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When Catholics were Muslims in America

 |  NCR Today

Their loyalty to America was constantly in question. They were distrusted for their secret societies; despised for religious rituals conducted in an ancient tongue. They were not Muslims -- they were Catholics of our nation's not-so-distant past.

The church's synod on the Middle East and the continuing controversy over a proposed Muslim center at Ground Zero have sparked several comparative looks at the treatment Catholics received when they first began to assert themselves in the United States.

In The New York Times, the pastor of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Lower Manhattan recalls the tumult that accompanied plans to build New York's first Catholic house of worship -- which on October 12 celebrates its 225th anniversary. Many of those issues then resonate today.

City officials back in the 18th century were appalled by initial plans for St. Peter's which placed it in what was then the heart of the city, on Broad Street. Church officials agreed to move it to outside the city limits, in the area that is now Wall Street. Officials were also fearful of nefarious foreign backers -- not Saudi sheiks, of course, but a $1000 donation from an incorrigible papist, King Charles III of Spain. Even two decades after the church was built, Protestants demonstrated outside St Peter's to condemn the "popish superstition" going on inside: Christmas Mass.

But, as law professor Sharon Davies reports in The Los Angeles Times, these fears were not limited to New York -- and carried well into the 20th century. A number of states, she writes, passed "convent inspection laws" in the early 1900s. They authorized searches of convents, monasteries, rectories and churches for weaponry and for young women "supposed seduced into the nunnery by Catholic lies."

And throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan conducted a terror campaign against Catholics as well as African-Americans.

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"At the time, " Davies writes, "these men did not consider themselves religious bigots. They believed themselves patriots...(protecting) the nation against a foreign threat they feared was intent on their destruction."

As this 225th anniversary of his parish approached, amid the new religious controversy in his Lower Manhattan neighborhood, Fr. Kevin Madigan of St. Peter's wrote a letter to parishioners recounting their local history -- and insisted Catholic New Yorkers have a special obligation when it came to the Muslim center proposal. Discrimination of parishioners past, he said, "ought to be incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted on more recent arrivals."

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