Good neighbors in Lower Manhattan

Paul Vitello of the New York Times has a story today about St. Peter's on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan -- the oldest Catholic church in New York State -- and its pastor's speaking out about discrimination against the parish's Muslim neighbors.

The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan, who is the pastor of St. Peter's, said that when he began reading about the history of his church early this year in preparation for the Oct. 5 anniversary, he was not initially struck by the parallels between the opposition it had faced and what present-day Muslims have encountered in proposing a community center and mosque near ground zero. "There was no controversy when they first proposed it, and we were just pleased to have a new neighbor," said Father Madigan, whose church, at Barclay and Church Streets, sits two blocks from 51 Park Place, the site of the proposed Islamic center. Both are roughly equidistant from the construction zone at ground zero.But as an uproar enveloped the Islamic project over the summer, the priest said he was startled by how closely the arguments and parries of the project's opponents mirrored those brought against St. Peter's in 1785.

Fr. Madigan has spoken about those parallels on several occasions. He also described the situation in a letter to his parishioners (which is also excerpted in the October-November issue of The Catholic Worker). We've been over some of this history here already, but some of the details were new to me -- including this report on what you might call the original "war on Christmas."

On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after the church was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside a religious observance then viewed in the United States as an exercise in popish superstition, more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens of people were injured and a policeman was killed.

(Those protesters knew a threat when they saw one. You give papists an inch, and soon the country is overrun with un-American displays of holiday cheer every December.)

The memory of the suspicion and persecution that met Catholics in America centuries ago "ought to be an incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted upon more recent arrivals," Fr. Madigan wrote. Kudos to him and to the people of St. Peter's for their neighborliness.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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