A Symbol



Figure 1: The mean streets of Philadelphia, St Mikes in the background


On Wednesday afternoon, May eighth, in the year eighteen hundred and forty-four, a vast and menacing crowd was gathered about St. Michael's Catholic Church in the southwestern end of the District of Kensington. It was gathered not only from Kensington and neighboring districts, but also from the City, and from Southwark and Moyamensing, even from beyond the Schuylkill. It was gathered for the set purpose of crowning with sacrilegious acts the orgy of fanatical destruction which had begun on Monday, and the course of which through the parish was marked by the black ruins of many a Catholic home.


It waited in a cold fury. It was strangely silent. The body of a child was being buried in the graveyard, and the lamentations of the parents could be heard at a distance. After all, there was no need for haste or turbulence. What they had come to do was as good as done. They were thousands strong, and no force could be mustered to thwart them. There was a cordon of troops, merely a few companies, around the church, but it was known that these would offer no resistance; and if they did, they could easily be driven off. The crowd waited as sometimes an individual waits before a pleasure long pursued and at last overtaken as if fearing that some of the enjoyment would be lost without this pause for realization and anticipation.


Then they began rather calmly to hurl stones at the edifice. They had come prepared for this; it was a preliminary act in which all could have a hand. There was a stirring through the throng, a gradual mounting of excitement. Those in the rear pressed forward to bring the church within range of their throw. The rain of missiles came thicker and faster, climaxed, lessened, and died away. Silence again, a tense, watchful silence, for three young men had walked through the disordered military and entered the church by the front door, which had intentionally or carelessly been left unlocked by Captain Fairlamb.


There was a sea of upturned faces round about, along Second Street and Jefferson Street, everywhere it seemed, stern faces in which the eyes were ablaze with hatred.


The wonderful progress of St. Michael's Parish had alarmed and enraged the fanatics of Kensington. They had watched for a pretext for the venting of their fury, and this had been afforded them by the vigorous protest of Catholics against the proselytism attempted on their children in the public schools.


This protest had been eagerly seized upon and deliberately distorted into a demand for the exclusion of the Bible from the schools. Public meetings had been held by the local branches of the Native American Party, a religio-political organization, of which many of the members were not Native Americans, but Orangemen who had carried the old bitterness in their hearts across the ocean. The excitement had spread to the City, through the entire County, but Kensington remained the focal point. Here they had moved swiftly and inevitably to violence.


The mob massed before St. Michael's on this Wednesday afternoon had had two days of bloodshed and arson, and having driven the Catholics out and ruined their property, they were come now for the great and final work in the neighborhood of destroying the hated house of worship. Then they would move on to attack the Catholic churches of the City.


So they watched, and at length a puff of smoke broke from a shattered window. The wild passion of the mob voiced itself in a thunderous shout. St. Michael's had been set on fire!


At first only smoke, volumes of it; then flames darted forth, withdrew, darted out again, and ran curling and leaping along the walls. The great rose window of the facade was soon like the open door of a huge furnace. In an incredibly short time the whole building was a raging fire. When the cross fell from the apex of the pediment the mob jumped and screamed in frenzy. It was about two-thirty o'clock that the fire had been started, and by five o'clock the church and some adjacent buildings were reduced to a smoldering mass of ruins.


The church which the Catholics of Kensington, poor Irish for the most part, had erected out of their sacrifices, lay in a heap of ruins! Such is the faith of the Irish that in whatever land they settle they think first of having their priest and building their church. Life would be unendurable to them without the tabernacle of the sacramental Christ in their midst. So this group had planned and saved, and at length with the consent and encouragement of the bishop, and under his direction, had had the work begun.


They had been impatient at the seemingly slow progress of it. They would come in the evening, those who could not give their services during the day, to note what had been done in their absence, and many would pitch in by lamplight and candlelight, clearing away debris and setting materials in order. Every beam of it, every brick of it, had been sacred to them. Proud and happy they had been when the imposing structure was completed and ready for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.


