The hatred and persecution of the Catholic Church in America

Taken and adapted from "A Neglected Glory, the Catholic Presence in America,"

by Frank Moriss


 The stain is the stain of bigotry and hatred of the Catholic Church it was there from the very beginning of America's Anglican Establishment. The first Virginia Charter in 1606 established the Anglican Church. The second, in 1609, repeated the terms of the establishment and prescribed the Oath of Supremacy. In support of the Establishment, the draconian laws of Governor Dale in 1611 were directed mainly against the moral laxity of the colonists and were soon abrogated. When lawmaking passed to the Colonial Assembly the Establishment was maintained, but penalizing laws were still directed towards the moral uplift of the church. Intolerance of dissent was latent and implicit. Lord Baltimore, refusing as a Catholic to acknowledge the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king, in 1628 was denied temporary residence in the colony. Following this incident a new Act of Uniformity passed the Assembly, fining absentees from service. Another, in 1642, specifically disenfranchised Catholics and enforced the expulsion, within five days, of a priest coming to the colony. Under Governor Berkeley an Act, directed mainly against the Puritan franchise, was limited to church members. Men making active profession of an alien faith were banished. The General Court made provision for a general church tax to be levied and collected by civil officers. In 1631 came the famous law admitting only church members to civic freedom. In 1635 the magistrates were given inquisitional powers over the churches themselves. Congregationalism became law and Church and State were identical. Colonists were compelled to live within easy distance of meeting houses. Heresy was punished by banishment. Contempt toward ministers merited magisterial reproof, a fine, or standing placarded on a block. In 1656 denial of the Bible meant whipping or banishment, and as late as 1697 a law against "Blasphemy and Atheism" mentions as penalties the pillory, whipping, and boring the tongue with red-hot irons. Catholics of course were not suffered to live in the colony, and Jesuits, if banished, were to be put to death on return. The latter law was never enforced, though latent intolerance may be detected in such an ordinance as that of 1659 making the observance of Christmas a punishable offence. The persecution of Quakers and the inflicting of the death penalty in four instances brought about a rebellion within the colony which,with the endeavour of the Crown to force recognition of the Anglican Church, worked the initial movement in undermining the theocracy. With the appointment of a royal governor the franchise was broadened, Episcopalianism was established, and it was decreed in 1691 that "forever hereafter there shall be liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God to all Christians (except Papists)".

In Connecticut, Congregationalism under its famous instrument, the Saybrook Platform, became the State religion. But toleration was unstintingly allowed to every other licensed religion. Even laws against Quakers, apparently unenforced, imposed penalties not upon them but upon the communities that harboured them; while the universal "except Papists" phrase is significantly lacking, though in 1743 a law allowed dissenters "being Protestants" to apply for relief.

The short-lived attempt of the settlement at New Haven to found a theocratic colony based upon the Mosaic Law is interesting only in its failure. The famous "Blue Laws", now known to be ironic forgeries, were not much more severe than the Mosaic penalties enforced by the New Haven Legislature, according to their own records. The colony was soon incorporated with that of Connecticut, in whose democratic tolerance it was speedily absorbed.

The first settlers of New Hampshire established a broadly tolerant congregationalism which allowed civil privileges to be independent of religious belief, but the Puritan establishment was firmly planted throughout the years of the colony's union with Massachusetts. To the influence of this union, perhaps, may be traced the single example of persecution in the colony, that against three Quakers in 1659. In 1679 the union with Massachusetts was dissolved, and a royal governor sought, unsuccessfully, to enforce the establishment of the Anglican Church. The assembly of 1680 fixed the Congregational Establishment. The franchise was limited to Protestants, and subsequent laws, notably those of 1692, 1702 & 1714, defined the union of Church and State, allowing the constable to collect the church tax-that from dissenters to go to the support of their own ministers. Under the Toleration Act of 1689 all citizens were obliged to make a declaration against the pope and the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Under the Duke of York all churches were established with governmental rights, though those of power and induction were placed in the governor's hands. Persecution for conscience's sake seems unrecorded. Much of this tolerant attitude is due to the older Dutch foundation. It was renewed in the "Charter of Liberties", passed by the Assembly in 1683. When the Duke of York came to the throne a faint attempt was made to establish the Anglican Church. Later the council suspended "all Roman Catholics from Command and Places of Trust", and the franchise was soon confined to Protestants. This attitude was given universal royal warrant under the Great Toleration Act, and a supposititious Established Church existed in New York to the American Revolution, suffering the same kind of political opposition that the Establishment endured in Virginia and the Carolinas. The Establishment seized church property and banished Moravians, under the belief that they were "disguised Papists", though its powers began to wane before the American Revolution.

