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Breaking the religious barrier

MAJOR SHAREDA Hosein of Quincy is waiting for word on her application to become the US Army's first female Muslim chaplain. She is reportedly in limbo, with two decision dates having passed and no word on when one will be made.

Her story creates some interesting reverberations in American history that go back about a century and a half. In 1847, it involved the appointment, as a US Army chaplain, of a member of a generally despised and highly suspect religious group -- not a female Muslim, but a Catholic priest.

As a result of oppressive British penal laws, eviction from their lands, and periodic famines, thousands of young Irish tenant farmers emigrated to the United States during the 1830s and 1840s. Without money, education, or industrial skills, their willingness to take the most menial jobs subjected them to the hostility of local American workers. Since most of these newer arrivals were Roman Catholics, they were looked down upon by native Bostonians as ignorant "papists," whose religious beliefs were considered blasphemous and whose allegiance to a foreign power (the Vatican) made them appear as dangerous subversives who could never be assimilated into American culture.

In spite of harassment and occasional violence (the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was burned to the ground in 1834), the Irish immigrants persisted in their determination to become loyal members of their "adopted land" and went about their business of building families, establishing churches, and earning a living. To a number of these newcomers, service in the US Army held out many attractions -- food, clothing, housing, training, a chance at early citizenship -- and in a short time the ranks were filling with Irish volunteers.

When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in May 1846, General Zachary Taylor's army moved into northern Mexico with some 3,000 regulars. After he encamped along the Rio Grande at Matamoros, however, his force mushroomed to nearly 8,000 with the arrival of volunteers, many of whom were Irish immigrants. The increase in the number of Irish soldiers, combined with the politics of waging war with a Roman Catholic country like Mexico, led President James K. Polk to arrange for a private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York to discuss the possibility of having Catholic priests accompany the American Army in Mexico. Although Hughes suspected that the president's actions were politically motivated, he saw a clear advantage in having a Roman Catholic appointed as an Army chaplain for the first time in American history.

After consulting with the authorities at nearby Georgetown University, the archbishop named two Jesuit priests for the positions: the Rev. John McElroy, 64, was an immigrant from Ireland who had become a well-known preacher and retreat master; the Rev. Anthony Rey, 39, had emigrated from France and served as vice president of Georgetown. The idea of appointing Catholic chaplains, however, not only raised the delicate question of church-state relations, but also highlighted the question of the loyalty and reliability of American Catholics at a time when all foreigners were suspect.

President Polk discovered, however, that although he had no legislative authority to appoint Army chaplains, he was allowed to "employ" persons to carry out such duties. The two priests took on their military assignments, therefore, as employees under a contractual relationship with the government. The president did make a point, however, of directing his secretary of war to order all military commanders to respect the priests' positions, and also allow Catholic soldiers to attend the services of their choice.

The two priests traveled to Mexico and took up their duties. Rey accompanied Taylor's army on its march toward Monterey, saying Mass and hearing confessions; McElroy, because of his age, remained at Matamoros, tending to the sick and wounded. Five months later, Rey was shot and killed in the countryside by highway robbers. Shortly thereafter, McElroy returned to the United States because of illness. When he recovered his health, McElroy was sent to Boston to become pastor of St. Mary's Church in the North End and subsequently became the founder of Boston College.

Although their active military service was comparatively brief, the appointment of these two priests as US Army chaplains served as an important precedent. The security of the nation, it is true, depends upon vigilance of its citizens and the strength of its arms, but there is also an element of faith required to accept the fact that New Americans, despite the peculiarities of their religions and the strangeness of their cultures, can also prove to be as loyal and as patriotic as those older Americans who have lived here many years. They have only to be given the chance.

Thomas H. O'Connor is university historian at Boston College and author of "Boston Catholics: A history of the Church and its People." 

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