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Delanceyplace: Intolerance Towards Catholics

In colonial America, even with the establishment of Protestant colonies, the King's official Anglican church and the various Protestant churches had an antagonistic coexistent that flared up as one of the key causes of the American Revolution, writes George W Boudreau.

As late as the 1770s, Henry Clay's Baptist father had been arrested and jailed in Virginia for pastoring a non-Anglican church. Given this enmity among non-Catholic churches, it is no surprise that colonial-era Catholics were not allowed to worship freely in most colonies. Against this intolerance, Catholic missionaries came in the early 1700s to try and proselytize within the colonies. Even in Pennsylvania, a bastion of tolerance and religious freedom established by the Quaker William Penn, Catholics had to exercise significant caution in their practices.

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At the corner of Willings Alley and Fourth Street [in Philadelphia] stood Old St. Joseph's Church, one of the few places in the American colonies where Roman Catholics could worship freely. British people on both sides of the Atlantic were prejudiced against Catholics in the eighteenth century. Henry VIII's break with the Church of Rome in the 1520s and his Roman Catholic daughter Mary's persecution of Protestants was a common theme in their collective memory. Colonists also identified Catholicism with the wars that had pitted French Canadian and English colonists against one another for decades. But Roman Catholic missionaries had reportedly come to Philadelphia as early as 1708, and Father Joseph Greaton, an English priest, had arrived in 1720 or 1721. Construc­tion on the church began in 1733.

Not everyone was thrilled with the news that a Roman Catholic parish was to be located in Philadelphia. On July 25, 1734, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Gordon told the Provincial Council:

he was under no small Concern to hear that a House lately built in Walnut Street, in this City, had been set apart for the Exercise of the Roman Catholick Religion, and is com­monly called the Romish Chappell, where several Persons, he understands, resort on Sundays, to hear Mass openly celebrated by a Popish Priest; that he conceives the tolerat­ing the Publick Exercise of that Religion to be contrary to the Laws of England . . .

William Penn's religious toleration won out, and the 'Romish Chappell' - St. Joseph's Church - became a part of the religious fabric of Philadelphia. ...

Construction of a second Catholic chapel in Philadelphia [beginning in 1763] reflects the increasingly diverse population in the city by the second half of the eighteenth century. Two hun­dred and twenty-two people subscribed to the construction of the new church. The majority were Irish, along with thirty Germans and fif­teen French. ...

Both St. Joseph's and St. Mary's churches bowed to the reality that many colonists were prejudiced against Catholics, and both struc­tures kept a low profile. The small building that housed St. Joseph's, which was razed in the 1830s and replaced by the current church, had "more the appearance of a stable than of a church," Father Adam Marshall mused. Fearing attacks by anti-Catholic mobs, St. Mary's early parishioners built their church entrance facing Fifth Street, with the burial ground separating it from the street.

Author: George W. Boudreau
Title: Independence
Publisher: Westholme
Date: Copyright 2012 by George W. Boudreu
Pages: 121-123


Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia
by George W. Boudreau by Westholme Publishing
Hardcover
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