Anti-Catholic propaganda and the beginning of nativist violence against Catholics in New York City
New York City was the center of the Protestant Crusade. Two important figures from this movement were Protestant clergymen George Bourne and William Craig Brownlee. The latter leader started a weekly newspaper called The Protestant. First released on January 2, 1830, the purpose of this newspaper was to expose the evils of Catholicism. Throughout the next few years, The Protestant published exaggerated reports - for example, on the suspicious activities of the Jesuits and the nuns arriving from Canada - in order to scare its readers.
In January 1832, Bourne, Brownlee, and other leaders founded the New York Protestant Association in order to actively stop the spread of Popery. They hosted public meetings and sponsored debates with Catholic priests, attracting riotous crowds.
An anti-Catholic book published in New York in 1836 gathered a large following. This book, The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal was supposedly the true account of a nun named Maria Monk. According to the book, Maria had escaped from a Montreal convent, where young women were imprisoned in the basement to be sexually abused by priests. Their illegitimate children were killed and buried in the cellar. In truth, however, Maria Monk was a mentally disturbed woman who was forced to stay in a Montreal institution. Her account was actually a fabrication by J.J. Slocum, a Protestant minister in New York City, published by the Harper Brothers under the false company Howe & Bates. Before this came to light, the people behind the Maria Monk phenomenon further continued to play into American Protestants’ fears, shock, and revulsion of Catholics; they scheduled Maria for a road show, in which she would appear in a religious habit, holding her child who was fathered by a priest. Though an investigation of the Hotel Dieu convent later exposed Mara’s story as a lie, the book remained popular, making Awful Disclosures one of the most influential Nativist works prior to the Civil War.
New York Catholics had to deal with more than just lies and debates. St. Mary’s Church on Sheriff Street was burned down on November 9, 1831. Pillaged, then set on fire in three separate places, the culprits even stuffed the bell to make it impossible for parishioners to summon help (Shelley, 100-102).
Shelley, Thomas J. The Archdiocese of New York: The Bicentennial History 1808-2008. France: Editions du Signe, 2007.