To know who you are, you must know from whence you came.
This is why, in the sphere of human formation, we spend so much time on families of origin. If I know the gifts and challenges in my emotional DNA, I can grow beyond my limitations and serve not as an obstacle, but as a bridge to Christ and his Church.
This is why, in each of our courses of study, a thought, a practice or a doctrine is always studied within its historical context, that by reading about yesterday we might prepare to proclaim the Holy Gospel for the Church of tomorrow.
This is why spiritual directors urge us to remember how we prayed as an adolescent and as a child, in order to all the more deeply give our hearts over to God as an adult, in purity and trust. This is why beside my bed there hangs an embroidery of an old Irish prayer made by my mother when she was sixteen years old. It is the first prayer I learned to pray after I learned to read and I still pray it every night at the conclusion of Compline.
This is why, in the pastoral sphere, it is important to trace and critically analyze those presuppositions about parish life and ministry which so often form the foundation of who I will be as a pastor and a priest.
In order to understand where we are, and to plot a course to tomorrow, we must understand from whence we came.
Which is why, this evening, I invite you to join me on a voyage back in time, to antebellum New England, to a time when the Archdiocese of Boston encompassed all six New England States…just one big diocese from Maine to Connecticut, from the Cape to Burlington. And I would like you to meet a Bishop and a nun who, I suggest can form and inform our own ministry by their example and their experience
We begin in the 1830’s with the rise of the Know-Nothing party, an anti-immigrant, and thus anti-Catholic disease which infected the Yankees of Boston in a terrible way.
This virulently anti-Catholic phenomenon resulted in innumerable little acts of discrimination, like the “Catholic tax” on Boston cemetery plots, priests being barred from visiting dying prisoners, a child beaten for refusing to recite the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, the tar and feathering of Father Ellsworth, to the burning down of Churches in Dorchester, Manchester and Bath, Maine.
Fortunately, though, the second Bishop of Boston was up to the task. A remarkable character, he was ordained a Jesuit and spent the first decade of his priesthood in New York, where he served as Vicar General and helped to build old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. From there he went to Washington as president of Georgetown and then to Boston in 1825 to succeed Bishop Cheverus.
Soon thereafter, he opened New England’s first Catholic College in the basement of the Cathedral, calling it Boston College. But he had a hard time convincing other Jesuits to join him in Boston due to the anti-Catholic temper of the City. In fact, when almost twenty years later he managed to assemble a respectable Jesuit faculty, the anti-Catholic fervor was so strong in Boston that he abandoned Boston College and opened the College of the Holy Cross, named after the Cathedral, 45 miles outside of the See City.
What was this anti-Catholic fervor which so defined the city which Bishop Fenwick was trying to evangelize? Well here’s a popular broadsheet of the day, called the American Patriot. And in its first edition it describes its purpose as being opposed to:
Papal Aggression and Roman Catholicism
Foreigners holding office
Raising Foreign Military Companies in the United States
Nunneries and the Jesuits
To being taxed for the support of Foreign powers millions of dollars yearly
To secret Foreign Orders in the U.S.
The Protestant majority was particularly concerned with the rise of Catholic educational institutions, often run by religious sisters and accepting both Catholics and Protestants into their houses. Many prominent commentators, including FB Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, suggested that these schools were a means of instilling into Protestant children those Catholic principles which were antithetical to American Democracy in order to prepare for an imminent move to replace the American Constitution with Papal rule.
And so in this cartoon you see a tiara wearing figure with a club called violence and a pitcher of Holy Water peaking out from under the stars and stripes and looking longingly at the Public Schools of New England.
This one’s my favorite. A good New England “school-marm” is teaching her Democracy-loving students about these great United States while the shadow of the tiara and cross are cast ominously across the American landscape.
The book was about Rebecca Reed, daughter of a Charlestown farmer, who at the age of 18 converted to Catholicism and entered the Ursuline convent. A year later she left, returned to her Episcopal friends, and wrote of the ways in which she “was troubled in various ways by the Romans.”
The purpose of the book was “to open the eyes of Protestants, so as to convince them of the impropriety of entrusting the education of their daughters to a secret and superstitious community of Catholic priests and nuns.”
The suspicions fostered by Six months in a Convent were explicitly set forth by this cartoon, in which a be-cassocked lech leads three innocent virgins in chains down the primrose path to the nunnery. “Save the Girls!” it declares” “Batter down the Convent doors of Catholicism and the civilized world will be amazed!”
Well, if you did batter down the doors this is what you would have found. Dedicated religious infused with the best educational principles of the day and a commitment to those girls who, as Pope Francis might describe it, lived on the periphery of society due to their Catholicism, their economic and immigration status.
