11/04/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Ghost Story: Philly's Bishop Francis Kenrick Revisits the Scene of AntiCatholic Riots

I, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, was blessed with a fine clerical career. In my hometown of Dublin, I was selected, at age 18, to study in Rome. In Rome I spent many summers reading on the Spanish Steps and praying in St. Peter's. I was ordained in April of 1821. I had prayed for a significant priesthood if that be the Lord's will, and very soon it seems I was rewarded when my superiors announced that I had a special gift for theology and Greek. The Greek part being as much a mystery to me as it was to my bother, Peter Richard, the Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, who would ask, in jest, if I was planning an escape to Mt. Athos, where there was once a Benedictine monastery before the great schism of East and West.

After ordination, I was called to Bardstown, Kentucky, not far from the present day Abbey of Gethsemane of Thomas Merton fame. Country living was never my ideal -- my heart being in the city -- so I prayed and began work on translating the Gospels and a new version of the Douay Rheims, a project that would take many years. When I had resigned myself that my priesthood would be as placid as Kentucky's green pastures, I was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Philadelphia. My heart skipped a beat on that blessed day! A bishop! How often as a boy mother would look at me, pat my head and murmur, "My son, the bishop!" as if she knew my destiny. I had actually fallen a little bit in love with Kentucky and shed tears as the train pulled out of the station. Through the cracked glass of the railway car, I blessed those who had come to say goodbye then buried my head in my breviary.

Kentucky's quiet gave way to very terrible events in Philadelphia, although I did have a brief honeymoon of sorts when I had two successes, one involving a struggle with the lay vestry and the other the founding of Saint Charles seminary. These victories got me thinking I was well on my way to receiving the red hat. But, as I was to learn, even the sacred priesthood is no defense against the sins of narcissism and ego. Life changed in a big way when the cholera hit. After that, I had to struggle to find the peace I'd so taken for granted in Bardstown.

When I was made the third Bishop of Philadelphia in 1844, the world, at least for Philadelphia Catholics, seemed to come to an end. It was a time when hatred swept the city.

But let me say that even now, so many years after my death, I can attest that one of my greatest struggles occurred seconds after I breathed my last as Archbishop of Baltimore, my last position in the Church.

Although on my death bed in 1863 I did not, like the dying Thomas Aquinas, announce that everything I'd written was straw, I did feel a tremendous jolt when my spirit left my body. I'd been ill for some time and knew the hour was fast approaching when my spirit ascended and lingered over the heads of the mourners. Startled to find myself gifted with second sight, I saw that many in the room cried not for me but for their own mortality. Some of them, I am afraid to say, were also thinking about getting something to eat.

I was even able to read the mind of the young monsignor who'd given me extreme unction, his eyes firmly fixed on my bishop's ring and on his own clerical ambitions.

Of course, no one could see my spirit pass through the windows into the heart of the city where, the Lord be praised, I encountered a great white heavenly vault. I was headed towards it when, without warning, an angel with a crooked smile, one of the fallen ones, blocked my passage. I had read of the toll houses in patristic literature but took such stories with a grain of salt.

Pulled away from the vault by the fallen one, I was swept away in the air to Philadelphia when I felt great tumults of rage enter into me. In the blink of an eye, I was standing before the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul talking with architect, Napoleon Le Brun, listening as he cursed the necessity of windows having to be built sp high so as to avoid attacks from Know Nothings. With an air of resignation, he said the high windows would be a reminder of the hatred for future generations. At his words the anger within me increased, buoyed by the fallen one who seemed to coax and massage it, so that soon I found myself picking up nearby rocks and assaulting the very windows that in life I sought to protect. I did this repeatedly with unbridled passion, a madman, the dark angel laughing all the while: It was nothing less than hatred spilling out of the margins causing confusion within myself.

Where were these Know Nothings now, I wanted to know? Were they hidden away in their homes, nursing little Know Nothings who would one day burn other churches to the ground? After St. Augustine's was torched, I pleaded with the Lord's people to "follow peace and have charity" above all else. I closed the churches and even stopped the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice until the storm passed. I withstood every slight and insult, every obscene and ungodly message posted to my door, every catcall in the street, every stone, brick and pile of horse manure thrown at me from behind a tree or from a rooftop.

During this trial I took the moral high road, but in the grasp of the fallen one, I knew I'd been a fool and that all my prattle about charity with regard to Know Nothings was hogwash. Hadn't I, earlier on, given the whole of myself to the city when the cholera struck? Hadn't I helped Protestant and Catholic alike despite my proclamation that the plague was God's punishment for overindulgence in food and drink? We saved many lives then, walking the streets with brother priests and the Sisters of Charity. All were grateful, many close to tears as they asked for blessings.

From the cathedral the dark angel took me like Dante over into Kensington to the homes of the Nothings. He said I now have the power to move objects, to have flames jump from the fireplace, to create havoc and cause confusion, to have infants roll over onto cement floors; to create accidents on the road by making horses kick, bite or run into buildings. "Remove the wheels of their carriages," he offered, "watch them detach as the occupants tumble out and die." Or slip into their kitchens and poison their food, levitate a knife so that it pierces the breasts of the guilty. Oh sweet, sweet revenge, I offer you all this -- Look, he said, pointing to a number of city officials who stood by and did nothing while churches and homes burned, "Take them, take them now. "

"I offer you all this. Do it!" he screamed until the sound came like a clarion call that pushed me into something sweeter, a kinder and gentler presence that held me until I could feel my rage subside. It was, need I say, the Lord's angel who then made me see the future, the schools that I had founded flourishing like a great garden, where even the ancestors of Know Nothings came to learn. And there was more. I saw that this ignorance that had given rise to hatred affected both sides and was in many ways like the cholera that had come before it. I came to see that only in loving Him who redeems do all, can we at last come to peace. And so with these thoughts and images I at last swiftly arose, away from the fallen one and his confusion, and into the heart and mind of the great heavenly vault, forgiving and loving all.