by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
The Irish have always been the primary defenders of the Catholic Church. To understand that, one must understand the devotion of the early Irish to their church. It was a bond more than a dozen generations in the making. The Crown had been trying to absorb Ireland since Henry II’s Norman invasion of 1171; they even enacted the Statutes of Kilkenny to ban Irish customs, but it wasn’t until Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1532 that the Catholic religion became one of the denounced customs and an indication of disloyalty to the crown. When Elizabeth, who the Papacy denounced as illegitimate, took the Crown, she proscribed the Catholic religion altogether. In 1649, Cromwell took control and brought anti-Catholicism to a new level as he waged a total war against Catholics. When William of Orange became William III, Penal Laws made it official in 1691 that Catholics were non-citizens with no rights, their Mass was forbidden and in 1697 outlawed their clergy.
When someone tries to take something you revere away from you, the harder you fight to retain it. This attack on their faith drove the Irish to near fanatical measures to protect it. They lifted their outlawed clergy to the level of heroes for their courage and bravery in defying persecution just to serve them. They defied the law to protect their clergy and to attend Mass in the woods and hills. In one recorded instance they walked barefoot in an icy stream so that they would leave no footprints in the snow to betray their destination on the way to a forbidden service at a Mass rock in a glen – rocks held sacred to this day. Each generation passed the obligation to promote, preserve and protect the faith on to the next and after 12 generations, from Henry VIIIs break with Rome in 1532 right up to the time of the Great Hunger in 1845, the faith became in intrinsic part of the Irish character. No matter what other challenges they might face, the preservation of their faith became paramount
Many Irish immigrants came as exiles from persecution and poured into New York, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other ports along the eastern seaboard. Yet they didn’t find the freedom from persecution that they sought. Instead they found the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant legacy of colonial days still alive in the anti-Catholic Nativist or Know Nothing movement. At first banned from the colonies, ‘papists’ were grudgingly allowed in but with restrictions, including exclusion from political power unless they swore a Test Oath denouncing their faith. Lies spread through books and pamphlets led to the Ursuline Convent near Boston being burned to the ground. Newspapers and Protestant clergymen, like Lyman Beecher, founder of the American Temperance Society, warned the influx of Irish would spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope as America’s ruler. Writers and intellectuals had no hesitation bashing the Catholic Church; Mark Twain noted he was: educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic. Nativist prejudice grew from intolerance to violence. St. Mary’s Church in New York was burned to the ground in 1831; in 1832, 57 Irish railroad workers seeking medical attention near Malvern, Pennsylvania were not only refused, but were assaulted, killed and dumped into unmarked mass graves; in 1834 and 35, nativist gangs attacked the Irish neighborhood of Five Points in New York resulting in several major street brawls that lasted for days. When their churches were burned they defiantly built new ones bigger and better and they defended them. In 1841 and 44, Archbishop Hughes in NY called on the AOH to protect old St. Patrick’s Church and the nativist mob turned back, but they weren’t as lucky in Philadelphia where in 1844, two Catholic churches were burned during a series of riots between May 6 and 8 and July 6 and 7.
This was America on the eve of Great Hunger. These new immigrants, who had just suffered tremendous indignity and oppression, were once again set upon for their faith. Though not officially proscribed by the government as it had been in Ireland, there were many Nativist politicians like PA Congressman Lewis Levin who not only blocked legislation to aid Ireland during the Great Hunger, but proposed legislation to prohibit immigrants from citizenship for 21 years. In 1847 Congress even passed the Passenger Acts to restrict exiles from the Great Hunger from landing at American ports. Prominent historian and author, Kenneth Davis, acknowledged that at this time, There was a very, very deep hatred of Catholics. Yet they persevered.
My nephew, who settled in Montana, alerted me to an old church – apparently abandoned – in a sparsely populated area Gold West Country of the north Boulder Valley. The church stood beside is a graveyard with Irish names on most of the tombstones. But it was the stone marker that caught his attention and he sent me a photo. It read St. John the Evangelist Catholic church of the north Bolder valley built in 1880 – 1881 by the early settlers of this valley to practice a simple faith they learned as children in Ireland. This church is one of the oldest in Montana where the original structure remains. I had to know more so I contacted Catholic Diocese of Helena, Montana and learned that St John’s was not deserted; Due to a decreased parish population, it is now listed as a Mission church and Mass is celebrated on Memorial, Day and once a month during the summer. I called Mike O’Connor of the Montana AOH and asked if he would make the trip to St John’s on Memorial Day to get some more history of the church. Mike related that when he appeared at the service wearing his Hibernian jacket, he was treated like visiting royalty by the parishioners who were still largely Irish.
A long drawn-out pace of reform ensured that the question of religious discrimination dominated Irish life and was a constant source of division for years. Even up to the 1920s, the growth of the Ku Klux Klan gave a new impetus to attacks on Catholics. Hugo Black, a KKK member and US senator, gave fiery anti-Catholic speeches before going on to become a so-called defender of our civil liberties on the Supreme Court. There is even a record of an AOH attack on a KKK meeting in Chicago. Eventually, the growing power of Irish paved Al Smith’s election as governor of New York, but Nativist opposition helped sink his presidential bid in 1928. However, we did succeed with Kennedy who was also a member of the AOH. Today the press is at it again lambasting our clergy for the sins of a few. The Irish have stood as defenders of our faith many times before; it’s time to do it again!