Protestant clergymen were among the most serious critics of the Church and her schools, including Dr. Lyman Beecher, who preached the following sermon in the Park Street Church:
The principles of this corrupt church are adverse to our free institutions, from the contempt and hostility which they feel towards all Protestants… Roman Catholic Europe is pouring her population into the valley in great abundance; and…if the subjects of the pope increased beyond the increase of our own people, in the proportion which they had in the last ten years, they would in thirty years outnumber our native inhabitants… [and have no doubt that] despotic Princes in Europe would empty their coffers of treasure liberally, could they by means of the Romanish church, subvert our free institutions and bring into disgrace all ideas of an effective government.
[Dr. Beecher claimed that Catholic schools were but a pretense for converting Protestant children], while the children of the subjects of the pope would be left to roam in ignorance, many of them incapable of either reading or writing. Hence the necessity that the Protestants should be on the alert in the work of early education.
But now to the story at hand. After Reverend Beecher preached that homily, Bishop Fenwick presented a series of lectures at Holy Cross Cathedral in calm disputation. Beecher’s congregation began to diminish and he retreated to Cincinnati, only to return to Boston a couple years later.
The occasion of his second campaign was the Ursuline convent and boarding school atop Ploughed Hill in Charlestown. The Convent could be seen from miles away and was the largest such school in New England.
When in 1834 Sister Mary John, known in civic life as Elizabeth Harrison, entered the Ursuline convent as a novice she did well.
But after several months she suffered what was described in the press as a “nervous breakdown,” and she returned home. After a few months rest, her family asked the nuns to take her back, and she was walked back up Charlestown Hill by her brother and Bishop Fenwick.
Reverend Beecher saw in this an opportunity and began to spread rumors of this poor girl who had now been forced back into the clutches of these evil nuns.
A very odd article in the Boston Patriot, under the headline MYSTERIOUS, noted that while her friends had gone to the convent to see her, “she was not to be found, and much alarm is excited in consequence.”
The rumors of her demise or imprisonment in a dark convent dungeon began to spread, fed by another best-selling convent captivity novel from Quebec, by the name of Maria Monk. It describes “Roman Catholicism as deviant and dangerous…
[In fact] Monk describes a lime pit in the basement of the convent where the bodies of murdered infants are thrown, and the subterranean passages that give priests full sexual access to the nuns. The children born from these unholy unions are first baptized, then strangled… in Monk's account, a nun who objects to submission to a priest’s wish is crushed to death and smothered by a group of nuns and priests who place a mattress over her and jump on it until she dies. Monk claims she escaped to save the life of the infant she was carrying from certain death.”
Soon afterward, Beecher preached four homilies against the Catholics, instilling in his listeners fears for the mysterious missing nun. The next day broadsides began to appear throughout Charlestown calling for the convent to be burned down.
The Selectmen of Charlestown tried to dispel the rumors by going to the convent and meeting with the mysterious nun who gave them a tour of the school and then invited them in for tea. But even a statement by town officials in the Boston Globe could not stop the anti-Catholic momentum of a crowd with a lust for blood.
And then it happened.
A mob armed with torches and axes was formed in the taverns at the foot of the hill, having just heard Beecher’s preaching in four Protestant Churches in the course of two days. They stormed up Charlestown hill and banged on the front door of the convent. They demanded to see the captive Elizabeth Harrison. The Mother Superior refused, telling them that the nuns and their charges were all in bed.
Mother Superior stood firm, even in the face of an angry crowd. Perhaps a bit injudiciously, she is said to have threatened them with the words: “Bishop Fenwick has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you'll not quell them."
At that they lit their bonfires and attacked the convent.
“Thousands looked on as about 40 rioters dressed like Indians broke through the front doors and began to destroy the property. 12 nuns and about 50 terrified schoolgirls ran out the back door and took shelter at the home of a neighbor. From the windows of the house west of the convent, they watched their school go up in flames. Local firefighters arrived at the scene but stood by and did nothing.
By morning the convent was in ruins.
As word spread through the Irish shanty-towns along the newly laid railroads of Worcester, Providence and Lowell, hundreds of Irish workers, pick-axes in their hands and revenge in their hearts, made their way to Boston.
The first reaction of Bishop Fenwick was to send every available priest to the train stations and threaten with excommunication anyone who would take part in an act of revenge.
That night, while the state convened its own investigative bodies at Faneuil Hall and in Charlestown, Bishop Fenwick called a public meeting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
When he rose to the podium, every eye in the packed room was on him. What would he say? Would he follow the Mother Superior’s lead and call his legions of “the vilest Irishmen” to arms?
As you might expect, he preached on Matthew 5: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. After denouncing all forms of violence, he looked at the expectant crowd and asked:
“What is to be done? Shall we say to our enemies, you have destroyed our buildings, and we will destroy yours, no, my brothers, this is not the religion of Jesus Christ—this is not in accordance with the spirit of that blessed religion we all profess. Turn not a finger in your own defense, and there are those around you who will see that justice is done you.”