About ten years previously the dedication had taken place. Many improvements had been made in it since then. Out of their meager earnings they had given generously, deprived themselves of comforts and sometimes even of necessities to add to its beauty. Their lives had revolved about it as a center. Above their interests, their ambitions, their loves, was this common and supreme loyalty, their devotion to the Church; and the Church, the beauty of it, the holiness of it, the sweetness of it, had been materialized in this edifice erected out of their sacrifices.


Father Donaghoe, the first pastor, had given it a loving care. He was still nominally pastor of the parish, although the September previous to the burning, with Bishop Kenrick's permission, he had given up his duties here in order to devote himself to the direction of the religious community founded by him and transplanted some months before at the solicitation of Bishop Loras to the Diocese of Dubuque. It happened that he was in Philadelphia during the riots to dispose of the order's property here and to arrange his own permanent transfer. On this very morning of May 8th he had celebrated Mass at St. Michael's, and in the afternoon with tears streaming down his face witnessed the conflagration from the cupola of St. Augustine's.


Father Loughran, the kindly priest now in charge, had loved this church. He had been urged to leave on Tuesday, his life was imperiled by his remaining, but true to the splendid traditions of the Catholic priesthood, had stayed at his post. It was only after the church had been set on fire that he consented to leave. The military secured a cab for him and in a wild dash escorted him safely through the mob. It was the only good service they performed in Kensington.


Some days later when the Catholics ventured back and came and looked upon the blackened, jagged remains of walls and the ugly charred heaps where had stood their church and rectory, was the flame of a mad passion enkindled in their bosoms? There is no record of attempted or even threatened reprisals. A Methodist paper of the time, the Christian Repository, stated: "That there will be retaliation we have no doubt. The property of individuals has been ruthlessly destroyed by individuals, and it will be remembered and avenged. The property of a sect has been destroyed and their schemes of power thwarted; and a sect, too, whose darling attribute is revenge." But the lie was given to the prediction as well as to the slander against the Church by the restraint of these Catholics, who, had they retaliated, would indeed have violated Christian law, but would only have followed the normal impulse of human nature in the face of such outrages.


Did the rebellious thought spring to their minds that God Whom they loved and served, had, on the feast of the Apparition of St. Michael the Archangel, abandoned the little flock who had chosen the prince of the angelic host as their patron? Was a sense of defeat, an overwhelming hopelessness born in them as they stood before the ruins which buried the striving and the sacrifice of years? Or on the contrary did that strange power of the Faith which has so often used the weakest instrument and most hopeless cause to achieve a glorious victory, stir their souls and inspire them with the determination to rebuild at whatever cost, and to rebuild more grandly and beautifully?


The ruthless, fanatical mob no doubt thought they had purged Kensington of Catholicism. They had driven its adherents out and destroyed its temple. Nothing remained of the hated religion no vestige but ruins. What had been tried unsuccessfully throughout the country from the very beginning by discriminatory laws and various other forms of repression, they had accomplished in this one district by violence. So often in Christian history persecutors have foolishly matched the force of mobs and armies against the invisible power of the Faith! So often, whatever their method, they have thought that complete and final victory over the Church of Christ was within their grasp' Will they never learn from the experience of the centuries that there is something within the Church, beyond its visible organization, the weakness of it, the wealth and power of it something that is stronger and mightier than all the power of creation? The incendiaries believed they had wiped out Catholicism here forever. They had destroyed the homes of Catholics, their church, rectory and convent, but they had only made the thing itself, the faith the loyally, the passion, stronger in the hearts of those who would come back.