The Palatinate of Maryland under the Baltimores furnishes, with the Colony of Rhode Island, the first example in history of a complete separation Of Church and State with religious tolerance. Religious freedom was proclaimed in the famous "Act for Church Liiberties", passed by the assembly and practically carried out. Under this Catholic toleration a Catholic was fined for "interfering by opprobious reproaches with two Protestants", and Jesuits were refused the privileges of the canon law. The Toleration Act of 1649 denied toleration only to non-Christians and Unitarians, and imposed upon every resident an oath declaring for liberty of conscience. The outcome of the disgraceful Puritan "Plot" resulted in the voiding of the charter, the erection of Maryland as a royal province, and the Episcopal Establishment in 1692. The majority of the colonists were so overwhelmingly non-episcopal that the legislatures never seem to have insisted upon conformity, though they compelled church support. Against Catholics alone persecution endured. They were deprived of all civil and religious rights -- the latter only in private homes; the Law of 1704 laid a tax of twenty shillings on every Irish servant imported; while in 1715 it was enacted that children of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother could, in case of the father's death, be taken from the mother. However, the first Catholic church of Baltimore was erected without opposition in 1763, though the rights of the franchise were not extended to Catholics until the American Revolution put an end to all penal enactments.

The Presbyterian and Quaker settlers of the Jerseys, under their proprietors, were granted entire liberty of conscience. But with the assumption of the provinces, the Crown seems to have assumed that, per se, the Anglican Church was established, though no specific act to that effect seems to have been passed. At any rate, excepting troubles with Quakers in the French Wars, the annals of New Jersey are free from records of official persecution, though Catholics were disenfranchised when Jersey became a royal province. Georgia with its twoscore years of provincial history excluded "Papists" from its confines. The Anglican Church entered with the Crown and was formally, though unsuccessfully, established by the colonial legislature in 1758, the settlement remaining from the beginning indifferent toward Dissent.

The stain is the stain of bigotry and it is there, never to be fully removed. The question is, should it today be remembered, even pointed out in a time far removed and when most of the original causes for it have vanished?

The answer must be yes. To pretend it is not there and to consider it forgotten forever would do the country no service. On the contrary, the nation that forgets the worst it has been capable of becomes capable of worse yet.

The bigotries of the 19th century briefly revived in the 20th – could never have found expression when the ideals of the Revolution were fresh and the Catholic contribution remembered by most Americans. But memory of even renowned events fades rapidly. The human race has an almost total commitment to the present – and it tends to blot out of memory altogether those things it does not want to remember, or which do not serve that it considers its pragmatic or existential necessities. Note the flight from history in general, even as the United States celebrates its bicentennial.

If, however, millions of Americans in the 1830's chose to forget the reason for our liberty, the pledge of our Founding Fathers guaranteeing the right of all to choose their religious practice, we cannot choose today to forget that forgetfulness.

On Monday, Aug. 11, 1834, the Ursuline school for girls, Mount St. Benedict, had stood on a hill in the village of Charleston, near Boston, for some eight years. On Aug. 12 only its burned hulk remained.

The Ursuline nuns had come in 1820. Six years later they bought the barren hill and constructed their school. Soon the average attendance had reached fifty or sixty young ladies, about eighty percent of them Protestants. Though not one conversion could be pointed to, the success of Mt. St. Benedict’s created both apprehension and jealousy in some Protestant minds. Massachusetts was still near enough to its founding to be Puritan in instinct, if not in perfect doctrine. The very word Papist aroused the darkest suspicions of idolatry, superstition, and Renaissance ilmmorality in the Puritan mind.

