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The Forgotten History of Anti-Catholic Riots

November 13, AD2016

MorgueFIles - FlamesIn the subtle shift away from the dominant agricultural communities to the rising dominance of cities and their segregation of incoming immigrants, cultures will bind themselves within their own. It was the rise of the tenements and the subsequent use of cheap labor for the lowest jobs which helped to foster what is termed as the ‘Great Riot Year of the 1834.’ Of all the twenty-four riots that occurred from January through December, ten were instigated by Protestants against the Irish and Catholics, both of which were one and the same. The fear which was reviving itself in the 1820s was not only the greater number of Catholics, but the more outspoken and authoritarian stance of the Papacy denouncing the modernism and liberalism in the United States. This was conceived as a serious threat of how much Catholics posed to Protestant America. Conspiracy rumors for an imminent Papal takeover ran the gamut, fueling the flames of hatred already in place.

One example occurred in Boston when in 1825, the Irish population numbered about 5,000, anti-Irish gangs attack families and their property on Ann and Broad Streets. At the time, Mayor Quincy posted six watchmen to maintain the peace. By 1832, he was petitioned to take steps to prohibit further violence. This was not an isolated occurrence, for the 1820s were pockmarked by such, which exposed the resentment of a growing alliance of individuals becoming known as The Nativists. It was their conviction that they were the ‘Native Americans,’ disregarding in their view all those who were here long before their arrival, they considered themselves true Americans.

This particular group and several prominent evangelical preachers, including Lyman Beecher, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Samuel Morse, published anti-Catholic pamphlets suggesting that the Irish were secret agents in a Popish plot to undermine Anglo-Saxon New England, as they were convinced that Catholicism was a faith characterized by an authoritative religion which was completely incompatible with republicanism. Catholics were viewed as submissive and unquestioning followers, who therefore lacked the individuality and free thinking required of democratic citizens. Moreover, the Catholic immigrant, whose numbers were growing, kept their allegiance to a foreign ruler, and were seen as disloyal and to the many, even treasonous to the American ideals.

The American history books of the past fifty years pay little heed to the causes of the numerous anti-Catholic riots of the nineteenth century. The reasons and contributing factors did not coincide with the value of how the country portrayed the founding of its beliefs and principles. The truth would present blots on her copybook, for then as now cheap labor was one of the governing forces for the economy. And when the Irish rioted against their working conditions in the canals and railroads, it was only further proof of how despicable the Irish Catholic immigrant was and how unfit he was to understand the concepts of liberty in a democratic society. This magnified the deeply held suspicions of Catholic ritual and life not only within the Church, but more so the religious life in the convent and seminary.

In July of 1827, the Ursuline Covent and School, which had outgrown their dwelling next to the Cathedral of Holy Cross on Franklin Street in Boston, was granted permission from Bishop Cheverus to build on what was known as Sloughed Hill, later called Convent Hill or Mount Benedict in the town of Charlestown, which was separate from Boston, now known as Somerville. The young ladies attending the school were mainly from the prominent Protestant families of the surrounding area. Of the forty-seven students in 1834, only six were Catholic.

Prior to the burning of the Ursuline Convent, false rumors and accusations ran amuck. From the Mother Superior and Bishop Fenwick colluding to take over Boston, to young Protestant girls being held against their will and made to convert, as well as the fabricated reports of beatings, abortions, kidnappings and the stories of barbarities practiced on the nuns, of dying men cruelly treated and of immoralities which infested daily life.

One young servant, Rebecca Theresa Reed, was approached by a publisher shortly after her dismissal from the convent. Her ‘book’ titled “The Nun” created immediate alarms in Boston and Charlestown; she stated that she was ‘lucky enough to escape from the miserable confines of such a malicious institution.’ Little proof was needed, and from the 11th to the 14th of August, 1834 Protestant mobs attacked and ransacked the convent and then burned it to the ground. No one was injured. Of the four arrests, all were acquitted and restitution never materialized.

