The `Ground Zero mosque' and the K of C's mother church

[caption id="attachment_9838" align="alignleft" width="261" caption="St. Mary's Church in downtown New Haven."]St. Mary's Church in downtown New Haven, Conn.[/caption]I'd like to continue the discussion of parallels between 19th century attacks on Catholicism and current Islamophobia by pointing to the history of the New Haven, Conn., church where Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus.A reader sent me a copy of a July 28, 1879 article in which The New York Times, playing the Fox News role, offered a scathing history of St. Mary's Church under the title, "An Unprofitable Church: Roman Catholic Troubles in New-Haven." The church on one of New Haven's finest residential streets had been dedicated five years earlier, but only after a struggle in which the pastor was pressured to accept an alternate site.As The Times put it, "When the residents of this aristocratic avenue discovered that they were in danger of seeing a Roman Catholic church spring up among them, with all that the establishment of such a church implied, they bestirred themselves to oppose the project. The wisest of the Roman Catholics here did not favor it, and St. Mary's was induced to exchange the lot for a good one in some other locality." But that site was also deemed "too good" for Catholics, so a lesser lot was found. The pastor refused this, according to The Times, and built the church as originally planned on wealthy Hillhouse Avenue.According to the Times, the parish fell into debt (its parishioners being mainly "servant girls"). "The result shows how foolish were those who persisted in building the church on the spot where it stands," The Times concluded. "How much spite had to do with it cannot now be ascertained, but the complete history of the negotiations would be very interesting. The edifice was erected beyond the boundaries of the parish, and it invaded the most exclusive homes of wealth and culture. It is an eye-sore on the avenue, a source of annoyance and injury to neighboring residents, and a complete failure as a business enterprise."Today, it is a thriving community run by the Dominicans, who came to the parish in 1886. It holds a place in the history of American Catholicism for, as noted on its Web site, Father McGivney, who served in the parish for seven years, organized the Knights of Columbus in its basement in 1882.Much is contained in the Times's phrase "with all that the establishment of such a church implied," for it signifies that the writer was able to simply assume that the paper's readers were already well aware of the Catholic Church's supposed evils.Pressure to "compromise" on a site ... bias against the religion of an immigrant community ... hostile media coverage. There is nothing new under the sun.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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