In the summer of 1834, one Miss Harrison had suffered some derangement or other, as many a student has since, pressed by demands, whether of her own musical ambition or the desires of family or perhaps the strictures of the school’s faculty cannot now be known. Miss Harrison’s brother, a Protestant, found the young lady with friends and contacted Bishop Fenwick. Together they brought the young lady back to the school. By then she seemed more than content to be "home," and the sisters were equally glad to greet her. Their worry for her welfare can be well appreciated by any teacher or parent who has dwelt with a disturbed child.

But somehow word spread through the Protestant community that the nuns had driven this young lady to madness, kept her locked in a dungeon, and upon her attempt to escape had actually tortured her to death. Bigotry never blushes at exaggeration.

On Sunday, Aug. 10, indignation ran through the Methodist and Congregational Churches. Dr. Beecher, father of the "little lady who started the big war," (1) showed indefatigable anti-Catholic zeal by preaching on that day three sermons in different churches on the iniquity of Romanism.

The fire of bigoted violence was lit and smoldering. Perhaps in an attempt to put it out, the select men of Charleston named a committee the very next day, and that committee immediately took itself to Mount St. Benedict. There they found the "disposed of" Miss Harrison alive and well. She herself guided them on a careful tour of every part of the premises. On leaving, the committee began to draft the report of the falsity of all rumors and charges. On learning this, however, the leaders of the mob chose immediate action.

By 9 o’clock that night they gathered a crowd of hundreds at the convent school. Standing on boxes and lit by flickering and inciting light of bonfires and torches, the rabble-rousers made their harangues.

A general alarm was sounded at midnight, and an engine company came from Boston. This was before the city had taken on its Irish hue and in fact when most Catholics found it impossible to get into city service. The engine company merely reinforced the mob with the presence of "authority."

First the crowd fired upon the building windows, using guns and hurling stones. It soon became apparent there were no defenders smuggled in from Rome or Madrid.

The good nuns had understandably felt the authorities would protect them, or perhaps they were naive enough to think no Americans would attack helpless women and children. They were wrong in both assumptions.

The first shots convinced them of their error. They roused the sleeping children, and all escaped the mob’s murderous anger by fleeing in their nightclothes out a back entrance.

The building and all its contents went to the mob. The student’s money and jewelry were taken. Musical instruments were hacked to pieces, and the convent was put to the torch as the crowd, now swollen to thousands, cheered.

A post factum committee reported:

"Not content with all this, they burst open the tomb of the establishment, rifled it of the sacred vessels there deposited, wrested the plates from the coffins, and exposed the mouldering remains of their tenants. Nor is it the least humiliating future, in this scene of cowardly and audacious violation of all that man ought to hold sacred, that it was perpetrated in the presence of men vested with authority and of multitudes of our fellow citizens, while not one arm was lifted in defense of helpless women and children, or in vindication of the violated laws of God and man. The spirit of violence reigned triumphant."

The committee, meeting in Fanueil Hall, not only exonerated the nuns of all charges but praised them for their conduct and qualifications as teachers. The committee placed the blame for what happened on that infamous night on false reports in the New England press and anti-Catholic preachers. Still, it said the mob was not just an impulsive crowd of ignorant persons, but was directed and encouraged by persons of influence and standing.

"There is no doubt that a conspiracy had been formed, extending into many of the neighboring towns; but the committee are of the opinion that it embraced very few of respectable character in society, though some may, perhaps, be actually guilty of an offense no less heinous, morally considered, in having excited the feelings which led to the design, or countenanced and instigated those engaged in its execution."

The report was unintentionally prophetic, for anti-Catholicism would soon be organized and virulent, a true conspiracy that would take decades to extinguish, if it is completely extinguished to this day. The aftermath of the burning of Mount St. Benedict’s is proof of the spirit in which such conspiracy would breed.

At least eight of the 13 men arrested were brought to trial for arson. Every one, except the apparent ringleader, one Buzzell, an ex-convict, was acquitted, to the cheers of bystanders. The testimony of Bishop Fenwick and the nuns was greeted with jeers, compounded by the evident bias of the judge who did not suppress the open sneers of those present.

The legislature offered $10,000 indemnity for the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Naturally, the Bishop and sisters rejected the insulting offer.