For there is an answer visible today to the destructive fury of the Native Americans. Now, at the time of this writing, eighty-eight years after the burning of St. Michael's Church, the Faith is flourishing in Northern Liberties and Kensington, as indeed everywhere else in the diocese. The answer is in the hospitals, asylums, schools, convents, rectories, churches, and in the crowds that fill the churches. It would be extremely tedious to name all the Catholic buildings now in the area from which St. Michael's drew in 1844. Early in this year Bishop Kendrick through his secretary, Rev. F. X. Gartland, had established boundaries for the parishes in and about the City - St John the Baptist's, which had been founded in '31, and St. Stephen’s, which had just been dedicated on the first day of '44 were too far out for consideration. It was decreed that "St. Michael's shall have as its district, Kensington, Northern Liberties, and that portion of Penntownship which is east of Broad Street. This definitely set a southern boundary -  because the District of Northern Liberties began at Vine Street – and a western boundary too, but it left the parish reaching out vaguely into the northeast. As a matter of fact, some came here regularly for worship from Port Richmond, Harrowgate, even from Bridesburg and Frankford. And now on Second Street, south from Jefferson Street, the spot where on May 8th 1844, the Nativists gloated over the ruins of St. Michael's Church, stands an imposing group of buildings, rectory, church, school and across the way are the new convent, the alumnae house and, above Jefferson Street, the home of the Literary Institute.


This is the answer the Catholics have given to the violence of their enemies.


St. Michael's is now well within the City limits, but a little removed from the great throbbing heart of it. The district embraced within the parish boundaries is itself something of a beehive in normal times, for it is studded with mills and factories, which in days of prosperity are crowded with busy workers. It has long since, therefore, been built up to the utmost. But high above the roofs, above the low-lying homes, above the factories which irregularly lift their ugly heads, the slender tower of St. Michael's rises heavenward, holding aloft over this once hostile neighborhood the Cross of Christ, a dramatic gesture in enduring brick, a challenge, a symbol of religious courage and undying faith, a perpetual benediction, like the hand of Julius, the warrior-pope, raised in triumph, like the uplifted arm of Leo before the hordes of Attila, like a gesture of the Master Himself saying "Well done" to His people, and then again, as if it were a kind of stalagmite left by the rushing upward of the adorations, petitions, sacrifices, of generations of worshippers.


Beneath it the neighborhood has grown, waxed prosperous, aged, become rather poor and worn, but kept a certain tone and character. This part of Kensington would be unimaginable without it. It is a landmark visible at a distance and often fondly turned to, say from an eminence in Fairmount Park or from the Camden Bridge. It rises high and inspiring particularly to one who views it from the southeast, where the ground slopes to the river. The sound of its bell is as familiar to the people around as the voices of their own household. It is a guide-post in more ways than one even to the non-Catholic neighbors.


And on Sunday morning and the morning of holydays in response to the call of its bell, the Catholic people come forth from their homes, from as far east as Shackamaxon Street and Frankford Road they come, down from Norris Street and up from Girard Avenue, and from Sixth Street to the west, from all the streets within these boundaries, and from the alleys and courts with which the parish is honeycombed, from Taggart's Court, Tully's Court and Lloyd's Court, and many, many others. They come gladly, whatever the weather, for the faith is strong in their hearts. They are not nearly all Irish now, or of Irish extraction, but whatever they are, Irish, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, native-born Americans, they rejoice in the beautiful heritage left by the Irish pioneers. Some of the groups have their national churches nearby, but these too are under the influence of the glorious tradition, and St. Michael's draws them at least occasionally, it is so big and venerable and kindly - the parent church of the entire Northeast. So on Sundays and festivals there is a great coming and going, toward the tower and from the tower, from the early morning till midday. And always, Sundays and weekdays, the slim tower above their homes reminds them of what, though heaven and earth will pass, shall never pass.


It is then more than a monument to the courage and zeal of those who rebuilt after the destruction. It is a symbol, rising here where the ruins were, of the unconquerable Church. Lifting the Cross, which was once so dishonored here, against the sky, it is a symbol, and a pledge too, of that final triumph when the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the heaven and He Himself will come riding on the clouds of heaven in great power and majesty.



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Old St Michaels