Friday, September 12, 2014

The Real Heroes of the 1863 Draft Riots

By Father George Rutler

(Crisis Magazine) The staircase in my rectory is lined with pictures of the twelve pastors who preceded me in my parish, which is called Hell’s Kitchen.  I hope that thirteen is a benign number. While the neighborhood now is experiencing the most promising real estate development in the history of the nation, it did not get its nickname for being what it is now.  Here is where the boatloads of Irish immigrants from the Great Famine arrived at the nearby docks, amid terrible poverty, crime and vice, giving our vocabulary the “Paddy wagon” and “donnybrook.” The faces of my first predecessors are serious, for those pastors had a hard job to do for God and I cannot hope to fill the shoes of those men who toiled in ill streets.

The first of them was Monsignor Arthur J. Donnelly who built a huge parish from scratch in 1857, regularizing marriages and tending abandoned children, and trying to form a Catholic culture just as Archbishop Cullen had managed to do somewhat in Dublin where, contrary to romance, oppression had long neglected the moral norms of the Church.  Donnelly was pastor during the Civil War and was appalled by what was happening to his people and nation as he tried to establish the parish.  The great church, school, and convent that he established were moved a generation later two blocks north to make way for the Pennsylvania Station.

The Draft Riots took place July 13-16 in 1863. They had precedent in Cincinnati in 1862 where Bishop John Purcell’s brother, the Reverend Edward Purcell, was singular in his anti-slavery publicity through The Cincinnati Telegraph. Orestes Brownson, whom John Henry Newman hoped might join his new Catholic University in Dublin, observed that pro-slavery Catholics for the most part  “only acted out the opinions they had received from men of higher religious and social position than themselves,” and insisted that  “had they been guided properly, the riots would never have taken place, or at least the main participants in them would not have been Irish Catholics.”

In New York the riots lasted four days and at least 120 were killed, while some estimates have 500 or more. Over 2,000 were injured, and more than 50 businesses and homes and two Protestant churches were destroyed. Racism melded with religious bigotry and some Protestant churches were threatened because they were pro-Republican and centers of the abolition cause.  Rioters sacked the Protestant “Five Points Mission” as a parish priest, at great danger to himself, tried to stop them while wearing his stole and waving his Breviary. Two blocks from my rectory a black man was lynched on a lamp post, mutilated, and set on fire.  The nearby Presbyterian church was about to be torched when Monsignor Donnelly appealed to the mob and the church was saved.   Today at Mass I sit in a large oak chair that was the gift of the Presbyterian minister and his elders in gratitude for their rescue. When Monsignor Donnelly died in 1890 after thirty-three years as pastor, the Presbyterians attended his Requiem Mass, the first they had ever seen.  Many of the overwhelmed police were Irish Catholics, horrified at what they saw, and they behaved heroically, like the local regimental Colonel Henry O’Brien, who was killed protecting a policeman... (continued)


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