This toleration of bigotry naturally encouraged it. Soon a gang of anti-Catholics called "The Convent Boys" was operating, forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan. Its target was first a Catholic graveyard in Lowell and a house in Warham where Mass was celebrated. When the Montgomery Catholics, a militia company of Catholic Bostonians, marched through the streets, three thousand citizens stoned them.

Bigotry can be big business. A publisher soon had on the streets and in book stores a book by one "Sister Mary Agnes," pseudonym of a nearly illiterate girl named Reed. She reputedly told of Six Months in a Convent. The publisher claimed its "unaffected simplicity" would deter "Protestant parents from educating their daughters in Catholic nunneries" far better "than could the most labored and learned discourses on the dangers of popery." Fifty thousand copies were sold in a year – a tremendous quantity in those days.

Naturally, this success was bound to breed other libels. None other than Harper Brothers leaped to the opportunity to make money by marketing dung. Though reputable Protestants condemned it, as did much of the pres, the "Awful Disclosures" of the non-existent "Maria Monk" enjoyed an unparalleled succces du scandale. The authors, both clerical and lay adventurers, undid themselves when they attempted "Additional Awful Disclosures." So scurrilous was this sequel that most of the general public turned from "Maria Monk" in disgust.

Ten years after the burning of Mount St. Benedict, anti-Catholic persecution revived. The constitution conventions of New York and Louisiana attempted to curtail the rights of Catholics. A spate of anti-Catholic books began to appear. A Reverend Mr. Sparry published the American Anti-Papist periodical; another reverend gentleman named Cheever specialized in lectures exposing the dangers of Romanism. Thus the ground was turned for the formation of the "Native American" or "Nativist" party. On March 19, 1844, they entered James Harper as candidate for New York’s mayor, and shortly later William Rockwell for the same office in Brooklyn. Their platform called for keeping only the Protestant Bible in public schools, exclusion of Catholics from office, and extending the probationary term for citizenship to 21 years, a sign of the panic at the swelling tide of Catholic immigrants.

Rockwell lost in Brooklyn, but Harper triumphed by about 24,000 votes. Whigs alone gave him about 14,000 and Democrats another 9,000 or so – this despite the presence in the contest of Whig and Democrat candidates. Prejudice came before Party.

Both parties – perhaps moved more by panic than love for Catholics – met and repudiated the principles held by the "Nativists." But the Nativists swept a number of municipal elections, until many politicians at least secretly sided with them. The Nativists forced the nomination of Frelinghuysen as running mate with Henry Clay, Whig candidate for president in 1844. This undoubtedly brought the loss of the Presidency for the "Great Compromiser."

The turning of the tide against Nativism probably came in Philadelphia, where the violent and murderous intent of the bigots would be revealed in a way that would shock the nation.

On May 5, a Nativist meeting was held in Kensington with the purpose of provoking an attack. This design was clearly shown in the movement of the meeting from its first unmolested spot to the market-house, where many newly arrived citizens had establishments. The diatribes at the Nativist gathering had their effect. Soon there were riots and gunshots, with at least 10 persons wounded. A Nativist attempt to fire a convent failed.

The next day armed Nativists assembled again and marched upon the Hibernian Hose company, wrecking its fire-fighting equipment. Twenty-nine houses were put to the torch, and shots were fired at the inhabitants as they fled.

Despite the calling of the militia and pleas from Bishop Kenrick for calm, more violence would follow. Early Wednesday morning, St. Michael’s Church, its convent and girls’ school, and a number of homes in the neighborhood, were destroyed. Philadelphia papers reported that as the Church burned "the mob continued to shout; and when the cross at the peak o the roof fell, they gave three cheers and a drum and fife played the ‘Boyne Water!,’ victory song of Cromwell’s defeat of the Irish and the start of Presbyterian ascendancy in northern Ireland.

That evening, St. Augustine’s Church went up in flames. The church was one of the oldest in Philadelphia. Famous men, including Washington, Montgomery, and Barry had contributed to its building fund.

All was forgotten as the mob surrounded it. "At twenty minutes past ten," an eyewitness related, "the cross which surmounted the steeple, and which remained unhurt, fell with a loud crash, amid the plaudits of a large portion of spectators. A very valuable library and several splendid paintings shared the fate of the Church."

