The Tyranny of Mobs: Threats and Violence against Irish Catholics in Baltimore and elsewhere
Baltimore’s earliest Irish Catholics were a persecuted people, as were their fellow Catholics in other major cities in America. Although their numbers were strong, as they had been in Ireland, the persecution of their faith followed them to America. That persecution took another form, though; it was not particularly from the government itself, or an established church. Opposition typically came from anti-Catholic political forces, such as the Know-Nothings, and religious groups and clergy.
Perhaps it was a bit inevitable that a collection of British colonies would contain a considerable portion of strongly anti-Catholic population. England had been embroiled in severe struggles between Protestants and Catholics since the days of Henry VIII, who declared himself head of the Church of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Some Catholics eventually escaped his rule, but many others who held Protestant beliefs also sought to practice their particular type of religion elsewhere. Both Catholics and dissenting Protestants thought of America as a place of religious freedom. Some of those emigrating dissenters, however were terrified of the prospect of their new land reverting to Catholic rule, and were fierce opponents. A measure of Americans continued their public opposition into modern times, where the prospect of a Catholic President in 1960 brought out the worst in some.
Early Horror in Boston
The Irish community of Boston was traumatized by the horrors of the burning of Mount Benedict, the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown. The Convent was the home of both Catholic and Protestant pupils who preferred the teaching found there over the alternative in the nearby Congregational and Unitarian schools.
Boston had a strong Catholic community even in these early days, but some anti-Catholic ministers such as Lyman Beecher (father of Harriett Beecher Stowe) were particularly harsh towards the “papists”, as followers of the Church of Rome were referred to.
Beecher spoke often on an anti-Catholic theme, including several times just before the Convent attack. While many in local congregations were also opponents of Catholicism, these were not typically the sort that lashed out violently against those they disagreed with. That dirty work was left to a considerable number of rabble among the general population.
Rumors were common among the general population that women religious were being held at the Convent against their will, and these suspicions were confirmed in the minds of many when a young nun fled from the facility on July 28, 1834. Sister Mary John went to a nearby farmhouse to escape what she considered ill treatment by the Order, and the rumors of confinement of young women was confirmed in the minds of many. She returned to the Convent the same day, with that decision being hers personally, but the circumstances were in doubt by many in the area. A committee was formed and a thorough inspection of the facilities was held on August 9, including a time with Sister Mary John. Nothing was found amiss by the committee, but that made little difference to those who were convinced that harsh, abusive conditions were found there. A second visitation was held on August 11; all seemed fine, but a gathering of 500-600 formed just outside the gates of the Convent, where a bonfire was lit.
Great fear spread throughout the Mount Benedict facility, and both Nuns and their charges escaped from the rear. Mother Superior Mary Ann Ursula Moffatt challenged the gathering crowd, insisting that the Catholic Bishop would send 20,000 Irish to defend the convent. This only served to enrage the mob, and the Convent and its contents were burned. Even those buried on the grounds had their bodies desecrated.
Not Quite: A Baltimore Convent Threatened, but Preserved
Baltimore was not without its own virulent anti-Catholic preachers. Some spoke fervently on the subject of the Roman church and feared its dominance in the institutions of the city. However, things ended differently in the center of American Catholicism.
Similarities abounded on the day of August 18, 1839. Baltimore was the home of a Carmelite Convent on Aisquith Street, where two dozen lived. Among these were Nuns and some who were under their supervision, education and care, including Sister Isabella. Formerly known as Sarah Neale, a daughter from a prominent family, she had taken a turn towards insanity, it was thought. She asserted that she was no longer in need of food or medication, and eventually “escaped” from the Convent onto the streets of northeast Baltimore. After attempting to enter several homes, she was finally let in by a city official who lived nearby. This flurry of activity by a cloistered nun within the neighborhood caused a gathering of the curious. Onlookers seemed to realize her distraught state and suggested that she betaken to Washington Medical College (image below) at the corner of Fairmont and Broadway.
Once admitted, she was diagnosed by several doctors as being insane, and was cared for.
