Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez: Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia: From Conflict to Collaboration

The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, by Elizabeth Hayes AlvarezWe welcome a guest blog post today from Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, author of The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, which will be available in April 2016. (Click here to be notified when The Valiant Woman is published.) Nineteenth-century America was rife with Protestant-fueled anti-Catholicism. Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez reveals how Protestants nevertheless became surprisingly and deeply fascinated with the Virgin Mary, even as her role as a devotional figure who united Catholics grew. Documenting the vivid Marian imagery that suffused popular visual and literary culture, Alvarez argues that Mary became a potent, shared exemplar of Christian womanhood around which Christians of all stripes rallied during an era filled with anxiety about the emerging market economy and shifting gender roles.

In today’s post, Alvarez watches her hometown of Philadelphia welcome a visit from Pope Francis and places the current positive reception in the context of the city’s religious history.


storefront sign reading "We welcome the pope to Philadelphia"
photo by Marcus Alvarez

As I walk around Philadelphia this week, I marvel at the signs, merchandise, and promotions welcoming Pope Francis. There seem to be no limits—of religious affiliation or taste—to pope fever. From the Wawa convenience store to the Potbelly Sandwich Shop, to pope memorabilia pop-up shops, Philly businesses are enthusiastically embracing (or cashing in on) Francis’s popularity. It’s hard to believe that just over a century and a half ago, Catholics were the target of violence in this city.

In the Philadelphia “Bible Riots” of 1844, dozens of people—Catholics, anti-Catholic nativists, and militia—were killed, and over a hundred injured. The riots began when nativists held a rally in the heart of the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Kensington denouncing Bishop Francis Kenrick’s request that Catholic schoolchildren be allowed to use the Catholic Douay Reams version of the Bible instead of the Protestant King James version. This request, nativists claimed, was really an attempt to remove the Bible, and with it, “true” Christianity, from Philadelphia’s public schools. That rally set off events that culminated in twenty-five deaths and the destruction of Catholic homes, a firehouse, a market, two Catholic churches, and a convent. Two months later, riots resumed in another Philadelphia neighborhood, Southwark, resulting in fifteen more deaths.

How did we get from an anti-Catholicism so virulent that blood ran in the streets and churches were burned to the ground, to Philadelphia businesses competing to outdo each other in their enthusiastic welcome of the Catholic pope?

St. Augustine's Catholic Church, Philadelphia, set on fire by anti-Catholic nativists in riot May 8, 1844
St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, Philadelphia, set on fire in riot May 8, 1844

Just a few decades ago, people still called marriage between Protestants and Catholics “mixed marriage.” Underlying this sense of difference was a belief that clear boundaries divided these communities. And, in fact, cultural and institutional boundaries did exist to enforce the divide. After the riots, Philadelphia Catholics constructed their own “cradle-to-grave” institutions, from orphanages to schools, to hospitals, to convalescent homes. But it was not just institutions that separated Catholics and Protestants. Catholics also cultivated distinct cultural forms, combating the Protestant emphasis on individualism with a consistent counter-message emphasizing mutuality and the common good. In light of virulent anti-Catholicism, physical and cultural separation was not surprising. America’s religious communities form subcultures—and even countercultures—with distinctive characteristics and values. However, Americans are also shaped by the same dominant culture, face the same regional and national economic crises, and experience the same social shifts. In reality, the boundaries that divide Americans are never as clearly drawn as they imagine.

Wawa store sign welcomes Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families
photo by Marcus Alvarez

Americans have influenced each other in countless ways that they don’t often acknowledge or even fully understand. For example, the Catholic charismatic movement, which began at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh when professors there read and embraced the writing of charismatic evangelical pastor David Wilkerson, is now active in over 200 countries with over a hundred million people calling themselves “charismatic Catholics.” My forthcoming book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, traces another locus of exchange. By closely examining popular culture, I find that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Mother provoked a surprising swell of Protestant interest in her figure. Despite their vociferous rejection of Marian doctrines, such as her Immaculate Conception and her Queenship of Heaven, Protestants produced (and reproduced) images of Mary that emphasized these doctrines’ themes of purity and queenship. While Mary was not a site of religious devotion for Protestants, her images and theology helped conceptualize womanhood in a period of cultural shift.

This sort of influence and exchange doesn’t come from the top down. There have been, of course, key moments of official ecumenicism, most notably Vatican II’s recognition of elements of “sanctification and truth . . . outside” the Catholic Church’s “visible confines.” There are also the groundbreaking documents that came out of the dialog between Lutherans and Catholics, such as the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. And there are less official statements of shared beliefs and values, such as the 1994 document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” signed by evangelical pastor Chuck Colson and Catholic priest and First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus. Such documents, however, don’t drive change. They reflect it.

July 7, 1844 riot in Southwark, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
July 7, 1844, riot in Southwark, Philadelphia

Common cause has been forged on the ground, primarily in the movements that shaped America’s “culture wars.” Catholic labor activist Dorothy Day was not only a heroine to Catholic workers. And while the Catholic establishment had a mixed track record on civil rights, Catholic priests and sisters marched at Selma and participated in local civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations around the country. With their distinctive clothing telegraphing their religious identity, Catholics were recognized by other Christian activists as visible allies. And here in Philadelphia, Fr. John McNamee of St. Malachy’s Church worked alongside local Protestant leaders to advocate for and meet the needs of North Philly’s African American residents, most of whom were not Catholics themselves.

Philadelphia streetpost banners welcoming Pope Francis
photo by Marcus Alvarez

But common cause was not just forged on the Left. Conservative movements also brought Americans together. Most notably, the Moral Majority of the late 1970s, founded by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell and Catholic layman Paul Weyrich, drew support from both communities. While in those years evangelical Christians were still producing tracts that called the Catholic Church the “whore of Babylon” and the pope the “anti-Christ,” the Moral Majority affirmed a set of shared values that more traditional Americans felt were under siege in the modern world. Working together, they made political headway, promoting conservative candidates and restricting access to abortion. The annual March for Life, founded by Catholic convert Nellie Gray in 1974, continues this tradition. This winter it brought over 800,000 people from all over the country to Washington, D.C., where Catholics and Protestants prayed and chanted together.

While religious fear and misunderstanding still plague us, and immigrants continue to bear brunt of their impact, Catholics and Protestants have found themselves allies in a variety of grassroots-level movements as they navigate cultural change. And while Pope Francis’s tenure has frustrated those Catholics who appreciated the conservatism of his two predecessors, he seems to tear down boundaries with his combination of grace-filled pronouncements and grand symbolic gestures. Philadelphians’ shared anticipation of his visit shows just how distant those memories of anti-Catholic violence have become.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is assistant professor of religion at Temple University. Her book The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture will be available in April 2016. Click here to be notified when The Valiant Woman is published. You can follow Alvarez on Twitter @hayesalvarez.