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"'Ghosts of Bigotry' The Ross-Yorke Controversy: Anti-Catholic Sentiment in Late Gilded


In the last part of the nineteenth century San Francisco, a controversy between a Roman Catholic priest, Father Peter Yorke, and a Presbyterian minister and member of the American Protective Association, Reverend Donald M. Ross, erupted over the role of Catholics in society. As Americans were seeking to solidify their national identity, this controversy provides an example of resurgent religious bigotry which previously had been more evident on the East Coast. Through examination of this controversy, we see that the role of Catholicism in education, electoral politics and immigration reemerged in the late nineteenth century as contentious issues in cosmopolitan, Gilded Age San Francisco.


San Francisco


American Protective Association

Father Peter C. Yorke

Reverend Donald M. Ross


An ideology punctuated by anti-Catholicism had been cultivated since the seventeenth century by some immigrants to the British North American colonies.[1] Origins of these discriminatory feelings towards Catholics stemmed from the religious conflicts of Europe. As immigrants came to the New World, they also brought their prejudices. Despite the protections enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1791 which prohibited the passage of any law respecting an establishment of religion and ensured free exercise of religion, Roman Catholics experienced religious discrimination and bigotry since the foundation of the nation. Conflicts with Catholics generally involved three issues; education, immigration and electoral politics. For example, in Boston, in 1834, a confrontation between Protestants and Catholics about implicit Catholic support for slavery and the desire to restrict Catholic settlements in the west resulted in the burning of an Ursuline convent by a Protestant mob.[2] Later, in Philadelphia, riots over the role of religion in public schools took place in 1844 following Bishop Kenrick’s petition to the School Board to allow Catholic students to use the Douay-Rheims bible instead of the King James version. [3] In response, in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Kensington, rioters set fire to St. Michael and St. Augustine Churches, neighborhood homes, and the fire station, which resulted in loss of life and several dozen injuries.[4] Then, in 1854, the nativist movement established a new political party; the American Party (known colloquially as the ‘Know Nothings’). During a local election, nearly one hundred Catholics were shot, and several houses were burned to the ground following an effort by the party to prevent Catholics from voting in Louisville, Kentucky in an event that became known as “Bloody Monday.”[5] These conflicts are some of many episodes of violent protest against Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century.

Territorial expansion to the Pacific coast fueled by the Gold Rush and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, then Civil War which had threatened to cleave the country in two, followed by an explosion of immigration, all radically changed the character of America since the Revolution. As hostilities erupted between north and south and the Civil War was declared, both Catholics and Protestants answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers and the religious conflicts of previous decades receded.[6] However, following the end of hostilities and as attention shifted to Reconstruction, reunification and nation building, there was a resurgence of anti-Catholic sentiment.[7] Mainstream Protestant denominations maintained the myth that the United States had been established as a homogeneous Protestant country so this influx of new American Catholics, immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland, Poland and Italy and, Catholics from the newly annexed former Mexican territories which some felt were threatening the homogeneity held by the majority.

This paper chronicles a controversy between Father Peter Yorke, chancellor in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Reverend Donald M. Ross, Presbyterian minister and member of the American Protective Association (APA). This controversy was reported in the daily press and culminated in a public argument between the two men. This episode provides a glimpse into the role of Catholicism in education, electoral politics and immigration which remerged in the late nineteenth century as contentious issues in cosmopolitan, Gilded Age San Francisco.

