Old Saint Augustine's Church is the site of the first Augustinian community in the United States. Its early history had some very dramatic moments.
Two Irish Augustinians, Matthew Carr O.S.A. and John Rosseter O.S.A. were sent to Philadelphia by the Holy See (Vatican) to purchase land, oversee the construction of a church, and ultimately to care for a growing number of Catholics from Germany and Ireland who lived in the northern sections of the city.
Saint Augustine's was not the first Catholic church built in Philadelphia, but became the first in the United States to be built and staffed by the Order of Saint Augustine (the Augustinians). This site is located in the older section of downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America. It was once the home to the "Sister Bell" of the Liberty Bell, the birthplace of the Philadelphia Police Department, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the forerunner of Villanova University. The United States Constitution was still a very young document when the cornerstone for Saint Augustine's Church was placed in September 1796
The church was designed by Douglas Fitzmaurice Fagan. Its bell tower, added in 1829, was the work of William Strickland, who designed a similar tower for Independence Hall, which was nearby. Contributors to the building fund of the church included President George Washington, Commodore John Barry (the "father of the United States Navy"), and Thomas Fitzsimons, who was one of the signatories of the Constitution of the United States. Construction of the church took five years because of lack of money, construction delays, and the size and rich decoration of the church. Saint Augustine's was then the largest church in the city.
The cupola and tower that was added in 1829 housed the "Sister Bell" of the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall nearby. Paintings by Renaissance master Tintoretto, as well as Italian artists Perugino and Carracci are displayed inside the church.
Saint Augustine's Church soon became a centre of musical and educational activity. The musical oratorio, Messiah, of George Frederic Handel arose from voices at Saint Augustine's (probably its premiere in the United States). So too did Creation by the composer, Joseph Haydn. Some historians claim that the Solemn Mass of Rossini received its world premiere at the Church on Christmas Day in 1871. Henry Gordon Thunder, Jr., a musical director at Saint Augustine's Church organised both the Choral Society of Philadelphia and its instrumental accompanists. These musicians eventually evolved into the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra, which was organised in 1900.
Villanova College - now re-named Villanova University and located on a different larger site - grew out of the Saint Augustine's Academy, which was a school for boys founded there in 1811.
The Nativist Movement (Native American Party) arose from the fear of persons born in the United States of being swamped by the increasing influx of foreigners, particularly those of the Catholic faith. By 1838, Saint Augustine's Church had 3,000 members. By 1840, Philadelphia had an Irish population that was the second largest in the United States.
Images (at left): Picture 1: The burning of the first Church of St Augustine in 1844 Picture 2: Mosaic: Matthew Carr OSA meets George Washington
During a brawl outside the City between Nativists and immigrant Irishmen (who overwhelmingly were Catholics) on 3 May 1844, four Nativists were killed. Five nights later as tempers continued to soar, a Nativist crowd set out from Independence Hall. On the way they burned Saint Michael's Catholic Church, and its school and rectory. A score of homes burned, and also one of the finest libraries of theology in the United States, which had contained 3,000 books. They then crowded around Saint Augustine's Church in the City. Mayor Scott made a fruitless attempt to quell the crowd, but by 10.30pm the Augustinian church had been burned to the ground. The Augustinians sued the City of Philadelphia for not providing adequate protection during the rioting, and claimed damages of US$80,000. The City contended that the Augustinians could not claim their civil rights had been violated since the Order was a foreign society under the orbit of the Pope.
Further they contended that the friars took a vow of poverty and thus could not hold property. The Augustinians were ultimately able to prove that their Order had been lawfully incorporated in 1804. They were awarded $45,000. This case was one of the first tests of the rights of citizens to religious freedom under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. It also fulfilled one of the articles in the Charter of Principles laid down in the year 1701 by William Penn, founder of the (then) Colony of Pennsylvania.
In 1847, the Augustinians decided to rebuild their church. It was designed by Napoleon LeBaron, the architect of such Philadelphia landmarks as the Academy of Music, and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It was completed in 1848. The church's interior is stunning. The ceiling frescoes depict scenes from "Saint Augustine in Glory." The artist was Philip Costaggini, who painted part of the frieze on the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C..
The first Augustinian General Chapter to be held in the New World opened there in Philadelphia in 1968.
St Augstine’s Church, Philadelphia. Official website. http://www.st-augustinechurch.com
St Augustine’s Church: U.S. History. A detailed historical account. http://www.ushistory.org/tour/st-augustine.htm
Explore History: St Augustine’s Church. Philadelphia. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3D2
St Augustine's Philadelphia Project. With over 20 excellent photographs. http://www.phillychurchproject.com/st-augustine AN4265