03/22/2012 08:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Anti-Catholicism on the 'Mean Streets' of New York

Long before Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo became some of New York City's most popular neighborhoods, at the heart of them all sat St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. In its early years, the Cathedral provided critical support to Irish Catholic immigrants, not just in a spiritual sense, but by providing them with health care, child care and food. The brick walls around the church also offered parishioners literal protection from anti-Catholic groups, like the Know Nothings of the 1850s.

"We like to think we live in a time of culture wars, where religion is used as a wedge issue, and things like that, and to a degree we do," said Tom Deignan, America contributor, and author of "Coming to America: Irish Americans." "But the fact of the matter is, during the first years of St. Patrick's, as it was in operation, this was a time when culture war and religious war really was warfare. Literally you would have mobs attempting to get inside the church, get at the parishioners...."

The cemetery at Old St. Patrick's also has featured prominently in a number of books and films, including Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, which starred Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro.

Check out this video, from America magazine, for more from Deignan on the Irish Catholic immigrant experience in New York. Produced by Maurice Timothy Reidy and Kerry Weber. Edited by Kerry Weber.