The pastor of the oldest Catholic church in New York State was researching his church’s 200-year history this summer and noticed some interesting parallels to a debate going on a few blocks away. In an interview with the New York Times, Rev. Kevin Madigan explained that the anti-Muslim backlash to the proposed Park51 community center in Manhattan echoed the resistance that met St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church after it was built in 1785:
The angry eruptions at some of the demonstrations this summer against the proposed Muslim center — with signs and slogans attacking Islam — were not as vehement as those staged against St. Peter’s, Father Madigan said.
On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after the church was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens of people were injured and a policeman was killed.
“We were treated as second-class citizens; we were viewed with suspicion,” Father Madigan wrote in his letter to parishioners, adding, “Many of the charges being leveled at Muslim-Americans today are the same as those once leveled at our forebears.”
The pastor said that Park51’s organizers would have to “make clear that they are in no way sympathetic to or supported by any ideology antithetical to our American ideals, which I am sure they can do.” But he said Catholic New Yorkers have a special obligation to fulfill.
The discrimination suffered by the first Catholics in America, he said, “ought to be an incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted on more recent arrivals.”