Olde St. Augustine's Church

Site of the First Foundation of the Augustinian Order in the U.S., the Nativist Riots of 1844, and one-time home to the "Sister Bell" of the Liberty Bell. Birthplace of The Philadelphia Police Department, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the forerunner of Villanova University.

William Penn considered his colony Pennsylvania and its primary city Philadelphia a "holy experiment" in religious coexistence. The disdained and persecuted faiths of the Old World — Quakers, Catholics, Jews — as well as other religions, would find longed-for religious tolerance and personal freedom in his City of Brotherly Love. These rights were articulated in Penn's radical Charter of Privileges drawn up in 1701.

Fifty years later, in 1752, the Liberty Bell was cast in England by Whitechapel Foundry to commemorate Penn's remarkable Charter. On its initial test ring, the Liberty Bell cracked. The town fathers ordered an identical bell from Whitechapel and meanwhile gave the cracked bell to Pass & Stow, a local foundry, to recast. Their bell was ready first and placed in the bell tower at the State House (Independence Hall). Later, Whitechapel's replacement bell arrived and was installed attached to the clock at the State House to ring the hours. This second bell is called the "Sister Bell."

During renovations of Independence Hall in the late 1820s, city officials agreed to transfer the Sister Bell and clock from Independence Hall to Olde St. Augustine Church as a permanent loan.

Permanence proved passing.

The 1840s saw a rise in religious intolerance, variously called the Nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and "Native American" movement — the exact opposite of William Penn's vision of a City of Brotherly Love.

On the night of May 8, 1844, rioters attacked St. Augustine and after a heated exchange with soldiers succeeded in burning down the great church. By sunrise, only the wall behind the altar remained standing. On it, in charred gilt letters, survived the words "The Lord Seeth." Amid the rubble, the historic Sister Bell, symbolic of Penn's dream of religious and personal freedom, lay burned and smashed, destroyed by the fire.

That very bell would ring again.

The church which reportedly hosted the Philadelphia premiere of Handel's Messiah would rise again.

The birth of a municipal police force in Philadelphia would result.

The boundaries of Philadelphia would expand.

The church would sue the city leading to a Constitutional showdown.


The Constitution was not yet a decade old when the cornerstone for St. Augustine was laid in September 1796. Two Irish friars, Fathers Matthew Carr and John Rosseter were sent to Philadelphia by the Holy See to purchase land, oversee the church's construction, and ultimately shepherd over a burgeoning Irish-Catholic population. St. Augustine, though not the first Catholic church built in Philadelphia, thus became the first in America of the Brothers of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine.

Contributors to the church included President Washington, Commodore John "Father of the U.S. Navy" Barry (whose statue stands in the shadow of Independence Hall), and Constitution signer Thomas Fitzsimons. Construction of the church took five years, in part due to recurring yellow fever outbreaks among workers. Further, despite the impressive group of contributors, money shortfalls caused construction delays owing to the size and sumptuousness of the church.

St. Augustine was the largest church in the city. A local architect Nicholas FitzMaurice Fagan designed and built the original church. The cupola and tower (added in 1829) which housed the Sister Bell displayed the craftsmanship of renowned architect William Strickland (the 1829 steeple at Independence Hall, the Merchant's Exchange, the Second Bank of the United States, and the Tennessee State House). Paintings by Renaissance master Tintoretto, as well as Italian artists Perugino and Carracci hung in the church's interior.

St. Augustine soon became a center of educational and musical activity. Not only did Handel's Messiah rise from voices at St. Augustine but so did Haydn's Creation. Some historians claim that Rossini's Solemn Mass received its world premiere at the Church on Christmas Day 1871. Henry Gordon Thunder, Jr., a musical director at St. Augustine organized both the Choral Society of Philadelphia and its instrumental accompanists. These musicians eventually evolved into the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra which was organized in 1900.

Villanova College grew out of the St. Augustine Academy which was a boys' school founded in 1811. The school's mission, according to church historian Father Ennis, was to provide students with "all the advantages of Classical Science with enlightened instruction in our Holy Faith." Among the resources of St. Augustine was the largest theological library in Philadelphia totaling some 3,000 volumes.