The Origins of Anti-Catholicism

Anti-Catholicism originated in the years following the Reformation in Europe. Although religiously based discrimination played out differently in the United States, its attitudes, biases and bigotry were inherited from previous generations. The influx of Catholic immigrants resulted in a resurgence of Protestant apprehension about rising Catholic political and economic power in the United States. In Robert Lockwood’s study of anti-Catholicism, seven general anti-Catholic assumptions can be identified in the rhetoric used by the American Protective Association, or APA. First, Catholics are anti-Enlightenment and steeped in superstition and ritual. Because of this, they are natural enemies of contemporary thought. Second, Catholics are intent on destroying personal freedoms and are anti-Democratic because loyalty lies with the Pope, rather than federal or local governments or democratic principles. Third, the Catholic hierarchy was keen to destroy or take over the public-school system which was the vehicle by which good Protestant American citizens were to be formed. Fourth, Catholics were identified as people of inferior races, a stereotype which is tied to nativism and xenophobia and directed at the immigrant population. Fifth, closely linked with the previous bias, the religion itself is a “foreign presence within the colonies and within the United States.”[8] Sixth, since Henry VIII, the relationship between sexuality and Catholicism has been the foundation of anti-Catholic assumptions. One view is that due to priestly celibacy, the faith promotes sexual repression and prudery. The contrary view is that women were especially fertile and would contribute to the growth of the Catholic population. Seventh, Catholics have “long been portrayed as ignorant dupes marching in lockstep at the behest of their hierarchical masters” and, contradictorily, as believers who pick and choose which doctrines to follow.[9] All of those assumptions or prejudices are evident in the APA ideology and in other anti-Catholic organizations in the United States of the nineteenth-century.

In a series of lectures compiled and published as, Ghosts of Bigotry, Father Peter Yorke made the analogy that, like these prejudices, ghosts are entities that are invisible, but still cause fear and apprehension amongst those who encounter them. He called these “ghosts,” which he defined as “spontaneous productions of disordered imaginations and hereditary ignorance.”[10] Tracing these prejudices back to Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent excommunication, then astutely following the thread of history through the era of King James, synonymous with persecution of Catholics and the lack of religious freedom, Yorke concluded that these current prejudices are products of this history. Yorke illustrated that in England, “Papist” was a name of reproach, that the Catholic queen, Mary was known as “Bloody Mary” and the Protestant queen, Elizabeth was known as “Good Queen Bess.” Further, he said that Jesuits were stereotypically viewed as “dishonorable and tricky,” and that “Catholic” was “another name for superstitious and reactionary.” [11]

Prejudices, like those above, imported to America, became core in anti-Catholic rhetoric and were passed down from generation to generation, shared in Sunday school, from the pulpit and in the public school. Popular literature in colonial America and the early nineteenth century took up the cause of Catholicism as something “strange, suspicious and disloyal.”[12] Out of this environment, the American Protective Association was formed.

Formation of the American Protective Association

Amid a national economic downturn and highly partisan elections, a group of Protestant businessmen, called “lunatic fringe” by historian and Jesuit priest, Joseph Brusher, formed a new anti-Catholic, xenophobic organization in 1887.[13] Henry Francis Bowers, lawyer and businessman, founded the organization in Clinton, Iowa on the heels of a failed local election. Called the American Protective Association (APA), the organization grew to become quite influential, boasting an estimated 500,000 members at its height. It formed chapters in cities in the Midwest and West and was noteworthy in San Francisco in the 1890s.[14] Basing its secret oath on anti-Catholic stereotypes, rumors and deep seeded prejudices, and taking a page from xenophobic and nativist groups, the APA sought to limit political influence in local and state government, Catholic immigration, and influence in business.

Bowers served as the “Supreme President,” and under his leadership, the APA was a highly secretive organization which coordinated a variety of “patriotic” groups which “militantly opposed the perceived influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.”[15] Bowers claimed personal experience with religious discrimination during his childhood in Maryland in the 1850s. In a late interview, he claimed to have been denied a formal education following pressure exerted on the state legislature by the Catholic Church to close public schools. However, historian JoAnn Manfra was unable to find any “record that such a thing actually happened in antebellum Maryland.”[16] Most likely, this was used as a justification by Bowers to achieve “Council No. 1’s agenda” -- an attempt to limit Irish electoral influence by restricting immigration and promoting discrimination against Roman Catholics.

As the Catholic population in the United States tripled from 1860 to 1890, due to immigration and high birth rates, this resurgence of anti-Catholic sentiment and animosities manifest in the APA was not isolated. Historian Donald L. Kinzer noted the similarities and differences of the APA to other anti-Catholic organizations of the nineteenth century. Like earlier anti-Catholic political organizations, the APA was nationalistic and patriotic, but did not limit membership to native-born Americans. And unlike the earlier Know Nothing Party, the organization did not seek to establish its own political party, but rather worked within the context of the existing political establishment.[17] Its expressed goal was to “protect America” from the corruption they perceived would result from “political Romanism,” or growth of the political influence of Roman Catholics.[18]

