Friday’s New York Times offered a bit of local history courtesy of Father Kevin V. Madigan, the pastor of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. When St. Peter’s was founded at the intersection of present-day Barclay and Church Streets, roughly two blocks from the site of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center at 51 Park Place, it battled for survival:
[Madigan] said he was startled by how closely the arguments and parries of the opponents [of the Park 51 project] mirrored those brought against St. Peter’s in 1785.
Father Madigan detailed those similarities in a letter to parishioners over the summer, in two sermons at an interfaith gathering last month and at a special Mass last Sunday marking the church’s anniversary. For starters, he said, there was the effort to move the planned church somewhere else.
City officials in 18th-century New York urged project organizers to change the church’s initial location, on Broad Street, in what was then the heart of the city, to a site outside the city limits, at Barclay and Church. Unlike the organizers of Park 51, who have resisted suggestions they move the project to avoid having a mosque so close to the killing field of ground zero, the Catholics complied, although they had no choice. Then there were fears about nefarious foreign backers. Just as some opponents of Park 51 have said that the $100 million-plus project will be financed by the same Saudi sheiks who bankroll terrorists, many early Protestants in the United States saw the pope as the enemy of democracy, and feared that the little church would be the bridgehead of a papal assault on the new American government. The Park 51 organizers say they will not accept any foreign backing. But with about only 200 Catholics in New York in the late 1700s, most of them poor, St. Peter’s Church would not have been built without a handsome gift from a foreigner — and a papist at that — $1,000 from King Charles III of Spain.
The angry eruptions at some of the demonstrations this summer against the Muslim center — with signs and slogans attacking Islam — were not as vehement as those staged against St. Peter’s, Father Madigan said. 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 by some 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 were injured, and a policeman was killed. “We were treated as second-class citizens; we were viewed with suspicion,” Father Madigan wrote in his letter to parishioners, adding, “Many of the charges being leveled at Muslim-Americans today are the same as those once leveled at our forebears.”
This is long repressed history. In England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics were viewed as terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, and suffered brutal repression. When the government moved to emancipate the Catholics–restoring a measure of civil rights to them–this provoked violent mass demonstrations in 1780 that shook the monarchy. Across the Atlantic in America, anti-Catholic sentiment was if anything even more virulent, and it extended for many more decades, spurred by Catholic immigration.
Father Madigan’s view of the Park 51 project? “We were just pleased to have a new neighbor,” he said.