We are naturally suspicious of anything alien to our experience, normally because we have little or no knowledge about it. Suspicion based on ignorance begets fear which manifests itself in hostility and hatred. Efforts to remove or destroy the hated object can quickly turn to violence.
Such was the background for the anti-Catholic riots of the 19th century. Manifest Destiny was a term used to describe the belief that Divine Providence had determined the future of the United States and that part of that future was that the population would be Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. This is illustrated in a quote from President John Quincy Adams, “The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.”
Catholics didn’t fit into this vision. Until the beginning of the great migrations of the mid-nineteenth century, their numbers were insignificant. With the beginning of the great migrations of Irish and German Catholics, many Americans feared that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. For many Americans, Catholicism was not just strange, it was wrong. Catholics were unsuitable for the American republic. This feeling gave rise to the Nativist movement to protect the American dream from being corrupted.
With the influx of Catholic immigrants, Nativism was whipped into a frenzy by politicians, journalists and anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements. It soon led to mob violence. In 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline Convent and Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The nuns and the students barely escaped with their lives. In 1844, rioters destroyed St. Michael and St. Augustine Churches in Kensington, Pennsylvania. In 1855, anti-Catholic newspaper editorials in the Louisville, Kentucky newspaper resulted in a riot that attacked Catholic neighborhoods, burning and looting homes. Twenty-two people died and scores were injured and made homeless. Assumption Cathedral was barely saved from the torch.
In fear of the riots spreading to New York City, Archbishop John Hughes organized defenders for the Catholic Churches and none were attacked. It was as a result of the riots that Archbishop Hughes began the establishment of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions to protect Catholics from discrimination. The First Plenary Council in 1852 urged the establishment of a parochial school in every parish.
Thus we see that the Nativist Movement led to the establishment of the extensive Catholic sub-culture to protect Catholic values in a dominant Protestant culture that would endure into the 21st century.
Sadly, there is more to come in the story of oppression and discrimination against Catholics. I will discuss that in a future blog.
This post is also available in/Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish