Colonial Penal Laws

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter IX. | Contents | Chapter XI. »

Chapter X.

Colonial Penal Laws—Rise of Catholic Missions—Washington's Reply to the Catholic Address—St. Mary's College

THE successful assertion of American Independence drevv large numbers of emigrants from Europe. From Ireland, in the first decade, the increase was not very visible, as that nation enjoyed comparative freedom towards the end of the century, and, with freedom, a larger share of prosperity than had previously fallen to its lot. But the breaking out of the French War, in 1793, the failure of the rising of 1798, and the degrading legislative Union of 1800, had deprived many of bread, and all of liberty at home, and made the mechanical as well as the agricultural class embark in multitudes to cross the Atlantic.

Hitherto the Irish had colonized, sowed, and reaped, fought, spoke, and legislated in the New World; if not always in proportion to their numbers, yet always to the measure of their educational resources. Now, they are about to plant a new emblem—the Cross,—and a new institution—the Church,—throughout the American continent; for the faith of their fathers they do not leave after them; nay, rather, wheresoever six Irish roof-trees rise, there will you find the Cross of Christ, reared over all, and Celtic piety and Celtic enthusiasm, all tears and sighs, kneeling before it.

Whatever thou art, oh reader! do not despise the institution, or the emblem, or the agent. If the creed is not yours, it was Christopher Columbus', Calvert's, and Charles Carroll's. Nor wonder that we, who regard the Church Catholic as the pillar and ground of all truth, should think its plantation in America the greatest labor of the Irish Hercules. We can sympathize with a Rutledge and a Carroll, in council; with Sullivan and Wayne, upon the field; with Barry and McDonough, on the quarter-deck;—but even more, and more proudly, do we sympathize with the laborious layman and the poor priest, coming together in the backwoods, to offer to God the ancient sacrifice, where the interwoven foliage is the rude screen, the rock the altar, the soaring pine the tower of the holy place, and the wayside well the fountain of salvation.

The first Catholic missions had been those of the Jesuits among the red men. Marquette, Joliet, Brebeuf, Lallemand, Rasles, and Marest, all Frenchmen, and all Jesuits, were the first standard bearers of the Cross, over the blue breadth of the great lakes, down the yellow torrent of the Mississippi, among the homes of all the Indian race, from the Algonquins of Quebec to the Cherokees of the Ozark mountains. But these missions and their missionaries had passed away; and, though the Holy Cross still gleamed upon the frontier of population, its shadow fell on no village square, but, rather, its arms, on either side, but pointed to desolation.

The English and Dutch colonies, planted in the very noon-day of "the Reformation," inherited all its virulence against priests and Jesuits. The so-called freemen of New England sought Rasle in his chapel by the Norridgewock, and slew him on its threshold. Penn forbade Mass to be celebrated in his Sylvania, and, in 1741, a Catholic clergyman was hanged in New York for entering that province contrary to law. The French and German emigrants, of the midland and southern states, did sometimes keep a concealed priest among them; but, under God, it was Irish emigration which, overcoming; the malice of the bigot and the injustice of the laws, gave freedom to the altar and security to its ministers.

The earliest notices of Irish Catholics in America that we have found, were those of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Carroll family emigrated before the year 1700, and settled in Prince George's county. As, at the revolution of 1688, Catholics were disfranchised, and their religious rites proscribed, clergymen could only officiate in private houses, and the fathers of the Carrolls had chapels under their own roofs. In such a chapel-house was born John Carroll, the first bishop and archbishop of the United States, on the 8th of January, 1735. The first Catholic church that we find in Pennsylvania, after Penn's suppression of them in 1708, "was connected with the house of a Miss Elizabeth McGawley, an Irish lady, who, with several of her tenantry, settled on land on the road leading from Nicetown to Frankfort." Near the site of this ancient sanctuary stood a tomb inscribed, "John Michael Brown, ob. 15 Dec. A. D.1750. R.I.P." He had been a priest residing there incognito. In 1734, Governor Gordon and council prohibited the erection of a Catholic church in Walnut street; and, in 1736, a private house having been taken at the corner of Second and Chestnut streets, for the same object, it was again prohibited. Saint Joseph's chapel had, however, been opened in a more retired position, in 1733; and, in 1763, Saint Mary's church was erected. About this time, Protestant prejudice began to abate in Pennsylvania, as well it might, when the Catholics could reckon the Moylans, Barrys, Meases, and Fitzsimons, among their congregation.

In 1756, by a special act, the Catholics of Maryland were assessed for tithes to support the pastors of the Protestant denominations; while, in the very same session, an act was introduced to prevent Catholic clergymen holding lands for church purposes. The latter, however, was rejected. In 1770, Saint Peter's church, in Baltimore, was founded, and, in 1774, there were but nineteen clergymen in Maryland, all of whom were Jesuits. In 1784, Father John Carroll, of the same order, was made first Bishop of the United States, (the colonies had been attached to the Apostolic Vicarate of London,) and "administered the sacrament of confirmation for the first time," in free America.[1] In 1785, he estimated the Catholic population of the republic,—"in Maryland 16,000; in Pennsylvania over 7,000; and, as far as information could be obtained in other states, about 1,500." However, the local statistics of the states show this estimate to be quite too low. Instead of 25,000 Catholics in the old thirteen states, in 1785, 100,000 would be nearer the mark. The marvellous increase of the church may be estimated by the fact that, in 1838, Bishop England estimated the Catholic population at 1,200,000, which, in half a century, would be a twelvefold multiplication of the original number.