The drama was just a little too familiar for an anti-Catholic fringe to pass up on, and a mob gathered, attempting riot and mayhem upon the Convent. The memory of the destruction of the Charlestown Convent outside of Boston was still a fresh memory for many, and citizens and militia gathered to resist an attempt at mob law. Mayor S.C. Leakin became involved in the defense of the women, and those who wanted to prevent chaos encircled the building. The City Guards, 5th Regiment and the Horse Guards (two militia groups) set up positions on the perimeter and protected the Convent. This, of course attracted considerable onlookers.
Those in support of the “blackguards and villains” saw how the Nun’s protectors were defended by both civil authorities and the press, and attributed it to their sectarian bias. The Baltimore Sun, however insisted that their loyalties were with any peoples who resisted mob rule, no matter their pedigree.
Fear and Rage Magnified in Philadelphia
Nativism continued its development and expansion into future decades, and the Know-Nothing party, a political organization known for its anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic stances became just a shade or two more mainstream and part of the political process in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Their presence in Philadelphia was felt in a broader sense during a tragic time known as the Bible Riots. Protestant “King James” Bibles came to be a standard textbook in the city’s public schools, while Catholics asserted that their “Douay-Reims” version should be by all rights be an acceptable option for the Catholic students in the classroom. Accusations and misunderstandings were rampant, and ultimately led to violent outbreaks by those who either feared the Bible being removed from the classroom entirely or finding that one sect’s version was standard, while theirs was excluded. 1844 was a year of violence and turmoil, and two Catholic Churches were burned to the ground, namely St. Michael (see image) and St. Augustine on May 8, 1844. A seminary, two rectories, and a library were also burnt.
It was through events and eras such as this that led towards the development of Catholic education in most parishes, where distinctives could be taught without fear. Once willing to give each student the ability to use a Bible of their own choosing in public schools, leaders of the Archdiocese saw the futility of their desire for accommodation, and established an educational system among their own.
Dagger John Hughes and Striving for the Faith In New York and Baltimore
The good Bishop was known as a no-nonsense guy when it came to messing with his Roman Catholic faith, and the practice thereof. He was a native of Ulster, Ireland and began his working life as a simple gardener for the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, MD. John Hughes became an ardent priest and advocate for the rights of free exercise of worship for all, without apology. His diocese of New York was a home base for his expansion of both parishes and the schools that firmly presented Catholic distinctives to their charges.
Anger and agitation became part of the conversation within the parishes of New York, and he wasn’t “having it”. He stated in no uncertain terms that one turn by groups like the Know-Nothings would earn them a turn for themselves from the Catholic faithful, asserting that if the nativists of New York attempted to burn a single Catholic Church, as they had done in Philadelphia in 1844, "the city would become a second Moscow" …referring to rampant arson done in Russia’s capital city. That did the trick.
Archbishop Hughes (see above image) was certainly a firebrand, but was also the most famous bishop/archbishop in America. His visits to Baltimore (headquarters of Catholicism in America) included his attendance at vital councils in both 1842 and 1844. During these visits he both laid the cornerstone and dedicated the completed structure known as St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, at Hollins and S. Poppleton Streets in West Baltimore (pictured below). These churches were not known as being simple structures, but rather asserted the place and prominence of Catholicism within America’s denominations.
The major cities along a young America’s East Coast each had their share of violent resistance to the place of Catholicism within the social and political structure of their community. Citizens and governments had a way to go to understand how religious freedom could work within a democracy, and would continue to struggle in large and small ways up to the days of the Civil War and beyond. Many Protestants had yet to be convinced that a foreign potentate, namely the Pope, did not want to rule this new “nation of laws, and not of men”. The Irish were the largest Catholic group in most cities, and were considered suspect by those who had established a majority Protestant nation. It took perseverance and dramatic displays of citizenship by Irish Catholics to develop trust between the two largest religious communities in America, with the gallant service by the Irish in the Civil War as a major pivot point for many.
Thanks to many who contributed to this article, including
American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, 1839
Historical Baltimore Sun
Oxx, Katie. The Nativist Movement in America-Religious Conflict in the 19th Century. New York, Routledge 2013.
Martha Connolly, PH.D.
Rev. Michael J. Roach