To understand the very real hatred and absolute conviction of the American Protestant mindset, specifically through the years of 1834-35, against Catholicism, is to attempt to fathom the depth of how its religious and political differences were made to isolate and remove the ‘Catholic Problem.’ The Native American Movement believed their democratic country was the one and only true faith; all others, especially Popery, was the anti-Christ to its principles. Yes, all this, yet the actual animosity, then as now stemmed from the devastating economic depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s. It was this economic insecurity and mechanization and burgeoning industrialism of many crafts and trades, which created the resentment on the part of the native-born labor population. ‘They’ were taking the worst and cheapest jobs, allegedly stealing work from the “native” Americans.

In all neighborhoods in which they were allowed to settle, Irish immigrants formed their own community and social networks which centered on the church, the tavern, and the volunteer firehouse. The “nativists,” especially in Kensington, accused the Irish of isolating themselves from the larger society and being unwilling to assimilate, and the very real fear these largely poor, unskilled Irish immigrants drove down wages by working for next to nothing stoked nativist antipathies. (The Irish often felt the same way about African Americans, their closest competitors for scarce jobs and housing, and Irish violence against blacks was common in the 19th century.)

The evidence pointed to a Catholic mob attacking an anti-Catholic Protestant meeting on 15 March 1835. The resulting action came swift in the formal organization of the Native American Party. To further their cause by educating the public of the imminent dangers to the Republic, various newspapers were established between New York and Boston; “The Protestant,” “The Protestant Vindicator,” and “The Downfall of Babylon.”

Throughout the decade prior to the Philadelphia Riots, (also referred as the Bible Riots), in May 1844, the “evils of Popery and the Irish labor riots” remained the focal argument for maintaining the separation of Church and State. So, when Bishop Kenrick made a request to the controllers of Philadelphia’s public schools, in 1842, the precedent was set for the resulting riots. It began simply enough. In the 1840s, students began the day reading the Protestant version of the Bible. The Bishop wrote a letter asking that Catholic children read the Douai and be excused from other religious teaching while attending public school. Permission was granted and the matter was closed.

A year later, a rumor circulated that pushed a simmering tension into bloodshed. Mr. Hugh Clark, who was a school director in the Kensington district and a Catholic, was visiting a girl’s school, where, as the allegations stated, he demanded the principal stop Bible reading in school. This version of the story claimed the principal refused and that she would rather lose her job than acquiesce.

Mr. Clark refuted this version, asserting that several students had chosen to read a different version of the Bible;  perhaps if confusion was the result, then perhaps it would be better not read. This spurred the outrage that “proved” Catholics were indeed the agents of the Pope and had received the direct order to remove the Bible from schools, also misusing Bishop Kenrick’s requests as further proof of the specific attacks against the Protestant Bible. Following the riots, Archdiocesan Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick abandoned his efforts to influence the public schools and instead laid the groundwork for the Catholic school system.

For the purpose to foster and incite additional proof of Irish instability for American liberty, the American Republican party, (the Protestant nativist group) on 3 May 1844 held a meeting in a part of the Kensington District, which was populated with predominantly Irish Catholic laborers. The engineered scheme succeeded and the group was attacked, whereby they retreated. Three days later, returning with reinforcements, they held their meeting in the nearby market using inflammatory speakers to denounce the Irish Catholics of the Kensington neighborhood and called for Americans to defend themselves from ‘the bloody hand of the Pope.’

On 7 May, the Nativists set fire to the Hibernia fire station, thirty homes were destroyed in the Kensington neighborhood and the market itself was also lost. A brief lull ensued by the belated arrival of the local state militia. They could do little to curb the riot and, the following day, the mob returned in greater numbers, burning down Saint Michael’s and the rectory, the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity, Saint Augustine’s Church and also a nearby school which housed a collection of rare books. A statement from Bishop Kenrick ordered all churches to be closed the following Sunday to avoid further provocation and violence and the Mayor set up a force to protect Catholic Churches. All valuables were removed from the churches and hidden in homes for safekeeping.

