US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Immigrants and their places of worship

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

A proposed house of worship in lower Manhattan had sparked controversy, with demonstrations and a flow of righteous condemnation that it would be a sign of contradiction--a temple of a religion that is blasphemous in its doctrine and practice and inimical to democracy and the American way of life. Also it was to be funded by foreigner powers. But it was 1785 and the house of worship to be built was St. Peter's Catholic Church on Barclay Street.

My thoughts have been with St. Peter's, where saints like Mother Seton, Pierre Tousaint, and Dorothy Day worshiped. The church celebrated its 225th anniversary this week. I have said Mass in St. Peter's and knew one of its pastors, Msgr. Joseph Moody.

In the 1820s a hostile crowd gathered outside the church to protest the strange popish goings-on inside. A policeman was killed during rioting. The congregation was celebrating Christmas. (Let's not forget that the public celebration of Christmas in this country is due largely to the Irish and German immigrants who refused to work on the Lord's birthday in Puritan New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.)

The celebration of the founding of the first Catholic Church in New York led the pastor, Father Kevin V. Madigan, to reflect on the similarities between St. Peter's and the proposed  Islamic Cultural Center at 51 Park Place (known as Park51) (see the New York Times). While the historical context is somewhat different, the similarities are also striking.

Many Protestants opposed the location of St. Peter's, and so the church was built outside the city. Time is recognized as a healer and St. Peter's came to make a rich contribution to the life of New York despite the early suspicions. Still at its beginning it symbolized all that Protestant Americans feared and detested in Roman Catholicism--its blasphemous and idolatrous worship (Christmas), its hostility to democracy and  ties to tyrannical and foreign powers (Rome and Spain, whose king gave $1,000 to construction), its dirty and violent congregants (us Irish), its threat to the American way. All these things were said of St. Peter's and are being said of Park51.

St. Peter's was built because of the urgent need to house a quickly growing immigrant population. The same need inspires the proposal for Park51. St. Peter's was also to be a symbol of pride for the immigrants and a sign of assurance of their loyalty and devotion to their new country. The same motivates the organizers of Park51. The original site of St. Peter's was viewed as unsatisfactory because the parishioners were perceived as dangerous. Many look on anything Islamic as dangerous and contradictory to democratic and American values.

Yet the Islamic community is more established and larger than the few who sought to build St. Peter's. And they are protected by a greater appreciation of religious liberty forged by our long history of religious diversity--as well as a long history of religious discrimination and violence. The fanaticism demonstrated outside St. Peter's on one Christmas Eve stretches across the years, as blacks, Mormons, Jews, and now to Muslims can testify.

I believe our contentious religious diversity has led us to appreciate more fully our religious liberty. We have moved from just tolerating one another's choices to recognizing our shared values. Now we can work together to forge peace, justice, solidarity - an American way that seeks what we often sing about, "liberty and justice for all."

As a Catholic, I am as disturbed about the growth of Islamic fanaticism and violence as the next. But as an historian, I recognize the polarizing hostility between Muslims and Christians has fault on both sides. The real tragedies are that ancient Christian communities are being driven from the Middle East, and that suspicion and hostility poisons the public life of North America and Europe.

As an Irish Catholic, I am aware that many who came before me had to deal with similar bigotry that drove some to violence against the newcomers--forgetting, of course, the scriptural injunction that we all once were strangers in the land. As a church historian, I appreciate the invaluable contribution the experience of the American church to the Vatican II documents on religious liberty, ecumenism, and relation with  other historic religious traditions.

We are now, as American Catholic, called to extend the wisdom of our own experience to the hard questions raised by 9/11 and Park51. Those congregants at St. Peter's singing Christmas carols defeated the bigotry of the streets. Now we are called to extend the same freedom of worship to our Islam brothers and sisters in their chosen place of worship. Besides it's their right guaranteed in our constitution.