From left to right—Bishop John Hughes, New York, 1844; cartoon from Anti-Catholic book published by the Ku Klux Klan, 1926; Burning of St. Augustine Church, Philadelphia, 1844; Fr. James Coyle, Birmingham Alabama, murdered, 1921.
Sticks, Stones, and Broken Bones: The History of Anti-Catholic Violence in the U.S. | Fr. David J. Endres | HPR
We do not recall these instances of anti-Catholicism to foster more animosity or violence, but recall them as part of our history, a history that, like so many others, included the targeting of ethnic and religious groups for persecution.
You have, no doubt, heard the children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But names will never hurt me.” That is not exactly true. For in the history of the Church in America, Catholics have been wounded by both physical violence and hate speech. This article will examine episodes of violence against American Catholics, considering the sticks and stones, the broken bones, and the words that encouraged such violence. 1
An Unmentioned History
If the presence of anti-Catholic violence in American history is unknown to many, it is for good reason. We as Catholics do not usually like to talk about being a minority; we do not like to talk about persecution. For generations, our immigrant ancestors and their descendants fought to be considered “100% American,” not “hyphenated” Americans: Irish-American, German-American, Polish-American, or Italian-American. We Catholics have spent decades trying to assimilate into “White, Anglo Saxon, Protestant” (“WASP”) America and have, consequently, downplayed our distinctiveness. We wanted to fit in, and to achieve the American dream—to get good jobs, get a college education, and move to the suburbs.
Aspects of Anti-Catholicism
In considering some episodes of anti-Catholicism, it should be noted that not all violence against Catholics was motivated exclusively by religion. In many cases, religious misunderstanding blended with nativism, and xenophobia, to bring about a toxic reaction to the United States’ Catholic newcomers. Consequently, anti-Catholic groups—that included the Know-Nothing party, the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan—espoused a form of bigotry, both religious and racially/ethnically motivated.
It should also be acknowledged that most manifestations of anti-Catholicism have not been violent.