In a report issued on 18 June, a grand jury blamed an imperfect response by law enforcement and the Irish Catholics for the riots, stating that the outbreak of violence was due to “the efforts of a portion of the community to exclude the Bible from the public schools” and the disruption of legitimate meetings by immigrants [Nativists said they were only responding to being attacked and were justified in their actions but were not responsible for the riots after May 6]. The American Republican Party issued a statement blaming Mayor Scott, the sheriff, and the civil authorities for the riots. At the May riot’s end, at least fourteen people were killed in the Kensington District, an estimated fifty people were injured, and two hundred had fled their homes. The financial damage wrought was $150,000, or,  in today’s terms, $3.76 million.

For the next eight weeks a festering stillness stayed quiet, each side eying the other for the next excuse for eruption. It came on 5 July when a Catholic priest’s brother began stockpiling weapons in the cellar of Saint Philip de Neri Church in the neighborhood of Southwark. The response was immediate: thousands gathered outside demanding the surrender of all arms. The militia intervened, turning the crowd back, but the violence escalated on the seventh causing greater violence. The rioting lasted well into the night with the additional arrival of troops from other parts of Philadelphia. Though the Church remained untouched, the carnage left several more dead and wounded. As with the May riots, a grand jury once again blamed the Irish Catholics for the riots. More than two thousand Philadelphians signed an address praising the militia’s use of “lawful force which unlawful force made necessary.”

The outcome further entrenched the prejudice against the Irish and Catholics and the riots gained the national attention and its condemnation. Used as an issue in the 1844 U.S. Presidential election, the Democratic Party denouncing the growing Native American Party and the Whig Party. Irrespective of the accusations from the Democrats, in Philadelphia, the Native American Party made a strong showing in the city’s October election. From this there were fears the nativists would target New York City’s Catholic churches. It was Archbishop John Hughes who organized defenders for the churches and told the mayor that if any churches were burned, “New York would be another Moscow.”

An Gorta Mor: Irish Gaelic for The Great Hunger. During the 1845-1849 Ireland lost her great resource, the one third who survived, emigrated to America, for the two thirds left behind, a million starved to death. This massive influx became the rallying cry for the weakening Nativist Party to burgeon into a leading political force. In 1852 in New York City the Know-nothing Party formally designed itself into a national organization and presence. The leaders gather all Native American groups under a single heading, the National Council of the United States of America.

Its published ritual (Article II) declared the purpose of the organization to be “to protect every American citizen in the legal and proper exercise of all his civil and religious rights and privileges; to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome and all other foreign influence against our republican institutions in all lawful ways; to place in all offices of honour, trust or profit in the gift of the people or by appointment none but Native American Protestant citizens.”

Article III declared “that a member must be a native-born citizen, a Protestant either born of Protestant parents or reared under Protestant influence, and not united in marriage with a Roman Catholic… no member who has a Roman Catholic wife shall be eligible to office in this order,” etc. There were several degrees of membership as there were also state, district, and territorial councils, all of them subordinate to the National Council. The organization had the usual equipment of secret signs, grips, passwords, and the like. Such were the dictates and demanded loyalty required and by its very language inciting mobs to do its bidding without any reasoned logic, criminal acts of violence went unchecked. Though their reign was brief politically, only the years from 1851-1855, the damage to Catholics barely warrants a footnote. Yet the record is not obliterated, for the evidence is readily found provided if one digs.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

A cradle Catholic, who did go AWOL for several years, I returned home with more sense. From which, led to my writing for the Church. The value in one's examination of conscious where the collected litter of chaff is stripped, leaving the richness of the wheat. However much is our capability for being elusive in hiding the truth from ourselves, the written at all times demands the truth.

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