He also thanked the public authorities for their stand against the violence, and expressed confidence that they would prevent further outbreaks from occurring.
While the Bishop was effective in what he preached, he was not prescient in his confidence in the courts.
Thirteen arrests were made later that month and twelve of them were acquitted by their peers. Only one person was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor:
Marvin Marcy, was a sixteen year old boy from Cambridge, who had joined the mob at the end of the night and burnt a bunch of books. Young Marvin was sick in an unheated jail cell and the kid was scared half to death at what awaited him for burning a few books at the end of a riot in which everyone else got off scot free.
So Bishop Fenwick and Mother Saint George started a petition, to which 5,000 people affixed their signature, and Marvin was pardoned.
In a letter to the sick boy’s doctor, the tough Mother Superior of Charlestown wrote this:
“I am deeply pained that anyone should suffer on our account; and it was my intention, from the beginning, to do all in my power to obtain pardon for any of the criminals who might be sentenced to punishment; for I am well convinced that they know not what they did. Moreover, Marcy was not one of those who concerted the plot; he was young, and joined in the riot for sport, as many other boys would. I beg of you to console him and his afflicted mother, and to say that I will supplicate the governor for his release. My sisters, as well as myself, would feel miserably, if his sentence were put into execution.”
The Sunday after the Ursuline Convent was burned down, the subject of Bishop Fenwick’s sermon was “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So what’s to learn from this momentous event? What can a fledgeling priest of the twenty first century take away from a time so far away and different from our own? Two lessons, I suggest, help me to be a better priest.
1. First, the riots against the Catholics of 1835 are not really that different from Tamberlan Tsarnaev filling his backpack with explosives because he hated Americans.
Satan is alive and active on the streets of Boston and the desire to kill “the other” is as old as Cain and as new as an Assisted Suicide Bill still sitting in the Great and General Court, the Forty abortion clinics open for business this morning in this state, and an Attorney General suggesting that Catholics shouldn’t work in emergency rooms because they are against abortion.
Indeed suspicion of the immigrant-other is as close as yesterday’s Globe where a woman wrote that “until they are all deported” there will be no real solution to the problem.
This fear of he who is different from me is born in the dark recesses of the heart, and fermented by a tribalism that makes them the enemy precisely because they are not like us. In fact whether they look different or sound different or act different is almost irrelevant. That they are different provides the fertile ground upon which Satan can sow seeds of sin, violence and hate.
Even in a Seminary, divisions arise based on a wide range of foolish concerns: He kneels when I stand, he doesn’t wear a cassock, he’s from that diocese, he thinks he’s smarter than me, he’s more popular than me, he can sing, he used to do Life Teen, he serves the Iuvetentum Mass, etc. etc.
And in the parish, she’s a single mother, he wasn’t born here, she lives in that neighborhood, he doesn’t have kids, she’s a homeschooler, he was a friend of the last pastor, etc. etc.
"Teacher," said our patron, "we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” I guess it shouldn’t surprise us, but it should disappoint us.
The fear, the resentment of “the other” as having committed the capitol sin of not being one of “us” is an ever present avenue for demonic intervention, hate and even violence.
2. So what do you do about it? What is the best reaction to the bigotry, fear and violence in him and in me?
Bishop Fenwick and Sister Superior showed us the way. It’s love. It’s the Cross. It’s Christ. Love which forgives and refuses to return hatred in kind. Love which witnesses to the truth. Love which turns the other cheek.
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Or: “if he takes your coat…”
Or: “How many times should I forgive my brother…”
Picture them nailing our Blessed Lord to the Cross and hear his words: ““Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Speaking the truth in love, even when they are driving the nails into his flesh.
Picture the martyrs staring at the bright pointy teeth of the lion as they rejoice to proclaim the Gospel with their dying breath, praying for their persecutors and blessing their God for the opportunity to love unto death in the model of their Savior and Lord.
Speaking only love as they they beat you to the ground is the biggest pulpit any saint could ever pray for.
Why? Because, as Saint Paul tells us, we have but one boast in this life, and its not our political skills or our PR strategies or our brilliant understanding of the post-modern culture…No…we have but one boast: the cross of our Lord Jesus.
And, in the end, what will convert the biggest anti-Catholic bigot and the most virulent enemy of the truth is not the most eloquent sermon or the best footnoted treatise or the most Machiavelian plan for revenge. No, as Bishop Fenwick or Mother Superior taught us in the end, it is only the witness of the truth, of his Paschal dying proclaimed with our last and every breath that defeats the lie, the fist and every demonic fear.