Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Second Great Protestant Awakening: Foxboro 1831

In 1830, the Catholic population in Diocese of Boston, which included all of New England at the time, numbered about in 15,000. They were for the most part untrained for the majority of the available occupations and were destitute of schooling. The Catholics who resided in Foxboro and the surrounding towns, were chiefly Irish laborers working on the construction of the Boston to Providence railroad line, the granite quarry located behind the old district schoolhouse in East Foxboro that supplied the granite for the railroad bed, and General Shepherd Leach’s iron foundry.

Hard on the heels of these railroad gangs, foundry men and quarrymen came missionary priests to provide religious instruction and to preside at sacred sacraments. During the summer of 1831, Reverend Peter Connolly, an Ulsterman who had studied in Ireland, conducted a roving apostolate which carried him all over Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts. He served the small churches at Sandwich and New Bedford, the only churches south of Boston at the time. His territory included mission stops in Wareham, Taunton, Easton and Foxboro. He described his flock "chiefly unmarried workingmen who were here today and gone tomorrow."

During this same era the Protestant revivalist movement known as "The Second Great Awakening" commenced throughout New England. Within the ranks of the Congregational churches, the denomination that had dominated the religious life of New England for two centuries, there occurred an historical schism. The liberal minority, representing the political, social, and intellectual elite of Boston and vicinity, separated from the "Orthodox" majority to form the new Unitarian church. Revivalism and evangelical fervor was the mainspring of the movement that attempted to transcended sectarian and denominational boundaries. The new evangelical movement placed a greater emphasis on people’s ability to change their situation for the better by stressing that individuals could assert their "free will" in choosing to be saved and by suggesting that salvation was open to all human beings. The Second Great Awakening embraced a more optimistic view of the human condition. Unfortunately this remarkable revival of Protestant zeal and activity produced a new attack upon Catholicism. The evangelists quite naturally felt it a duty to launch out against the opposing systems - against Unitarians on the one side and Catholics on the other.

It was during height of the summer "Second Great Awakening" revival meetings, that Fr. Connelly attempted to minister to the Catholic laborers working in iron furnaces located in Easton, Foxboro, and Walpole.

In a letter published in the July 1831 issue of the Boston "Jesuit" newspaper He described his visit to these mission stops. The priest wrote, "My official duties called me to Easton, where a few Catholics are employed by General Shepard Leach. I asked permission of the then-superintendent, under whose charge they were to speak to them for a short time, when I immediately saw myself surrounded by the most ignorant and bigoted crew, with a few exceptions I ever beheld. I must confess that although they made use of the most insulting language, aided and assisted as they were by their overseers and clerk they extorted only pity from me. I listened to their vile epithets; I reasoned with them and answered their hackneyed objections which had evidently fallen from the lips of some orthodox spouting 'saint'. In a short time I was glad to find that some of the party became so disgusted with the conduct of their comrades, that they manfully came forward, as honest and liberal Americans always will do, and defend me form further outrage. After a visit to this place, which lasted nearly an hour, I proceed to Foxborough to see a few Catholics in the employ of General Leach, and here I met with still worse treatment from individuals of the same cast as the former. In the absence of an agent, who, I subsequently understood, felt indignant at their proceedings, they, in imitation of the 'Indian war-hoop,' sounded a horn to collect a larger group, to prevent me from imparting religious instruction to the Catholics, and one exclaimed in his holy wrath that 'He was sorry he had not a load gun by him!'

Fr. Connolly had attributed these actions as the result of "...prayer meetings held twice or thrice a week in different villages, where they have an opportunity of keeping up the excitement, which consists calumnies against the Catholic church, her priests, and her tenets."


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