By Monica Pelayo Lock, PhD
Trump began his presidential candidacy by declaring that Mexicans were bringing drugs, crime, and sexual violence to the United States. Though factually incorrect, his speech did tap into a populist, nativist sentiment that helped him get elected. He is not the first politician to use this kind of rhetoric and succeed.
In the 1850s, anti-Catholic activists organized themselves into the “Native American Party,” or as they were popularly known—the Know-Nothing Party. Their national platform centered on preventing Catholic influence on American politics. According to members, Catholic immigrants, particularly the Irish, could be influenced by the Pope and vote according to the Pope’s, and not the nation’s, desires. These nativist sentiments attracted Protestant Americans of all classes; and in the 1854, Know-Nothing politicians swept several municipal, state, and congressional elections. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing politicians won the governor’s office, the entire state senate, most seats at the house of representatives, and Boston’s city hall, rousing Edward Everett to proclaim that the rise of Know-Nothings was “the most astonishing result ever witnessed in our politics” (Taylor, 167; Zolberg, 155).
Irish Catholic immigrants, and their allies, understood that Know-Nothing politicians could make life harder if they realized their legislative agenda. When the General Court began working in 1855, they proposed legislation that would severely restrict naturalized citizens’ ability to vote. Though they were unable to get a two-thirds majority, legislators did pass laws creating a Board of Alien Commissioners to monitor immigrants entering the state and required that school children read the Protestant King James Bible in school everyday. This last piece of legislation targeted Irish Catholics who used the Catholic Bible.
Irish Catholics were quite acquainted with discriminatory policies. In Ireland, they had lost the right to own land, vote, hold office, or gain an education in the 17th century. Though British Parliament had passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, many lived as poor tenant farmers, which meant that they were disproportionally affected by the Potato Famine. In order to survive the harsh treatments they faced at home, Irish Catholics learned to depend on the Catholic Church as a shield against the British Crown. Therefore, when the Massachusetts General Court passed its restrictive laws, the Irish Catholics, who successfully left Ireland for Massachusetts, used the same methods. Instead of acquiescing to the legislature, Irish Catholics gravitated towards the Catholic Church to shield them from nativist policies.
Before the 1840s, the Diocese of Boston encompassed all of New England, serving the needs of the German, French, and small Irish Catholic populations in the area. In the city proper, three churches had been built in the 1830s for the inhabitants of the North End, the South End, Roxbury, and Charlestown. This dichotomy all changed in 1846 when Irish American John Bernard Fitzpatrick ascended the episcopacy as Bishop of Boston (Handlin, 165).
By the 1850s, the North End had one of the highest concentrations of Irish Catholics. Bishop Fitzgerald had recruited Irish-born Father McElroy to Boston in 1847 to run St. Mary’s Parish in the North End. McElroy was a proponent for Catholic education and literacy, having built Catholic schools for boys and girls in Maryland. He had seen the growth of anti-Catholic sentiments while serving as chaplain in the Mexican-American War and knew that the church could serve as protector of Catholics (Conolly, 538). When he arrived to Boston, he assessed the situation and understood that he needed to build a place for Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, to feel free of harassment. He built St. Mary’s School for Girls in the North End with cooperation from the Sisters of Charity (The Sacred Heart Review, 1).
St. Mary’s became a safe haven for Irish Catholic children. In 1859, Thomas Whall was severely punished for refusing to read the Ten Commandments in the King James Bible at the Eliot School. He and other boys had heard a priest at St. Mary’s Parish Sunday School, Bernardine Wiget, urge them not to give into the school’s requirements. After Whall was punished, 100 Catholic students walked out in solidarity. The following day some boys came back with the Catholic Decalogue but were refused entrance; by the end of the week, half of the Eliot School boys were expelled. Under the guidance of Widget, St. Mary’s Parish organized a boys’ school in the North End, where they could learn under Catholic protection (Goldfeld, 111-113). McElroy used the momentum from this work to fundraising for a Jesuit college. He bought a plot of land in the South End and opened Boston College in 1859 (Conolly, 540). Though Boston College was plagued with issues due to nativist sentiments and the onslaught of the Civil War, today it stands as one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Both schools at St. Mary’s no longer exist.
During today’s political climate, we need to remember that institutions can serve as safe havens and that communities can carve spaces for themselves under nativist rule. In the case of Irish Catholics in the North End, they learned to use their own community organizations to insulate themselves from nativism. We should take a note and see the forms of resistance that can take shape in this new era.
Monica Pelayo Lock is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she also serves as the Director of the Public History Track in the History Master’s program. She specializes and teaches courses in twentieth-century social and cultural history, immigration, race and ethnicity, and public history. She is currently working on a book-length study, “Narrating A Nation of Immigrants: Race, Memory and Cultural Policy in Cold War America.” As a public historian, she has offered her services to the Bracero Oral History Project, the Studio for Southern California History, the Breed Street Shul, and most recently to an immigrant advocacy organization, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). Before she moved to Boston, she received her PhD and MA in History at the University of Southern California and her AB in American Studies at Brown University.
1. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required students to read from the King James Bible everyday, regardless of religion. (Wikimedia)
2. This 1883 map shows St. Mary’s School near St. Mary’s Parish in the North End. (Norman B Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)
3. This page from the 1855 Massachusetts State Census shows the part of the Whall family in 1855. As this image shows, Thomas was 7 years old in 1855. A few years later, he was severely injured for refusing to read the Ten Commandments from the King James Bible and this incident led to the founding of St. Mary’s School for boys in 1859. (FamilySearch.org)
4. This page from the 1850 U.S. Census shows that John McElroy was living in the North End at St. Mary’s Parish when he helped found the school for girls. (FamilySearch.org)
“Massachusetts State Census, 1855,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MQWJ-Q19: 15 November 2014), Thomas Wall in household of William Wall, Ward 03, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States; State Archives, Boston; FHL microfilm 953,958.
“United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MDSC-D9S: 9 November 2014), John Mcelroy, Boston, ward 1, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States; citing family 1945, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
“The Parish School Experiment A Genuine Success: St. Mary’s School for Girls at the North End, the Pioneer Parish School of Boston Catholics,” The Sacred Heart Review 2 no. 20 (1889): http://newspapers.bc.edu/cgi-bin/bostonsh?a=d&d=BOSTONSH18891012-01.2.3
Connolly, John, “Father John McElroy SJ: ‘First’ Catholic Chaplain of the United States Army,” Clogher Record, 20 no. 3 (2011): 535-540: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41412265
G.W. Bromley & Co. Atlas of the City of Boston: City Proper: Plate A [map]. 1883 Scale 1:1,200. http://www.leventhalmap.org/id/n51978
Handlin, Oscar. Boston’s Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
Taylor, Steven, “Progressive Nativism: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 28 no. 2 (2000): 167-185: http://ezproxy.lib.umb.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.umb.edu/docview/233344655?accountid=28932.
Zolberg, Aristide. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.