church fathers also teach that pagans and atheists will merit Heaven if they are “good” as the recent popes have done?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maria! Most people could not be bothered with the historical details but I’m a history nerd. The information on McCormack is fascinating! Talk about a tycoon. Not only did he control the docks but he controlled several other industries in NYC. Anyway, the DVD had a lot of extra information and I’m also reading a book about the movie. I noticed reviewers often write about Terry seeking “redemption” but it’s all dust without Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup. “Liberation theology” fell out of favor long ago. Ah, yes, I remember the Berrigan brothers very well. My politically conservative father used to rant about them whenever they were on TV and said they should stay in the church and rectory like good priests.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Man that was good. As I read this post I thought about how evil this relationship with organized Crime and Catholicism is; and how this kind of dynamic exist in Mexico from the little I have read with certain cartels

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jim! It’s not explicit in the movie but some of the bonus features examined the mob’s relationship with the church hierarchy. Yeah, maybe it’s a matter of “compartmentalization” for Catholics where business is business and religion is religion. I know with my family religion was something you did for an hour Sunday morning and that was it. But yeah, the relationship between the church and the mob is very interesting. Can you imagine a man coming to Sunday service at your fellowship every week who everyone knew to be an active murderer?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The whole hierarchy was dog eat dog so maybe they saw rubbing shoulders with the mobsters as par for the course. Back in the Middle Ages, men vying for cardinalships or even the papacy were known to “eliminate” the opposition.

        Liked by 2 people

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