The militia were simply spectators. Indeed, the pastor of St. Michael’s had given the militia captain, one Fairlamb, the keys to the Church, yet he allowed its destruction. Armed men gathered in St. Augustine’s to defend it, but they left when assured by Mayor Scott that there were troops and police enough for its protection. Both the militia and city force fell back before the mob without resistance and let the Church burn.

For some three days the mobs ruled Philadelphia. No true count of murdered and wounded is known, but they were in scores. Property damage was immense. The capture by militia of Nativist artillery aimed at St. Philip Neri Church helped break the back of the riots, and calm gradually was restored.

But the depth of the bigotry can be seen in the action of the grand jury, which blamed the "efforts of a portion of the community to exclude the Bible from the public schools," and indicted several Irishmen for murder, even though they had acted to defend their homes.

Two months before the rioting, Bishop Kenrick had refuted such charges about the Bible. In a public letter he explained:

"Catholics have not asked that the Bible be excluded from public schools. They have merely desired for their children the liberty of using the Catholic version, in case the reading of the Bible be prescribed by the controllers or directors of the schools. They only desire to enjoy the benefits of the State of Pennsylvania, which guarantees the rights of conscience and precludes any preference of sectarian modes of worship. They ask that the school laws be faithfully executed, and that the religious predilections of the parents be respect... They desire that the public schools be preserved from all sectarian influence, and that the education be conducted in a way that may enable all citizens equally to share its benefits, without any violence being offered to their conscientious convictions."

In further justification for recalling these tragic events it could be said that much of Bishop Kenrick’s plea could be repeated today, when secular if not sectarian prejudice prevails in public education, and when a financial and professional monopoly guarantees the ascendancy of such education. Parental rights can be said to be jeopardized today as they were when torch and gunshot attempted to destroy those rights in Philadelphia.

The events in the Pennsylvania city stirred both Nativist and Catholic determination in New York. Archbishop Hughes and Eugene Casserly, editor of the Freeman’s Journal, made it clear that the attackers would not find the going as easy as they had in Philadelphia.

A mob intent on burning St. Patrick’s Cathedral was turned back when paving stones rained down from houses surrounding the great building. Now an extra edition of the Freeman’s Journal made clear that Catholics would assemble to defend their Churches.

Archbishop John Hughes was a native of County Tyrone. For a time, financial reverses of the family sent him from school into the fields of one of his father’s farms. He told a friend that "many a time I have thrown down my rake in the meadow, and, kneeling behind a hayrick, begged of God and the Blessed Virgin to let me become a priest." Persecution finally drove the Hughes family to New York. Young John worked as a gardener in Maryland, finally entering Mount St. Mary’s Academy and becoming a priest in 1826.

Now he could answer the same bigotry that had driven his family from Ireland. "If a single Catholic Church were burned in New York," he thundered, "the city would become a second Moscow."

He called upon the mayor to prevent proposed demonstrations. "Are you afraid," the mayor asked him, "that some of your Churches will be burned?"

"No sir," he replied, "But I am afraid that some of yours will be burned. We can protect our own, I come to warn you for your own good."

He rejected the advice of those "good cautious souls who believe in stealing through the world more submissively then suits a freeman."

Beforehand, he put the onus for any riot on mayor-elect harper, the Nativist candidate. "I should remind him that these men are his supporters; I should warn him that if they carry out their design there will be a riot; and I should urge him to use his influence in preventing this public reception of the delegates."

His warning was rewarded. There was no riot. Courage is cold water for burning bigotry.

A letter from Archbishop Hughes to Harper is worth recall. In it he challenged James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, and William L. Stone, editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and others, to contradict the following:

"1. – I have never in my life done one action, or uttered a sentiment tending to abridge nay human being of all or of any of the rights of conscience which I claim to enjoy myself under the American constitution.

"2. – I have never asked or wished that any denomination should be deprived of the Bible, or such version of the Bible as that denomination conscientiously approved, in our common or public schools.

"3. – I have never entered into intrigue or collusion with any political party or individual, and no political party or individual ever approached me with so insulting a proposition.

"4. – I have never requested or authorized, the ‘blackening of the public school’ books in the city of New York.

