Posted by: Fr Chris | July 3, 2016

Fourth of July – Catholics in the Colonies

I give a lot of talks over the years on a broad range of Catholic-affiliated topics. Some people asked me to put together some items in honor of our Independence Day and the role of Catholics in the 13 Colonies. It’s worth noting though that the oldest parish in the US is actually where I live, in New Mexico: San Juan Bautista opened in 1598 in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo! These founding colonies, which united themselves in 1776 as the United States, were all under British rule. At the time of our revolution, the British Empire was the most powerful nation on earth, and already widespread. There were more Catholics in the British Caribbean than on the mainland, but the Church was very much present.

The main problem for Catholics under British rule were the harsh Penal Laws, which were designed to exterminate the Catholic religion and force its followers into the Church of England. These Laws were put into force in the colonies of the Atlantic coast. Anti-Catholicism today remains the one acceptable prejudice in America: a  comedian can mock our most sacred teachings and do so with no fear of rebuke. Do the same to Jews or Muslims, watch out!


Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity, Maura Jane Farrelly, Oxford, 2012. The title alone is bold: very few Americans were ready to believe that the Papists could be patriots in league with them.

Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, Robert Emmett Curran, Catholic University, 2014. Covers all the colonies from Jamaica to conquered Quebec.

In both of these works, you will find a fascinating history of how Catholics survived: most saw a priest infrequently, Catholic prayers could be denounced as witchcraft (especially in Massachusetts), books were expensive and few. Many Catholics who were sold as slaves or indentured servants died without the sacraments and eventually drifted into Protestantism. But there was a solid core of English, Scots, Irish, German, and Africans who built chapels, sought out priests, and slowly and painfully built a flourishing Church.

Maryland was founded as a refuge for Catholics, who in turn gave sanctuary to persecuted Anglicans and Puritans. These turned on their benefactors, and cruelly sought their destruction in 1704. But the laity and Jesuits endured, and Catholic Maryland endures today. The Carroll family produced the only Catholic signer of the Declaration Independence (Charles Carroll), and his cousin, Father John Carroll, SJ, would become our first bishop, and then first archbishop (at Baltimore).


Archbishop John Carroll 

Pennsylvania was a refuge for all believers, and home to strong German and Irish Catholic populations. The oldest Catholic parish in the Thirteen Colonies is Old Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia.

Priests spent most of the year traveling, ministering to scattered settlements and small industrial centers in Maryland,  northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond. Here  you can read about the heroic labors of Father Ferdinand Steinmayer, better known as Father Farmer, who served not only in the safer areas of Pennsylvania and Maryland, but was intrepid enough to minister across northern New Jersey and eventually founded New York City’s first parish, Saint Peter.

Here are some interesting resources

The Jesuits came to the colonies in 1634 – despised and feared in Britain, they found refuge in Maryland through the kindness of the Calvert family. They became the core of the Catholic clergy; when the Order was temporarily suppressed these men stayed at their posts.

Old Saint Joseph Church, the oldest parish in the Thirteen Colonies, opened in Philadelphia in 1733, served by Jesuit missionaries. It had to be built behind a courtyard and wall as Catholic buildings could not be open to the street where all could see! But the construction of an actual public chapel for Catholic worship was presented to the colony’s ruling council as being dangerous and seditious: there was “no small concern to hear that a House lately built in Walnut Street.was sett apart for the Exercise of the Roman Catholick Religion and it is commonly called the Romish Chappell . where Mass [is] openly celebrated by a Popish priest.contrary to the Laws of England.”  But the Council decided that Penn’s “Holy Experiment” meant that even Papist Catholics could find refuge, and history was made. A plaque at the church today records that when the parish was recognized, it was the only place in the English-speaking world where Mass could be publicly offered. 

Old Saint Mary Church, the second oldest English parish in the Colonies, built in 1763. Many members of the Continental Congress attended Mass and devotions there for the first time in their lives.

German chapels were built at Conewago and Goshenhoppen, Pennsylvania. Then Saint Mary’s in Lancaster was established, flourishing in 1757 with 212 Germans and 49 Irish.

Historic Saint Mary, Lancaster 

Saint John the Evangelist, at Silver Spring in Maryland, became that state’s first open parish in 1774.  I could take the Metro out there from my seminary – beautiful chapel used today by a Latin Mass parish, Polish parish, and St. John’s parishioners as well, who also have a modern church nearby. Diversity of Roman Catholic America!

Holy Trinity, the first German Catholic parish, founded in 1784 in Philadelphia:

German Catholic Missionaries in Maryland: fascinating look at the lives of these intrepid missionaries.

New Jersey’s Catholic history begins  in the south, when Belgian glassblowers were brought over.  Father Theodore Schneider, SJ, left Baltimore to celebrate Mass and Baptisms in Salem County in 1743.  Northern New Jersey saw its first priest with Father Farmer, who made his first foray into the colony in 1763, to serve the German, Slovak, and Polish colonists who labored at the first ironworks in the Ramapo region. Read more here:

New York City has been a cosmopolitan port from its foundation by the Dutch. English Catholics had freed for only a few years, 1683-1691. After the “Glorious Revolution” in Britain overthrew the Catholic king, Penal Laws resumed in New York, and Catholic priests were banned in 1700. Father Farmer came only in the 1750s to celebrate clandestine Masses for the very few faithful. The top floor of a carpenter’s shop served as a hidden chapel, with Mass being offered there through 1783. The ban was lifted after the Revolution succeeded and British power finally left New York, in 1784, and local Catholics immediately appeared: French, Spanish, Irish, German, Portuguese united to open the church of Saint Peter in 1785.

The first religious service in honor of our independence was not held by the Puritans or Anglicans, but by the Catholics, at Old Saint Mary Church. The courtesy of General Washington who forbade his soldiers to continue anti-Catholic activities like Guy Fawkes Day and who incorporated Catholics into his personal guard set the tone for the rest of the revolution. Catholic France and Spain recognized the republic, Catholic soldiers from Poland and the German states led our troops. Anti-Catholic laws lasted in New England until the 1830s, but eventually they were all undone.

High Altar with Crucifixion, Old Saint Joseph’s Church

John Adams, a firm New Englander who was raised as a Congregationalist, attended Mass in Philadelphia on several occasions, for civic events and special services for Catholics involved in the revolution. One of his letters to his wife describes the scene before him, which he found awe-inspiring while still disturbing:

he poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. Their holy water– their crossing themselves perpetually– their bowing to the name of Jesus wherever they hear it– their bowings, and kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich with lace– his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich– little images and crucifixes about– wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Saviour in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds. [see photo above]The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted– most sweetly and exquisitely.

Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”

In these troubled times for our country, as we face terror abroad and at home, as prejudice against not just Catholics but all Christians seems to be building, let us pray fervently for our country, for our leadership to adhere to solid Christian teachings in their actions, and that all those who were baptized into the Catholic faith would return to it if they left, or be even more on fire if they are still practicing. People from all over the world want to come to America, where anybody can find a home and live in freedom. May our republic fulfill the hopes of General Washington for Catholics when he wrote in 1790:

may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.


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