That library would burn in the rioting of 1844.

The Nativist Movement issued from American-born natives' xenophobia — they feared an ever-growing influx of foreigners, particularly those of Catholic faith. By 1840, Philadelphia had the second-largest Irish population in the United States. An 1838 St. Augustine census revealed that half of their parishioners were Irish-born, while only one-sixth were native-born. The Nativists sought stringent immigration reform in conjunction with outlandish nationalization requirements: They pressed for 25 years residency as a fair requirement for citizenship.

Bishop Francis Kenrick fanned the tensions by petitioning the Philadelphia school board to allow Catholic students to use a Catholic version of the Bible rather than the King James version. The school board acquiesced to this request. A hostile public all too ready to believe the worst, accused Catholics of trying to dispose of the Bible in schools altogether.

Ironically, the native-born, Presbyterian Scotch-Irish also demonstrated with the Nativists against the Irish-Catholics, suggesting to some extent that the enmity was based more on religion than nationality.


Kensington, an area north of the Philadelphia border (at the time) and northwest of St. Augustine was heavily dominated by the Irish. Nativists rallied there on May 3, 1844. Local Irish-Catholics broke that meeting up. Undeterred, the Nativists called another meeting in Kensington three days later. Owing to inclement weather the meeting disbanded and the crowd sought shelter at a nearby covered arcade known as the Nanny Goat Market. Local Irishmen considered the market sacrosanct, and when Nativists entered it a melee broke out. Shots were fired from The Hibernia Hose Company, a group of private firefighters known for rowdyism (as were many fire companies of the day). In the ensuing brawl four Nativists including George Shiffler were killed.

Nativists suggested that the Irish-Catholics had deliberately desecrated an American flag that the martyred Shiffler had been trying to defend. This elevated the Nativists and others into a fever pitch. To avenge the reported desecration of the flag and real spilling of blood, the Nativists invaded Kensington the next day. They carried a flag with a sign that read, "This is the flag trampled upon by Irish Papists." Gunfire and chaos erupted anew in Kensington. This time the toll was seven Nativists and two Irish-Catholics.

On May 8, 1844, a crowd set out from Independence Hall to attack the Hibernia Hose Company. Fearful Catholics fled before the rabble arrived. The mob burned St. Michael's, a Catholic church, and its school and rectory. A score of homes burned as well. After destroying a chunk of Kensington the throng headed back toward the city. Along the way they crowded around St. Augustine Church. Mayor Scott made a fruitless attempt to quell the crowd.

The May 8, 1844, diary entry of Thomas Cope, a Philadelphia merchant, tells the rest:

"10 o'clock — fire-engines out — State House bell ringing. A powerful light in the direction of St. Augustine, no doubt 'tis on fire. The flame ascends higher & the whole City is lighted up ... A quarter past ten — there is no longer any doubt as to the object on fire. The flame has reached the cupola & that structure, in full blaze, is plainly in view. 1/2 past — the cupola has fallen & the sparks are ascending rapidly aloft ... Half past eleven — the State House bell still gives note of flames & destruction, reminding us of the awful tocsin of Revolutionary France. After 12, all being quiet in our immediate vicinity, retired to bed, sky still reddened with the embers of St. Augustine."

In his diary entry for May 9, Cope reported that it was a boy about 16 years old who had entered the church, cut the gas pipe and ignited the interior. Some believe the torcher and his family drowned in the Delaware River the next year.

George Cadwallader

Brigades under General George Cadwalader induced a wary truce on May 9. He arranged cannons in front of St. John's and told the mob in no uncertain terms that he would fire on them. City counsel Horace Binney and John Sergeant had given their opinion that the military would be legally sustained in firing upon the rioters.


Governor Porter arrived from Harrisburg. Three companies of volunteer infantry were to follow him later in the day. With city leaders the Governor discussed how better to combat future mayhem. Due to the burning of the church and other violence a state law requiring police forces was enacted in 1845. The violence also led to the consolidation of the city and county in 1854.


The friars of St. Augustine sued the city for not providing adequate protection during the rioting. Damages of $80,000 were claimed. 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 be property-holders.

