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Convention Insider

Two Churches with Proud Histories

A sign outside Old St. Mary's Church outlines the role of Catholics in the nation's founding.

A sign outside Old St. Mary's Church outlines the role of Catholics in the nation's founding.

During a time of anti-Catholic colonial laws and prejudice, Philadelphia was a city of religious tolerance, under William Penn’s charter of freedom. In fact, two churches along the same block in the city’s Society Hill section became a refuge for Catholics after Maryland, founded under Catholic auspices, turned against “popery” in the early years of the 18th century.

These churches were part of the convention’s “Sacred Sights and Shrines” tour on Monday, Aug. 3.

In 1733, Maryland Jesuits settling in Philadelphia built St. Joseph’s Chapel, a small structure that was hidden from street view. Despite initial objections from city leaders, the chapel and its Catholic faithful found a home, and 30 years later St. Mary’s Church was built to full view on nearby South 4th Street.

Today, the two churches are still active parishes, though the word “old” has been added to their names to honor their place in city history. Old St. Mary’s and Old St. Joseph’s stand a short walk from Independence Hall, and the former was a place of worship and celebration for the founders of the nation, both Catholic and Protestant. George Washington didn’t sleep here (we hope) but he did pray in St. Mary’s on at least two occasions.

The interior of Old St. Joseph's is true to its historic roots.

The interior of Old St. Joseph's is true to its historic roots.

The church was the site of the first public religious celebration of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, and members of the Continental Congress gathered in St. Mary’s at least four times for services. After attending a Mass, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the beautiful singing of the choir and solemn rituals “can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant.”

A number of prominent Catholics are buried in the church’s cemetery, among them Commodore John Barry, known as the father of the U.S. Navy, and Stephen Moylan, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The deeds of such brave patriots undercut anti-Catholic bigotry and proved that Catholics could be true to their faith and good U.S. citizens.