"5. – In all my public life in New York, I have done no action, uttered no sentiment unworthy of a Christian Bishop, and an American citizen."

In the words that might be uttered today by refugees from anti-Catholic Communist brutality, the Archbishop recalled his first sight of Old Glory:

"I can even now remember my reflections on first beholding the American flag. It never crossed my mind that a time might come when that flag, the emblem of the freedom just alluded to, should be divided by apportioning its stars to the citizens of native birth, and its stripes only as the portion of the foreigner, I was, of course, but young and inexperienced; and yet even recent events have not diminished my confidence in that ensign of civil and religious liberty. It is possible I was mistaken, but I still cling to the delusion, if it be one; and as I trusted to that flag on a nation’s faith, I think it more likely that its stripes will disappear altogether; and that faith towards the foreigners of every land, the white portions will blush into crimson and then the glorious stars alone will remain."

Within 48 hours the letter was known to almost all New Yorkers. The anti-Catholic hysteria calmed remarkably. True, Bennet and Stone did "stand forth and meet Bishop Hughes as he had challenged them to do." But alongside his outspoken defense of himself, their charges were seen as mere verbiage.

Bigotry, unfortunately, outlived Hughes as it shall outlive every hero. A decade later found it embodied in the "Know Nothing" movement, which advanced a political party of its own in the feverish years before the Civil War. An attack on the Convent of Mercy in Providence, Rhode Island, was driven off in April, 1854. Street riots broke out in Brooklyn; far to the west, in St. Louis, two days of riots left ten persons shot dead, more wounded, and houses of Catholics wrecked.

A Know Nothing governor was elected in Massachusetts in 1854. Its candidate in 1860 drained enough votes from Stephen A. Douglas to guarantee the election of Lincoln. "The Little Grant" earlier had tried for three hours to be heard in Chicago over the shouts of Know Nothing hecklers.

In Maine, a Jesuit priest, Father John Baptist, was dragged from the home of a friend, stripped, and feathered, ridden on a rail, and left for dead. His crime was that he had entered the public school controversy.

Under the Know Nothing Regime in Massachusetts, all Irish militia companies were disbanded. A law called for the inspection of nunneries, convents, and schools. The only visit by the committee named under this law was to the school of the Notre Dame sisters in Roxbury. The Protestant Boston Advertiser described it thus:

"The gentlemen – we presume we must call members of the legislature by this name – roamed over the whole house from attic to cellar. No chamber, no passage, no closet, no cupboard escaped their vigilante search. No part of the house was enough protected to respect for the common courtesies of civilized life to be spared in the examination. The ladies’ dresses hanging in their wardrobes were tossed over. The party invaded the chapel and showed their respect – as Protestants, we presume, for the One God whom all Christians worship, by talking loudly with their hats on; while the ladies shrank in terror at the desecration of a spot which they hallowed."

There was Know Nothing violence in Mobile, Cincinnatti, Milwaukee, and particularly in Louisville, where, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, 1855, blood flowed in the streets in election violence. Eleven hundred voters were driven from the polls, men and women were shot, houses burned, with at least five persons burned alive.

The counsels of great men like Douglas and Lincoln helped tame the Know Nothing fury, and its influence wilted in the Civil War.

We undoubtedly have not seen the end of bigotry in this country. Wherever freedom is absolute, its abuse is inevitable. It should be remembered, when it comes again, that it is generally the work of the few and ignorant, though agents provocateurs undoubtedly wait to take advantage of its appearance.

This much is certain: Tolerance of bigotry by the masses on either side encourages its spread. Violence, unprotested or unopposed, will have its way, regardless of how profoundly handfuls of good men are horrified by it.

Catholic firmness in adhering to unfashionable positions seems, even in this time of Bicentennial celebration to be providing the oldest of bigotries with the newest of arguments to pry open the gates that dam bigotry. The first small streams of it are seen in rulings from Washington itself concerning life, medicine, scientific research on fetuses, etc. The demands of women for complete equality in Church affairs touching doctrine may eventually lead to a confrontation that will see bigotry, this time wearing the mask of progressivism, march once more with club and gun, until the brave rise up to put it down once more.


1. Abraham Lincoln’s description of the author of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."