#OTD in 1844 – Irish Catholics in the Kensington slum area of Philadelphia are attacked by a mob of Nativists, a group of virulent anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant activists.

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 6-8 May and 6-7 July 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 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 6 May 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.

On the night of 8 May 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 15 June 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”. The church was burned down in the anti-Catholic Philadelphia Nativist Riots on 8 May 1844. 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 27 May 1847 and was completed in December 1848. The church was consecrated by Bishop Francis Kendrick and Archbishop John Hughes presided over High Mass on 5 November 1848. Organisations 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

Photo: St. Augustine Church, Philadelphia, PA, 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.

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