Throughout the war of the Revolution the Catholic Irish population continued to bear their full share in its dangers and councils. In 1774, Dr. Carroll and Charles Carroll were sent, with Dr. Franklin and Mr. Chase, on an embassy to Canada, which had the effect of securing the neutrality of the French Canadian population. If the bigotry of the local legislatures were not so fresh in the memory of the brave habitans, there is little doubt but they would have espoused the cause of the Revolution. But they remembered the martyrdom of Rasles, and the priest executed at New York in 1741. Even while the commissioners were in Montreal, they received a copy of the address of the Continental Congress to the British people, stigmatizing Lord North for establishing in Canada "a religion which had deluged their island in blood, and diffused impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion (!) through every part of the world." This foolish piece of rhetoric rendered it impossible for the ambassadors to secure the native Canadian population to their side, whom, however, they persuaded to stand neutral in the contest.

In 1784, the first Catholic congregation was assembled, in Boston, by the Abbe La Poitre, a French chaplain; and, in 1788, they obtained the old French church, in School street. The present cathedral was dedicated in 1803, by Bishop Carroll, assisted by the venerable Dr. Cheverus, afterwards Cardinal of Bordeaux, in France. This was the beginning of the Church in the east.

The conduct of the Catholic Irish during the war, drew from GEORGE WASHINGTON, after his election as President, the graceful acknowledgment, in reply to the address given below:

"Of the Roman Catholics to George Washington, President of the United States.

"SIR,—"We have been long impatient to testify our joy and unbounded confidence, on your being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station of a country, in which that unanimity could not have been obtained without the previous merit of unexampled services, of eminent wisdom, and unblemished virtue. Our congratulations have not reached you sooner, because our scattered situation prevented the communication, and the collecting of those sentiments which warmed every breast. But the delay has furnished us with the opportunity, not merely of presaging the happiness to be expected under your administration, but of bearing testimony to that which we experience already. It is your peculiar talent, in war and in peace, to afford security to those who commit their protection into your hands. In war, you shield them from the ravages of armed hostility; in peace, you establish public tranquillity, by the justice and moderation, not less than by the vigor of your government. By example, as well as by vigilance, you extend the influence of laws on the manners of our fellow-citizens. You encourage respect for religion, and inculcate, by words and actions, that principle on which the welfare of nations so much depends, that a superintending Providence governs the events of the world, and watches over the conduct of men. Your exalted maxims, and unwearied attention to the moral and physical improvement of our country, have produced already the happiest effects. Under your" administration, America is animated with zeal for the attainment and encouragement of useful literature; she improves her agriculture, extends her commerce, and acquires with foreign nations a dignity unknown to her before. From these happy events, in which none can feel a warmer interest than ourselves, we derive additional pleasure by recollecting that you, sir, have been the principal instrument to effect so rapid a change in our political situation. This prospect of national prosperity is peculiarly pleasing to us on another account; because, whilst our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well-founded title to claim from her justice the equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and of our common exertions for her defence, under your auspicious conduct;—rights rendered more dear to us by the remembrance of former hardships. When we pray for the preservation of them, where they have been granted, and expect the full extension of them from the justice of those states which still restrict them; when we solicit the protection of Heaven over our common country, we neither admit, or can omit, recommending your preservation to the singular care of Divine Providence; because we conceive that no human means are so available to promote the welfare of the United States, as the prolongation of your health and life, in which are included the energy of your example, the wisdom of your counsels, and the persuasive eloquence of your virtues.

"In behalf of the Roman Catholic clergy,
"In behalf of the Roman Catholic laity,
"CHARLES CARROLL, of Carrollton.


"To the Roman Catholics in the United States of America,

"GENTLEMEN,—While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station of my country,—I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity enhances the pleasure which I would otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.

"I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected; and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.

"The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home, and respectability abroad.

"As mankind become more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community, are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their revolution, and the establishment of their government; or, the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

"I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.


The necessity of a native clergy, especially in the diocese of Baltimore, was early felt. In 1791, Bishop Carroll founded St. Mary's College, and, in 1804, with some of the laity, obtained a charter for Baltimore College, which was first opened in Mulberry street, in that city. In 1805, St. Mary's was much improved, and a handsome Gothic church was added to the college. This is the Alma Mater of the Church in America.[2]

« Chapter IX. | Contents | Chapter XI. »


[1] Campbell's Life of Archbishop Carroll.

[2] Among the public schools of Baltimore, the "Hibernian Free School," founded by Robert Oliver, a native of Ireland, is, to this day, the most considerable and conspicuous.