The Augustinians were ultimately able to prove that their Order had been lawfully incorporated in 1804. They were awarded $45,000.


In 1847, the indomitable Augustinians decided to rebuild their church. The architect chosen was Napoleon LeBrun who also built the Philadelphia Academy of Music, eventual home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The new design utilized the Palladian elements of the original church. Bishop Kenrick whose call for a Catholic Bible in 1842 sparked the rioting, consecrated the church in 1848.


To the modern tourist, it's the church's interior which proves stunning. The ceiling frescoes depict scenes from "St. Augustine in Glory." Philip Costaggini, who painted part of the frieze on the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., painted it. Light from two tiers of stained-glass windows flows softly throughout the church. Each of the upper windows is dedicated to a saint. Most compelling is the marble sanctuary. The approach to the main altar is framed by an arch supported by brown Corinthian columns flanked by flying angels. The arched altar consists of carved white marble with shafts of Mexican onyx alongside and above the tabernacle. Overhead a dome skylight illuminates the scene. Behind the altar is a Crucifixion tableau painted by Hans Hansen in 1926. And crowning it all are the words, "The Lord Seeth."

A strong bond has traditionally existed between the Augustinians and Filipinos. The first Catholic church in the Philippines opened in 1565 and was Augustinian. That bond also exists locally as Filipinos from the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) have had their own mass at St. Augustine since December 1992, the month that the Santo Niño shrine, an exact replica of a 450-year-old Santo Niño in the Philippines, was dedicated at the church.

In that same month a brutal storm literally blew off the steeple of St. Augustine Church. The steeple actually landed right on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, closing the span for three days. A fifty-foot chasm opened in the church's roof subjecting many priceless paintings and murals on the ceiling to water damage. But the history of St. Augustine proves that after a catastrophe the church rebounds even stronger.

Insurance money ("act of God") paid for a new steeple which was erected in October 1995 and for the restoration and repainting of the ceiling frescoes that you can enjoy today.

  • Church burned and destroyed during the Nativist riots of 1844.
  • Henry Gordon Thunder Jr., organized the choral society of Philadelphia and its instrumental accompanists here. This later developed into the Philadelphia Orchestra.
  • A "Sister Bell" of the Liberty Bell once hung in the church's steeple. Today, the descendant of that bell resides at Villanova University in a suburb of Philadelphia.
  • The St. Augustine Academy for Boys, founded in 1811 by priests from the church, evolved into Villanova University in 1842.
  • During the cholera epidemic of 1832 the Priests' Rectory was converted to a temporary hospital.
  • First foundation of the Augustinian Order in the U.S. (1796)
  • President George Washington donated money for construction of the original church and President James Buchanan (only President from Pennsylvania) donated money to build the present edifice.
  • First Philadelphia performance of Handel's Messiah.
  • The steeple blew off during a brutal December 1992 storm and fell onto the Benjamin Franklin Bridge closing the span for three days. Miraculously, no one was hurt! A fifty-foot chasm opened in the church's ceiling and many paintings and murals suffered water damage.
  • During the fire of 1844, the pastor moved Church records to the furnace to protect them!

  • Location: Northwest corner of 4th and New Streets (between Race and Vine in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge). It is just one block north of the U.S. Mint. Elfreth's Alley and the Betsy Ross House are within Olde St. Augustine parish boundaries. (Map)
  • Built: 1796
  • Architect: Nicholas FitzMaurice Fagan; original steeple added in 1832 by William Strickland.
  • Rebuilt 1847-48
  • Architect: Napoleon LeBrun
  • Style: Italian Revival architecture in Palladian mode
  • Tourism information: Mass daily Mo-Fr 12:05pm, Saturday Vigil 5:15pm, Sunday 9am, 11am and 7pm. The church is open to the public at these times. Tours of the church are available (and highly recommended) if made in advance. A friar from the community will lead a fascinating tour and speak in detail about the artwork and history of the church. 215-627-1838.
  • Official website: www.st-augustinechurch.com


Copyright © 1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as ushistory.org. On the Internet since July 4, 1995.