Once Upon a Time

Quincy Catholics and Protestants clashed in 19th century

This 1875 photo shows St. Boniface School (on the right) on Maine between Seventh and Eighth streets. Founded in 1838, this was the first of eight local parochial schools Roman Catholic parishes formed in the 19th century. | Photo courtesy of Quincy Public Library
Posted: May. 17, 2020 12:01 am Updated: May. 17, 2020 12:48 am

Conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the United States, which began in the American colonies, peaked when masses of European immigrants arrived in the 19th century.

Catholics comprised a large majority of these mostly Irish immigrants during a time when many looked askance at this denomination. A mistaken notion had arisen that the pope controlled Catholics with his "infallibility," even on matters outside of church doctrine.

Suspicions, distortions and lies about these new arrivals and their religious rituals and beliefs spread across large cities in the East and into smaller Midwestern ones like Quincy.

Even the esteemed Protestant Scolfield's Reference Bible defined Catholicism: "Ecclesiastical Babylon and apostate clericalism headed by the papacy."

Immigrants in the Gem City commonly clustered and worshiped separately in ethnic neighborhoods.

The anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Native American Party, informally known as "Know Nothings," gained political power in the country. The Quincy Daily Whig of Feb. 13, 1855, published a pointed definition of this movement. "The Know Nothing is so opposed to Catholics that he will not travel on a crossroad and refuses beef for fear the steak may have been a portion of the Pope's bull."

A local Know Nothings chapter formed in April 1859, and the next year a Methodist conference in Quincy, echoing similar views, denounced the "darkness and superstition of papacy." Speakers proclaimed that Catholics fostered drunkenness, dereliction and anarchy that would eventually lead to revolution and government overthrow by Rome.

American public schools during this era used and "interpreted" the King James Bible in class and widely denigrated "Romanism." They also began teaching "civics," a subject largely designed to pry Catholic pupils from what many perceived as papal manipulation that would one day render them useless in a democracy. Catholic parents objected to this "indoctrination" and began forming parochial schools.

In Quincy, Catholics first held classes in private homes before erecting buildings, with teachers usually giving lessons in a mix of German and English. St. Boniface School began in 1838 in the home of Adam Schmitt at 11th and Broadway. St. Francis opened about 1860, and two years later, St. Anthony and St. Lawrence O'Toole (later renamed St. Peter). By the end of the century, four more parochial schools had formed in Quincy.

In the aftermath of the local 1849 cholera epidemic and the American Civil War, the need for orphanages arose. Fr. Joseph Kuenster, pastor of St. Boniface Parish, founded an orphanage society that in April 1865 began St. Aloysius Orphan's Home, with the Sisters of Notre Dame assuming guardianship. This home, though, only accepted Catholic children. Prompted by this exclusion, the Ladies Union Benevolent Society of the Quincy Congregational Church organized and established Woodland Home two years later. Cradle-to-grave divisions of sects both proclaiming Christianity widened in the years after the Civil War.

Many life insurance companies denied policies to Catholic families. The local Western Catholic Union formed in 1877 to meet the financial needs that followed the death of the male breadwinner.

The Knights of Columbus began in Quincy in 1901 as another Catholic insurance company and later -- with many organizations refusing membership to "apostate" faiths -- as a social gathering place.

The oldest and largest fraternal group in the country, the Freemasons, formed a lodge in Quincy in February 1891. This temple and others never formally banned Catholics, but Rome itself had long condemned its men from joining, calling it a "cult" that fostered national allegiance over religion and brotherhood among members over church solidarity.

Fears alike arose among Protestants that the pope wielded power over "papists" intent on overthrowing the American government and making it subservient to its church.

The Rev. T.B. Hilton delivered several sermons in December 1893 at Quincy's United Methodist Episcopal Church to congregations estimated at 1,400 people. A front-page Quincy Daily Herald story reported: "[Hilton] finds no good in this large body of believers. He said Romanism had thrown down seven pillars of liberty: Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of opinion, religious toleration, separation of church and state, popular suffrage, and open bible."

In 1850, U.S. Catholics numbered about 1.6 million, but between 1860 and 1890, immigrants alone had more than tripled that figure and the denomination became the country's largest.

Along with numbers came political power. Catholics in Quincy held several high government offices: city attorney, circuit clerk, county treasurer, and police chief.

As Catholic influence grew, so did the backlash. The vehemently anti-Catholic American Protective Association formed a local chapter with about 100 members to oppose the Church's mounting power.

Sermons such as those delivered by the Rev. Edward Nolesum of Quincy's First Union Congregational Church in February 1880 and reprinted in The Quincy Daily Whig stoked a horror of retribution that would echo from pulpits and papers for many years. "As the Roman Catholic Church got power it in turn persecuted all besides."

Then in 1923 the unprecedented happened: Gov. Al Smith of New York became the first Catholic to make a serious bid for the presidency. Outcries, protests and rallies sprang up around the country against the Democrat candidate. The local Ku Klux Klan raised a flaming cross at a mass meeting of 300 people in Sherman Park in West Quincy to denounce Smith and denigrate Catholics as "anti-American" and unworthy of holding political office. Klansmen later that night passed out applications to "American-born Protestants" and urged women to join its newly formed female auxiliary.

Sectarian division briefly quelled after Congress' passage of the "Bonus Bill" in May 1924 to compensate World War I veterans for their service. The nation honored these men without questioning their religion. Quincy City Hall began holding ecumenical prayer meetings, and local parades and military tributes praised servicemen impartially. The newly formed Quincy American Legion Post 37 offered membership to veterans of any persuasion and sermons, and newspaper editorials toned down their inflammatory speech.


Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for Catholic Times, and for the past 23 years as a writer for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has logged more than 10,000 miles on bicycles in his life.



Bruener, The Rev. Theodore. "History of the Catholic Church in Quincy." Translated by Lester Holtschlag. Quincy, Ill.: Volk, Jones & McMein, 1887.


"He Attacks Romanism." Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 18, 1893, p. 1.


"Klan Spokesman Holds Forth Meeting." Quincy Daily Journal, July 24, 1923, p. 7.


"Methodist Minister in Quincy." Quincy Whig, Aug. 25, 1860, p. 3.


Pope Leo XIII. "Encyclical Letter Quo Graviora: Condemnation of Freemasonry." Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press (reprint) February 1998. Orig. pub. March 13, 1826.

Scolfield's Reference Bible. Cyrus I. Scolfield, ed. and annotator. Oxford, England: Oxford Univ. Press, 1909.


"Sensible." Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 13, 1855, p. 3.


"A Sermon." Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 2, 1880, p. 2.