For the past few months, I’ve been doing some research in New York newspapers on the anti-Catholic vitriol the Irish faced in the nineteenth century. It’s been hard to avoid noticing how similar those attacks are to the biting comments being made against Islam and the backers of a Muslim community center proposed for a lower Manhattan building near the World Trade Center site.

Look, for example, at just one day in the city’s history: Sunday, October 31, 1880. All the “right” people—former President Ulysses S. Grant, for example—filled the pews of Protestant churches to hear accusations from a multitude of ministers that the pope was poised to take over New York if William R. Grace, a Democrat, was elected several days later as the city’s first Catholic mayor.

At Central Methodist Episcopal Church on Fourteenth Street, the Rev. J. P. Newman argued that if Grace was a good Catholic (he attended daily Mass), he was unfit to be mayor. “The Catholic candidate for Mayor is the shadow of a man who is the shadow of another man,” he said, meaning the pope.

At Washington Square Methodist Church, the Rev. W. F. Hatfield proclaimed, “The Roman hierarchy should be dealt such a blow at this time that its encroaching power in this city will be destroyed.”

At the Church of the Disciples of Christ on 28th Street near Broadway, the Rev. Joseph Bradford Cleaver spoke under the title "Crucifix Smiting the Cross; or shall the Papacy govern New York City?" He was among those who saw the opening of the magnificent new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan the previous year as a dangerous sign of Catholic power and warned that Cardinal John McCloskey, who was "enthroned" there, would rule America as the pope’s viceroy and bring on a new Inquisition if Grace were elected mayor.

At the Church of the Holy Trinity at Madison Avenue and 42nd Street, Rev. Stephen H. Tyng Jr. insisted that the pope would take over New York’s public schools.

A few voices tried to respond. In his homily on the Sunday before the 1880 election, the Rev. Michael J. O’Farrell, pastor of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Barclay Street, maintained, "The man who declares it to be a Protestant country is a traitor to the Constitution." The pastor said he would have voted for a Jewish candidate who was subjected to religious attacks (and seven hundred Jews rallied on the Lower East Side that evening to protest against those who sought to defeat Grace because he was a Catholic).

The city’s major newspapers, which reported on these sermons, joined in the Catholic-bashing and then twisted themselves into verbal knots as they tried to claim they were not bigoted. "If there be any intolerance here it is not on the side of those who protest against Irish-Catholic domination, but on the side of those who wish to establish it," the New York Times wrote. "Democracy would mean the setting up of a very dangerous, and probably a very corrupt, politico-ecclesiastical despotism."

The bottom line was that many of the city’s most influential people contended that Catholicism was a foreign religion bent on usurping America’s democratic values and that Catholics—by that time already well-established in New York—would carry out Rome’s malevolent dictates. Catholicism was considered inherently dangerous, a view the elite fanned  to gain political advantage in the upcoming election.

Similarly, some of today’s political leaders and a few newspaper columnists, notably at the New York Post, have succeeded in stirring up and affirming the sort of fears seen in this New York Times quote from a Tea Party activist: 

"As a mother and a grandmother, I worry...I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that—I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution."

And much as Catholic leaders in the nineteenth century were accused of lying when they insisted on their support for American democracy, Muslims who espouse religious tolerance are similarly charged with duplicity.

Rick Lazio, Republican candidate for governor of New York, did this in a campaign ad. "New Yorkers have been through enough," he says. "Now a terrorist-sympathizing imam wants to build a $100 million mosque near ground zero. Where is the money coming from? Who’s behind it?"

This ad, which refers to Feisal Abdul Rauf, was paid for by the New York State Conservative Party, which is campaigning against the Islamic center. The organization’s chairman, Michael Long, went so far as to say in a Fox News interview, “I think imam rauf clearly sees this as a place that will be a monument to those who participated in a terrorist act.” 

It is a startlingly reckless statement (it was respectfully treated as the final word in a local Fox News "debate"), given Rauf’s State Department tour of the Middle East to tout American values. But it finds parallels in the nineteenth century attacks on Catholicism in New York. The claim in both cases is that everyone who knows the history of [fill in the religion here] understands that its adherents are bound by their beliefs to seize power and destroy our way of life. And, of course, those [fill in the blank] are after our children.

Long, it should be noted, is a prominent Brooklyn Catholic. Last year, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio bestowed a papal honor on Long, the Knighthood of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, for his prolife advocacy.

In his weekly diocesan newspaper column, DiMarzio took an approach that was polar opposite from Long’s both in tone and substance. "The Decree on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, moved the church beyond tolerance of other religions to acceptance and esteem for what is good and just in all world religions," he wrote, referring the Second Vatican Council document. He urged that Catholics join him in fasting during the current season of Ramadan—"to fast in solidarity with those who seek the presence of God"—and sought prayers "for a peaceful solution to this controversy over the proposed mosque, so that those of good faith may worship in freedom of conscience." Catholics might consider joining Muslim friends in an iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast, he wrote, explaining that Ramadan "is a time when we as religious people can respect the religious practice of others."

Catholicism in New York, as in the rest of America, has of course come a long way since Irish-born shipping entrepreneur William R. Grace was elected mayor. Today, Catholics make up more than 40 percent of New York City’s population, and their influence filters throughout the city’s civic and cultural life. One of the Catholic faith’s finest moments in New York history was in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, when the city was led by a Catholic mayor who urged tolerance for Muslims and when so many of those who sacrificed their lives, especially in the fire and police departments and Port Authority, were Catholic. The Catholic imagination helped define the city’s response, whether in the words of its mayor, the image of fire-department chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge in repose, the Ground Zero cross, the funeral liturgies, the music of Bruce Springsteen or the poems tacked up in Grand Central Station—bringing out the best in New York.

Can Catholic New Yorkers do that once again? Remembering their own history could help them to do so.


Related: Groundless, by the Editors; Islam & Modernity, by Patrick J. Ryan

From dotCommonweal: The 'Ground Zero Mosque' & the K of C's Mother Church, by Paul Moses

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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