The May 8, 1844, diary entry of Philadelphia merchant Thomas Cope:
“10 o’clock — fire-engines out — State House bell ringing. A powerful light in the direction of St. Augustine, no doubt ’tis on fire. The flame ascends higher & the whole City is lighted up … A quarter past ten — there is no longer any doubt as to the object on fire. The flame has reached the cupola & that structure, in full blaze, is plainly in view. 1/2 past — the cupola has fallen & the sparks are ascending rapidly aloft … Half past eleven — the State House bell still gives note of flames & destruction, reminding us of the awful tocsin of Revolutionary France. After 12, all being quiet in our immediate vicinity, retired to bed, sky still reddened with the embers of St. Augustine.”
The destruction of Old St. Augustine’s Church at 2nd and Front on 8 May 1844 during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots represented the first time antagonism towards Catholics translated into physical violence against the primary unit of Catholic organization in the United States, the parish church. The successful razing of St. Augustine’s by Native Americans seems to have set the bar for future Catholic violence and may have inspired a march on St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
What motivated the mobs of Protestant Nativist laborers and artisans and “mechanics” in May and July of 1844 has been the subject of debate among historians. The more proximate triggers of the riot — the Catholics’ call to end the use of the Protestant St. James Bible in public schools and Nativist antagonism in Catholic neighborhoods — are well known. As far as deeper motivators, some argue that these Native Americans feared the loss of prestige in an increasingly middle-class industrial world and lashed out at their chief competitor for jobs of many skill levels, the Irish. Others suggest that the presence of “decadent” Catholicism — that European toxin closely allied to monarchy and aristocracy — had no place in the American republic. To many the country seemed occupied by a foreign power. Base characterizations of the Irish as simion and incorrigibly self-destructive fueled the perception that servile Irish-Catholics were subhumans unfit for democracy.
The symbolic core of this differentness seems to have been the parish church — a mysterious place whose architecture recalled the sordid stories of medieval Catholic depravity so popular among Native American Protestants in the mid-19th century. Native Americans loathed yet ravenously consumed stories of the cloister in which nuns engaged in all sorts of deviancy. That such actions occurred beyond the gaze of propriety and law was also denounced as undemocratic. In the minds of some Native Americans, the pattern of an uneducated laity conforming to the dogma imposed upon them by conniving elitist priests also bode poorly for the future of American democracy. They believed that if every citizen possessed a rudimentary education or the skills to read a Bible and be morally discerning, the Republic would not be swayed by demagoguery. Catholicism possessed too many ignorant and servile adherents ready to accept the instruction of the overeducated clergy. In sum all of the external trappings of Catholicism: from Latin to incense to the insularity and opulence of some churches contrasted to the supposed plain egalitarianism of 19th century Calvinism.
Yet the first St. Augustine was a surprisingly chaste structure whose construction and design that reflected republican values in theory and practice. Although Nicholas Fagan’s facade appears slightly Italianate from the above woodcut, the tower–which was added in 1839–was designed by the consummate architect of early national simplicity, William Strickland whose other work included the Merchant’s Exchange and the steeple at Independence Hall. Many prominent Philadelphians of the early-National period (some non-Catholics like George Washington included) fostered William Penn’s ideal of religious toleration by subscribing to the church’s building fund.
Most Native American Philadelphians who joined the crowd of arsonists that night strongly believed that the Catholic Church and its Irish adherents would soon undermine their religious, economic, and political freedoms. As Michael Feldberg has written in his The Philadelphia Riots of 1844, the presence of untaxable “Pope Property” beyond their government’s right to control was an unacceptable inequality for Natives. While they could not expel or kill all Irish-Catholics, Native Americans could strike terroristically at the hub of Irish Catholics’ religious and social life in America, their unifying edifice. It was a reflection of the significance of the church in Irish immigrant life that it was rebuilt and consecrated just four years later.