Lowell’s war on religion, c.1890

Holidays to me are characterized by rituals: Cookouts on the Fourth of July, visiting the cemetery on Memorial Day, enduring the mainstream media’s incessant “War on Christmas” stories every December. Personally, I’m comfortable wishing folks a Merry Christmas, but I also sympathize with those who are hesitant to do so. Many of our neighbors don’t celebrate that holiday, so I can understand why some believe it best to avoid highlighting the religious rituals of one group in the public sphere.

Besides simple politeness, one of my major motivations for feeling this way is historic. Consider this:

The original city hall in Lowell was at the corner of Merrimack and Shattuck Street, the building that now houses the headquarters of Enterprise Bank. Because of the city’s rapid growth, the original building soon proved to be of inadequate size and the long process of building a new city hall (and the adjacent Memorial Hall, now the city library) began with the appointment of a Board of Commissioners to oversee the construction.

The Commission was plagued by controversy, beginning with the selection of the architect and the details of the design. But one of the most controversial acts of the City Hall Building Commission involved the laying of the building’s cornerstone and the attendant ceremony. For this I’ll quote at length from History of Lowell and its people, by Frederick William Coburn.

Even the exercises at the laying of the cornerstones of City Hall and Memorial Hall were not conducted without friction, in this case over a question of Masonic participation. A sub-committee of the commission to consider the exercises reported on September 23, 1890, that “in the judgment of the subcommittee the cornerstones of the respective buildings should be laid with attendant ceremonies; a parade should be had; the Masonic fraternities should lay the cornerstone of City Hall and the Grand Army of the Republic should lay the cornerstone of the Memorial Building; both in connection with the City Council of the city of Lowell.” . . .

Soon thereafter, the city government received the following petition signed by twenty-three Roman Catholic clergymen and four thousand, six hundred and forty-two Roman Catholic laymen:

To the Honorable the Mayor and the City Council of the City of Lowell:
We, the undersigned Catholic citizens of Lowell, respectfully petition your honorable body that you take such action as will prevent the laying of the cornerstone of the new City hall by other than purely civic ceremonies, and that such civic ceremonies shall be conducted by representatives of the City Government.

Both the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council voted concurrence with this request and forwarded everything to the independent building commission who ignored the pleas and went ahead as planned with full Masonic participation.

Undoubtedly members of the commission and their like minded friends privately decried the Catholics’ “war on religion” and reasoned that rituals of this sort were meant to preserve traditional American culture, that they were part of what held us together and made us American – the same rationale used today to advocate the place of (some) religion in the public sphere.

I’m guessing that some of my ancestors were among the 4642 Catholics who asked that religion be kept out of civic ceremonies and that they disagreed with the sentiments of the building commission. I’m also guessing that some of those today who are most critical of those who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are also descendant from the 4642 petitioners. I find it ironic that they are so insensitive to the wishes of their own forebears.