Early Catholics in the city endured persecution, riots

Listen
 Burning of St. Augustine Church during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots in 1844. (Wikimedia Commons)

Burning of St. Augustine Church during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots in 1844. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first Catholics in Philadelphia attended mass in secret led by Jesuit circuit riders who traveled up and down the eastern seaboard.

The following century saw an immense swell of Catholics into the city along with rising tensions with their Protestant neighbors culminating in the Bible Riots of the 1840s.

Katie Oxx, a history professor at Saint Joseph’s University, takes us through the history of Catholicism in Philadelphia from the first parishes in Old City through the waves of immigration that defined much of the 20th century.  Here are some of her thoughts on early Catholics in Philadelphia:

On the city’s first Catholics:

“There were very few number of Catholics among [early settlers to Philadelphia].  But we do know that they were here because we know that there were some Jesuit circuit riders, as they’re called, who would come up from Maryland to minister to them.  We don’t really know exactly where they worshiped, but we assume it was in private homes.”

On anti-Catholic prejudice:

“One of the great fears that anti-Catholics had in the colonial period, and all the way through to the present, many would say, is that Catholics would always listen to a foreign leader: that they would always be beholden to the pope in Rome.”

On the bible riots of the 1840s:

“People who were ideologically either suspicious of or out and out against Catholics came to believe that…Catholics hated the bible…The end result was two Catholic churches being burned to the ground, the damage of a significant number of blocks throughout Kensington.  The property damage was upwards of a quarter of a million dollars.  Somewhere around 30 Catholics were killed.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.