Written By: Linda Spalding
If we paused during the various 4th of July fireworks displays that take place in our country each year and really considered the reasons we celebrate Independence Day so proudly, we might have a tendency to believe that the freedoms on which America was established – and which we may take for granted today – have always been part of American life. However, when the first SCNs took their vows and for many years during the early life of the congregation, those who practiced the Catholic faith in the new United States of America often had to fight for the freedom to worship that was promised to them by the U.S. Constitution. Colonial Maryland was actually established on the specific premise of “religious freedom for all”; however, changes in government leadership during the 1600’s and 1700’s gradually eroded those freedoms for Catholics and the great exodus of Catholics from Maryland to Kentucky soon began.
What did all of this mean for the early SCNs? Mother Catherine Spalding, the first superior of the congregation, was born in Maryland and came to Kentucky during the same time period of the Maryland migration. Not only did she and other members of the congregation have to survive the harsh lifestyle and economic hardships of the time, but also would have dealt with religious intolerance that reared its head throughout the early history. One of the most infamous examples of religious intolerance in Kentucky occurred in Louisville on August 5, 1855 on Election Day and is known as “Bloody Monday.” On this date, anti-Catholic members of the “Know Nothing Party”- whose main purpose was to keep Catholics from obtaining political office – killed 22 German and Irish Catholic immigrants in Louisville. According to historical accounts, some of the worst violence took place in the same neighborhood where the first SCN orphan asylum, St. Vincent’s, was located and where members of the congregation would have been caring for children who lived there. Historical accounts of the riots state:
“…The smoldering embers of hate and prejudice soon caught fire over several incidents leading up to August 6, 1855. On July 8, 1855, a large mob gathered around the Catholic Church on Fifth Street. A rumor circulated that the Irish stored arms in the church and prepared to use them in the upcoming state elections. The mob found out that the church did not contain any arms. A few days later, the Louisville Public School Board fired all the Catholic teachers except for one…. Just before the election, the Know-Nothings held a 1,500 man torchlight procession through the streets of Louisville, hoping to intimidate the foreigners. At midnight the Know Nothings took control of the polls and the city’s police officers backed them up… On August 6, 1855, the polls opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m. Most of the polling stations had thugs at the doors, asking for a yellow ticket, which was a sign for the Know-Nothing party and asked foreigners if they had their naturalization papers. The first person to lose his life during the riots was George Berg, who was beaten to death on the street by a group of angry Irishmen. During the course of the day, two large riots erupted in the city. The first riot took place in the German district at 4 p.m., which was located in the First Ward on the east end of Louisville. The second riot occurred from 6 p.m. until midnight in the Irish district, in the Eight Ward in the western section of town.
“On the corner of Shelby and Green Streets, a German fired at a passing carriage. Another man was shot riding in his buggy. Once the gunshots were fired, the mobs of Know-Nothings became uncontrollable. Luckily, Bishop Martin Spalding gave the keys of the Cathedral of the Assumption to Mayor Barbee. When the mob arrived at the Cathedral, Mayor Barbee searched the premises and told the crowd that there were no arms inside the church. The mob moved onto St. Martin’s Church on Shelby Street, believing the Catholics had arms stored in the church. Again Mayor Barbee assured the crowd there were no arms. The mob joined about another fifty men, carrying muskets, bayonets, and pulling a cannon. At 3 p.m. the mob assembled around Armbruster’s brewery.
“In the Irish Ward, the fighting broke out between Know-Nothings and Irishmen after the killing of Theodore Rhodes, when he and two other men, were beaten by two Irishmen while walking through the district. Large mobs entered the Irish Ward and the residents fired on the mob from houses located along Quinn’s Row. Patrick Quinn owned a series of houses located along Main Street, located between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets. The Know Nothings burned the whole row of houses, destroying twelve houses and burned several people to death. The mob killed Quinn, an Irishman, and threw his body onto the flames. Two men were hanged from their banisters of their own homes and also consumed to the flames.
“The last victim of the riots occurred when an old German was pulled from his bed and shot to death. Another German was beaten and then thrown down his stairway, until he died. Reverend Karl Boeswald, of the Church of Immaculate Conception, at Eighth and Cedar, rushed to the bedside of the dying parishioner, but fell fatally wounded by a hail of stones…” (“Bloody Monday Riots: August 6, 1855”, Bush, 2007)
When the elections of 1856 came around a year later, the riots of the previous year were on Mother Catharine’s mind as she wrote a letter from the orphanage to Sister Cleophas on September 22, 1856:
“…Give my best love to Sister Gabriella and to all the Sisters & ask them to commence the Littany of the Immaculate Conception & say it daily in common till November, to obtain a just and peaceable election. Tell Sister Gabriella to be sure to do it, – & we poor orphans will join….” (Letters of Mother Catherine Spalding)
In spite of the religious turmoil and other hardships of the early days, in Catharine Spalding’s lifetime the pioneer SCNs managed to establish or expand 21 schools, 2 hospitals, 2 orphanages, and also to complete multiple building projects on the Nazareth Campus. The care and compassion shown to people of all backgrounds, nationalities, and even religious beliefs by the early SCNs surely helped to dispel generations of myths and fears that surrounded the Catholic faith. Similarly, the Catholic families that migrated from Maryland to Kentucky in the 1700’s are many of the same family names that we are familiar with today: Hayden, Cissell, Clark, Hagan, Dant, Miles, Mattingly, Greenwell, Elder, Spalding, Green, Bowling, Mudd, Nally, and many others. These families prospered in their new home and, along with the early SCNs and other groups of women religious, helped the central Kentucky area to become known as “the holy land of Kentucky.”