Uproar Over Muslim Center Echoes Protest Against Church in 1785

October 7, 2010

In Fierce Opposition to a Muslim Center, Echoes of an Old Fight

The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan outside St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Roman Catholic church in New York State.


Many New Yorkers were suspicious of the newcomers’ plans to build a house of worship in Manhattan. Some feared the project was being underwritten by foreigners. Others said the strangers’ beliefs were incompatible with democratic principles.

Concerned residents staged demonstrations, some of which turned bitter.

But cooler heads eventually prevailed; the project proceeded to completion. And this week, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Lower Manhattan — the locus of all that controversy two centuries ago and now the oldest Catholic church in New York State — is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone.

The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan, who is the pastor of St. Peter’s, said that when he began reading about the history of his church early this year in preparation for the anniversary on Tuesday, he was not initially struck by the parallels between the opposition it had faced and what present-day Muslims have encountered in proposing a community center and mosque near ground zero.

“There was no controversy when they first proposed it, and we were just pleased to have a new neighbor,” said Father Madigan, whose church, at Barclay and Church Streets, sits two blocks from 51 Park Place, the site of the proposed Islamic center. Both are roughly equidistant from the construction zone at ground zero.

But as an uproar enveloped the Islamic project over the summer, the priest said he was startled by how closely the arguments and parries of the opponents mirrored those brought against St. Peter’s in 1785.

Father Madigan detailed those similarities in a letter to parishioners over the summer, in two sermons at an interfaith gathering last month and at a special Mass last Sunday marking the church’s anniversary.

For starters, he said, there was the effort to move the planned church somewhere else.

City officials in 18th-century New York urged project organizers to change the church’s initial location, on Broad Street, in what was then the heart of the city, to a site outside the city limits, at Barclay and Church. Unlike the organizers of Park51, who have resisted suggestions they move the project to avoid having a mosque so close to the killing field of ground zero, the Catholics complied, although they had no choice.

Then there were fears about nefarious foreign backers. Just as some opponents of Park51 have said that the $100 million-plus project will be financed by the same Saudi sheiks who bankroll terrorists, many early Protestants in the United States saw the pope as the enemy of democracy, and feared that the little church would be the bridgehead of a papal assault on the new American government.

The Park51 organizers say they will not accept any foreign backing. But with about only 200 Catholics in New York in the late 1700s, most of them poor, St. Peter’s Church would not have been built without a handsome gift from a foreigner — and a papist at that — $1,000 from King Charles III of Spain.

The angry eruptions at some of the demonstrations this summer against the 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 by some 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 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 he respected the feelings of those who lost relatives or friends on 9/11. “They bear a grief that is inexpressible,” he said. Park51’s organizers, he added, 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 had a special obligation. The discrimination suffered by their forebears, he said, “ought to be an incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted on more recent arrivals.”


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