Faith, Freedom and the Founding Fathers

Catholic Churches Have Witnessed to Religious Liberty


As the Fourth of July nears, crowds swell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the nearby Liberty Bell. But just three blocks away is another powerful symbol of freedom — religious freedom. An active parish, small, modest-but-stately Old St. Joseph’s Church was a cradle of Catholicism in America.

Oddly, there is no public façade or street entrance to Old St. Joseph’s, tucked away in narrow Willings Alley. Early church leaders deliberately kept a low profile to avoid antagonizing the non-Catholic majority. Prudent priests quietly went about the city in Quaker garb.

The church was erected in 1733. William Penn, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, had decreed religious toleration, a freedom not granted by the other colonies. For 80 years, Old St. Joseph’s was the only Catholic church for Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. In fact, for many years, it was the only place in the English-speaking world where the Mass could be legally celebrated.

Just a block from the historic church is Old St. Mary’s, another Catholic church that flourished despite anti-Catholic sentiment and even strengthened the ties between Catholics and leaders of the new nation.

As leader of the Continental Army, George Washington and other members of the Continental Congress attended Mass here in 1776, as a sign of respect to Catholics and to France and Spain, Catholic nations that supported the war against the English.

A sign of the growing pluralism of the American experiment in democracy, St. Mary’s hosted the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence. Its adjoining cemetery is testament to the role of Catholics in the struggle for freedom. Many of the inscriptions on the weathered gravestones have been worn away by time. But buried here are Commodore John Barry, the father of the U.S. Navy; Thomas Fitzsimons, a signer of the Constitution; and Stephen Moylan, Washington’s aide-de-camp.

St. Mary’s was built in 1763, enlarged in 1810 and renovated in 1963. The church was the cathedral of the diocese from 1810 to 1838. Located in the fashionable Society Hill neighborhood, the church blends into its surroundings, with its red-brick façade and white doors. There is no soaring cross or steeple at this active parish.

During the day, the empty interior is a wonderfully hushed, dark and deeply reverent space.

The past is part of the present at Old St. Mary’s. The baptismal font dates from 1791. The brass chandeliers once hung in Independence Hall. Renowned sculptor William Rush carved the crucifix, and Thomas Walter, who designed the Capitol in Washington, helped craft the organ.

In colonial days, St. Mary’s parishioners showed a robust attachment to their faith. The Unitarian John Adams, later to become the second U.S. president, wrote to his wife, Abigail: “The music, consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon, except sermon time, and the assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is everything that can lay hold of the eye, ear and imagination, everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how [Martin] Luther ever broke the spell.”

St. Mary Cemetery dates from 1759. The cemetery grounds are higher than street level: Graves from various eras are layered. Rich and poor were laid to rest here. Yellow-fever plagues periodically ravaged the city in the 18th century, and its victims were buried here. Also entombed here are some of the family members of Michael Bouvier, the great-great-grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy.

Old St. Joseph’s predates Old St. Mary’s by 30 years. It was enlarged in 1821 and rebuilt in 1838. The strategy of priests to keep a low profile apparently paid dividends over time. Protestant mobs torched churches during the anti-Catholic Nativist Riots of 1844, but Old St. Joseph’s was spared.

Writer Agnes Repplier once described Old St. Joseph’s as “a church as carefully hidden away as a martyr’s tomb in the catacombs.” Its humble exterior is matched by its simple interior, a place not to gawk at, but to pray and worship. But worth noting are the dramatic painting of the Crucifixion behind the altar and the lovely, sweeping balcony.

The history of Old St. Joseph’s is rich with drama. After authorities in Maryland clamped down on Catholics, Jesuits established a foothold in Pennsylvania and neighboring states by founding St. Joseph’s Church. The faith blossomed. By 1785, the future Bishop John Carroll proudly reported to Rome that 1,000 Catholics lived in Philadelphia. Catholics finally had a toehold in the United States.

To walk into Old St. Joseph’s is to walk in the history of Catholics in the new nation and to understand their hard-won assimilation in an unwelcoming land.

The pastor during the Revolutionary War, Jesuit Father Robert Molyneux, was the father of Catholic publishing: The first Catholic prayer books in America were published under his direction. When the 1793 yellow-fever epidemic killed 10% of Philadelphians, Jesuit Father Leonard Neale established the first Catholic orphanage in the new nation.

The parish was a refuge for persecuted populations, whether they were Irish, Italian or black. In 1848, the church began the St. Joseph’s Society for the Relief of Irish Immigrants. Four years later, church leaders made plans for St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzzi, the nation’s first Italian national parish. Blacks were welcome at St. Joseph’s from its earliest years. In 1859, a school for black children was begun. The school eventually was supported by St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia native.

In its attractive, sunny courtyard, Old St. Joseph’s honors its past with a plaque that pays tribute to William Penn and his guarantee of religious freedom.

But it took generations of regular Catholic families, whose names are unknown to history, to take advantage of that freedom by practicing their faith and paving the way for the religious freedom we often take for granted today.

Jay Copp writes from

La Grange Park, Illinois.