The Nativist Riots & the Burning of St. Augustine Church - Philadelphia, PA
Posted by: Groundspeak Regular Member Math Teacher
N 39° 57.330 W 075° 08.770
18S E 487515 N 4422828
Quick Description: The struggle for religious freedom visited Philadelphia in 1844 when this Catholic church was burnt to the ground during the Nativist riots. We weren't always the cradle of liberty and abastion religious tolerance.
Location: Pennsylvania, United States
Date Posted: 11/1/2011 5:47:18 PM
Waymark Code: WMD0AF
Published By: Groundspeak Premium Member silverquill
Views: 3

Long Description:

There is a blue historical marker out front which succinctly tells the story of what happened here. This blue, historical marker 'tells' the story of the Nativistis riots and the burning of this church in 1844. The church sued the city for lack of protection and was awarded $40,000. The church was rebuilt a few years later.

The historical marker reads:

First U.S. foundation, Augustinian Order, 1796. In 1844 the original church here was burned during Nativist riots. This and other violence led to a state law requiring police forces, 1845, and to consolidation of the city and county, 1854.


The Philadelphia Nativist Riots (also known as the Philadelphia Prayer Riots, the Bible Riots and the Native American Riots) were a series of riots that took place between May 6 and 8 and July 6 and 7, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States and the adjacent districts of Kensington and Southwark. The riots were a result of rising anti-Catholic sentiment at the growing population of Irish Catholic immigrants.

In the months prior to the riots, nativist groups had been spreading a rumor that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from public schools. A nativist rally in Kensington erupted in violence on May 6 and started a deadly riot that would result in destruction of two Catholic churches and numerous other buildings. Riots erupted again in July after it was discovered that St. Philip Neri's Catholic Church in Southwark had armed itself for protection. Fierce fighting broke out between the nativists and the soldiers sent to protect the church, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.

Nationally the riots helped fuel criticism of the nativist movement despite denials from nativist groups of responsibility. The riots also made the deficiencies in law enforcement in Philadelphia and the surrounding districts readily apparent, influencing various reforms in local police departments and the eventual consolidation of the city in 1854.

Local Effects (This Waymark)

On the night of May 8, 1844, rioters attacked St. Augustine and after a heated exchange with soldiers succeeded in burning down the great church. By sunrise, only the wall behind the altar remained standing. On it, in charred gilt letters, survived the words "The Lord Seeth." Amid the rubble, the historic Sister Bell, symbolic of Penn's dream of religious and personal freedom, lay burned and smashed, destroyed by the fire.

The original St. Augustine's (before the fire) was the first permanent establishment of the Augustinian Order in the United States. Such notables as President George Washington, Commodore John Barry and merchant Stephen Girard contributed to the building funds of the original church on this site. St. Augustine Catholic Church, also called Olde St. Augustine's, is still a historic Catholic church in Philadelphia after its rebuilding. (Re)Consecrated in 1848, the Palladian-style church was designed by Napoleon LeBrun. On June 15, 1976 St. Augustine's Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church was built to replace the Old St. Augustine Church which was completed in 1801. The first Order of Hermits of St. Augustine church founded in the United States, the original St Augustine housed the Liberty Bell's "Sister Bell". A already discussed, the church was burned down in the anti-Catholic Philadelphia Nativist Riots on May 8, 1844. (More on this fire in the AGS entry below) The church sued the city of Philadelphia for not providing it with adequate protection. The money awarded to the church went to rebuilding the current church, which broke ground on May 27, 1847. Construction on the new church began on May 27, 1847 and was completed in December 1848. The church was consecrated by Bishop Francis Kenrick and Archbishop John Hughes presided over High Mass on November 5, 1848. Organizations founded by the church led to the creation of both Villanova University and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

There is a decorative date stone 10 feet above the entrance pediment. It is very ornamental, white, probably made of limestone of some other workable stone. It succinctly records the history of the church and reads:

Founded 1798
Destroyed 1844
Rebuilt 1847
Consecrated 1848

And what better way to accentuate a waymark about an old site than with multiple American Guide Series entries:

Although troops under Gen. George Cadwalader attempted to quell the rioters, another mob that same evening attacked the Catholic Church of St. Augustine, Fourth Street, below Vine, setting fire to the church building and adjoining rectory. --- Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, 1937; page 62

In 1793 there arose a demand for a church in the northern section of the city. Opportunely, the Augustinians were seeking to establish their order in the United States, and to them was entrusted the project of erecting a new church. St. Augustine's was dedicated in 1801. The present structure, rebuilt in 1847, stands on the original site, on Fourth Street between Race and Vine. --- Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, 1937; page 166

On the right, near Race Street, is ST. AUGUSTINE'S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH (13), which was erected on the site of the original edifice, built in 1796 by the Hermits of St. Augustine. The building was destroyed by fire in 1844 and rebuilt in 1847.

The present building was designed after the manner of the churches of Sir Christopher Wren. Constructed of red brick with limestone doorway and trim, the building shows strength and character in the tall tower with its heavy quoins centering on the facade. The interior, heavily ornamented, is Corinthian in design. --- Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, 1937; page 390

The Church Today

To the modern tourist, it's the church's interior which proves stunning. The ceiling frescoes depict scenes from "St. Augustine in Glory." Philip Costaggini, who painted part of the frieze on the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., painted it. Light from two tiers of stained-glass windows flows softly throughout the church. Each of the upper windows is dedicated to a saint. Most compelling is the marble sanctuary. The approach to the main altar is framed by an arch supported by brown Corinthian columns flanked by flying angels. The arched altar consists of carved white marble with shafts of Mexican onyx alongside and above the tabernacle. Overhead a dome skylight illuminates the scene. Behind the altar is a Crucifixion tableau painted by Hans Hansen in 1926. And crowning it all are the words, "The Lord Seeth." SOURCE

By 1988 the congregation of St. Augustine had shrunk to a fewer than a dozen. The 1990s saw the congregation grow with Filipino Catholics from Philadelphia and the city's suburbs. In December 1992 an exact replica of Santo Niño de Cebú was dedicated, and Filipinos have held a special mass and festivals for Santo Niño. Also in December 1992, a severe storm severely damaged the church's steeple. Debris from the steeple fell onto the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which had to be closed for three days. The damage was severe enough that the steeple had to be disassembled and removed. From a damaged roof, the church and art inside suffered water damage. A new steeple was erected on October 18, 1995. The steeple was replicated by Campbellsville Industries, "The Steeple People", located in Campbellsville, Kentucky. SOURCE

Relevant Website: [Web Link]

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