Saturday, January 29, 2011

When the City of Brotherly Love didn't live up to its name part I

I mentioned yesterday that the Know-Nothing Party, known also as the Native American Party and the American Party, bore in several respects a great resemblance to today’s Tea Party. It appealed primarily to working class whites who felt that their livelihood was being threatened by the massive immigration of the time. Like today’s Tea Party it was, at least in its formative years, not a political party as such but a loose coalition of local groups who had reached a consensus on many, but not all, issues. It was unable, for example, to reach a consensus on slavery—a crucial question of the time. It did reach a consensus on immigrants and on Catholicism. It was opposed to rights for both.
The 1840’s and 1850’s were a tumultuous time for Catholics and Nativists alike. Philadelphia suffered particularly badly in the conflict that erupted over the petition of the Catholic Bishop, Francis Kenrick to the School Board that Catholic Children either be excused from the daily bible reading—where the King James Version was read—or permitted to read from the Douai version which was used by Catholics. He also insisted that Catholic children be excused from religious (Protestant) education in the public schools. The School board concurred but this decision started rumors that the bishop and his flock—at the instigation of the pope—were trying to ban the bible from public schools.
Philadelphia, much like Charlestown and Boston, was a field of conflict between its native born working class—mostly Protestant—and the large number of immigrant workers—mostly Irish and Catholic—who were willing to work more cheaply and thus threatening the livelihood of the native-born American workmen. As in Boston demagoguery played on the tension between immigrants and native-born Americans and anti-Catholicism regularly appeared in the pulpit and in print. This was the atmosphere that the Know-Nothings thrived in and in May 1844 the American Republican Party—a local group o f Know-Nothings—organized a rally in the heart of the Kensington District, a stronghold of Irish Catholics. It was obviously meant to be provocative and a good lesson is never provoke an Irishman. The Irish love a fight. Local residents attacked the speakers’ podium and the Know-Nothings fled. They returned two days later in greater numbers. This time the meeting turned violent with several of the Know-Nothing party killed. The mob then attacked a convent of the Sisters of Charity and several Catholic homes. The violence continued the next day and it was beyond the power of the local authorities to stop. The Know-Nothings rallied the nativist forces with the call to deliver America “from the bloody hand of the pope.” Buildings were burned, people were killed until the State militia came in and put the riot down. Bishop Kenrick issued a directive for Catholics to avoid confrontation and violence.
Nonetheless, the violence continued. The Know-Nothings returned the next day and burned down two Catholic Churches—one in the Kensington district and the other in Philadelphia itself, cheering as the steeple of the Philadelphia church tottered and fell. A school and more homes were destroyed, In the final analysis fourteen people were killed, fifty injured and, several hundred at lost their homes, moreover two churches, a convent, and a school were burned to the ground.
The Mayor ordered protection for Catholic churches and Bishop Kenrick closed the churches on the following Sunday to avoid any organized retribution as well as to prevent an attack on the Catholics while at mass. by the Know-Nothings. The Bishop told his flock that they should wait until the legal processes dealt with the rioters. In the end, however, a grand jury decided that the riots were due to “the efforts of a portion of the community (the Catholics) to exclude the Bible form the public schools” and the immigrants having disrupted legitimate public meetings.
More to come on the Philadelphia riots of 1844.
The image today is Old Saint Jospeh's--the oldest Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. Located in Philadelphia. The parish goes back to 1733!

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