An Encouraging Word — A look back at our immigration

You are strangers and aliens no longer. Ephesians 2:19

Father J. Ronald Knott

Father J. Ronald Knott

There is a saying that some attribute to Edmund Burke that says, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” With all the complicated news about America’s need for a new immigration policy, it might be good for us, with English roots especially, to look back a bit on our own immigration to this country, settling in central Kentucky. Being part Knott, Mattingly and Mills, this information is quite enlightening.

The first thing to remember is that the first English Catholics came to America to escape persecution at the hands of Protestants back home. Lord Baltimore, a convert while secretary to King James I, created a refuge for his persecuted brethren in Maryland.

Since they needed freedom for themselves, Maryland passed an Act of Toleration in 1649, guaranteeing that no Christian should be compelled to worship against his or her consent. This act provided four decades of peace for Catholics until 1688 when the colonial government was arbitrarily dismissed and Anglicanism was made the state religion.

This was followed by many years of trials for Maryland Catholics. They could hold no public office. They could have no churches. Public worship was forbidden to them; Catholics came secretly to “Mass houses” for their services.

Many Catholics found refuge in Pennsylvania. St. Joseph’s Church, the first in Philadelphia, was opened in 1733. Despite their best intentions, even the Quakers caved in. In 1757, during the French and Indian War, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law forbidding Catholics to use or possess firearms.

The fate of the Irish in places like Louisville was even worse with the rise of the Nativist Movement during the three decades before the Civil War.

Protestant “nativists” were alarmed by the arrival of so many Irish Catholic immigrants and wanted to see the nation preserved for the exclusive use of “native born Americans (meaning themselves, not the Indians).”

Non-Catholics were coming to feel that political control was slipping from their hands. Immigration was increasing and the voting power of Catholics was gaining strength. An Ursuline convent in Charleston was stormed and burned to the ground.

Aug. 6, 1855, became known as “Bloody Monday” in Louisville. There were riots — 20 people were killed,  their homes were burned and St. Martin of Tours Church was broken into. The Cathedral of the Assumption was searched for munitions after Bishop Spalding felt compelled to turn over the keys to a Nativist leader.

It took a long time for some people to quit believing that the Roman Catholic Church had designs on American freedom. It took a while for those immigrants and other minority groups to become native Americans themselves.

The Nativist mentality has never completely disappeared from American life. It is a recurring feeling and fear directed at “outsiders.” Even after all this, some Catholics have gone on to become Nativists themselves.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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