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A history of anti-Catholicism: Telling the story of the Church in America

By Matt Hadro for CNA

An exhibit at the Special Collections Department at the Catholic University of America. (Credit: Matt Hadro/CNA)

Washington D.C., Oct 28, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- If you’ve ever seen an old cartoon of the pope taking over the White House but wanted to hold the original piece of paper, you’re in luck.

At the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the special collections department has a trove of historical material, spanning centuries. From political smears of 1928 Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated by one of the parties to run for president, to the papers of a Massachusetts convent torched by mobs in 1834, U.S. Catholic history is a long and difficult story worth preserving and understanding.

The collection is “trying to tell the story of American Catholics writ large,” university archivist William Shepherd told CNA in an interview last week.

The Catholic University of America holds a particular place in U.S. Catholic history, founded by the country’s bishops under an 1887 papal charter of Pope Leo XIII.

While other Catholic universities have special historical collections too, the university is strategically located. Many Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are headquartered in the nation’s capital, several only blocks away.

Shepherd told CNA that the role of the archive is to help Catholics better understand their story in the United States, including a history of persecution. The university has saved and maintained a collection of old anti-Catholic literature, pamphlets, and cartoons.

Protestants who came to America from England brought with them their English anti-Catholic sentiments. On Nov. 5, many would burn an effigy of the pope on “Pope Night,” a commemoration of the English Guy Fawkes’ Day.

In 1834, mobs burned a Catholic Ursuline convent to the ground in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The university’s collection offers evidence of the level of anti-Catholic bigotry at the time. It includes documents on the convent’s founding, the work of the Ursulines in the Boston area, the burning of the convent, and the prosecution and acquittal of the rioters.

Another collection features attacks on 1928 Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, which tried to smear him as a puppet of the pope. A cartoon ‘Cabinet Meeting – If Al Were President’ shows the pope and bishops sitting around a table drinking wine and liquor, during Prohibition. The Democratic National Committee donated the collection on Smith to Catholic University in 1929.

Other materials include anti-Catholic polemics. There is the 1729 “Letter from a Romish Priest in Canada to one who was taken captive in her infancy, and was instructed in the Romish faith,” by Francois Seguenot.

One 1928 flyer advertises a “lecture by ex-priest’s wife” Mrs. James K. Boyland, a common attempt at this time to portray the Church as a sort of cult. Another book review promotes the 1915 broadside on the Church by William Lloyd Clark, “Three Keys to Hell; or, Rum, Romanism, and Ruin.”

Catholics also fought back against such propaganda, and the archives tell of how they promoted themselves as good, patriotic Americans.

During the First World War, the National Catholic War Council was established to support U.S. intervention in the war—at the same time Pope Benedict XV was urging peace. Some American Catholics wanted to prove their patriotism amid anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant suspicion.

A papal mandate brought about the 1938 Commission on American Citizenship, a project which sought to teach democracy within the Catholic tradition, at parochial schools.

Other illustrations tell how Pope Pius XII was fighting Communism, opposition to which became an area of common ground for American Catholics and Protestants in the 1950s.

The collection also includes more recent USCCB material, documentation of Catholic labor history in the U.S., American Catholic artwork, and a rare books collection which goes back to the fifteenth century. There are more than 100 manuscripts from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries, including papal bulls and choir books.

Papers of famous Catholics tell stories of diplomats and activists, like Monsignor John Ryan, who fought for a living wage and supported the New Deal, or the former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon.

Academics and students visit to conduct research, but so do all kinds of Catholics, including journalists, and even high school students working on school projects will stop in and are welcome, said Shepherd.

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  1. The Protestants were afraid of the Catholics and their cultures when they came over, but soon found out they did a lot of smart things, and prospered.

  2. Anti-Catholicism began in earnest among English-speaking people with Queen Elizabeth I who, in her resistance to marrying King Phillip of Spain (or any other man), turned the whole of England against all things Spanish, including their faith. Additionally, the claim of Mary Queen of Scots to the English throne and her dedicated Catholicism.

  3. I voted for the first time in 1960. I was in my first year of teaching in a high school. Many times, I heard other faculty express the idea that “if Kennedy gets elected, the United States will be ruled by the Pope.” I was shocked! I grew up in “liberal” Southern California. When one of our classmates in high school tragically died. Her funeral Mass was attended by all of her classmates, many of whom were not Catholic. I went to a private college where most of my classmates were sons and daughters of ministers. We were all friends. Only about 10% of the student body were Catholics. Yet, we were able to form a club. Ecumenism was alive and well there before it was even considered. So, I was shocked to hear such bigotry among my colleagues.

  4. In Australia the Catholic mass was banned until 1830’s; masses held in secret with “lookouts” as depicted in stained glass windows, St Marys Cathedral Sydney. Well into 20th century companies would not employ Catholics. Anti Catholisism still exists.

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