Like many who adhere to xenophobic or nativist attitudes, there were some inconsistencies in the life of Henry Bowers. In his personal life, there is evidence which indicates that he helped with fundraising efforts at the local Catholic parish and was friendly with Catholics in Clinton, Iowa. However, Bowers and the other men involved in the foundation of the APA were Protestant and the organization’s stated goal was a promotion of Protestant values and firm governmental control. The organization was established to appeal to a broad range of people, all who opposed Romanism. It operated as a political organization which would work within the Republican Party to push its agenda.[19]

As was common during the nineteenth century, many people joined fraternal organizations like the APA. These organizations helped members maintain a sense of community during a time when rapid industrialization and urbanization erased community ties.[20] Many of these fraternal organizations had both a public face and private or secret oaths based on anti-immigrant or pro-nativist principles. The APA’s private purpose was the promotion of and defense of Protestantism. According to their membership oath, members pledged to exclude Catholics from employment opportunities whenever a Protestant was available, to withhold aid in building or maintaining Catholic buildings or institutions, and to withhold votes for a Catholic candidate for political office (even if the Catholic candidate was the best qualified for the position.)[21] Attitudes expressed in the private oath were masked by the public principles expressed by Bowers, “The A.P.A. does not exist for small and selfish purposes. It lays no plans against individuals, or trade or commerce. It orders no strikes or boycotts. It stands on the broad principles of Protestantism. Let it be observed that the A.P.A. is not arrayed against the rank and file of the Catholic people as a whole.”[22] Attempts like this were repeatedly made by the organization to deny that they stood in opposition to Catholic individuals, but the oath encapsulates the discriminatory attitudes held by its members and their charter.

Following the death of founder Henry Bowers and on the heels of internal dissention, the organization disintegrated in 1911. Shortly following the demise of the APA, a sketch of its history was published by Humphrey J. Desmond. This history is the best approximation to “an official record” of the APA known as it was reviewed and expressly approved by Bowers before his death.[23] Desmond noted that “constant factors in the anti-Catholic situation” are consistent with Lockwood’s findings and Yorke’s historical analysis. However, Desmond elucidates the pragmatic causes for the perpetuation of these prejudices. Because second generation Catholics achieved better occupations and higher level industrial positions, newly arrived Protestants, believing themselves to be more deserving of these positions, “would conspire and relegate them [Catholics] to the positions of hewers of wood and drawers of water, their proper place…in this Protestant land.”[24] In the political arena, Irish politicians formed cliques and gave favor to their fellow co-religionists – this was something that the APA strongly opposed as evidenced by its private oath. The APA also supported public funding for schools which continued to be a contested issue. Protestants believed that a public-school system, which promoted Protestant values, should be supported by public funds. Because of the lack of religious tolerance, Catholics established their own schools supported by its members and independent of public funding.

The Church’s response to this discrimination against Catholics was measured and reserved. According to historian Les Wallace, “the attitude of the Church toward the movement [A.P.A.] was one of quiet, reserved dignity.” And, according to a suggestion made by Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, “the best and speediest and surest way to kill the A.P.A. is to leave it alone.”[25] This may have sufficed in the Midwest, but perhaps emboldened by a greater concentration of Catholics in the West, San Francisco’s Archbishop, Patrick Riordan rejected a strategy of quiet reservation and appointed Father Peter Yorke as defender of the faith. Subsequently, Father Yorke used his authority and keen rhetorical skills to take up the Call to defend the teachings of the Church against the APA’s allegations.

The Controversy

On the twenty-first day of November in 1895, the San Francisco Call reported that Catholic priest and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Father Peter C. Yorke, delivered a speech at the Metropolitan Temple, under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Union. A few days prior, five different Protestant ministers had leveled accusations against the Catholic Church.[26] One of them, secretary of the California chapter of the APA, Rev. Donald M. Ross, alleged that Catholics were disloyal to the government of the United States and claimed that, “the Roman church has the right to exercise its authority without any limit set to it by the civil powers.” And that, “the Pope and priests ought to have dominion over temporal affairs.”[27] This argument, that the Catholic Church held itself above the law of the land, was a common claim made by members of the APA and other anti-Catholic organizations and was designed to prove that Catholics could not be loyal to the American political system or American values. Father Yorke, in his role as defender of the faith, responded quickly and vehemently to these charges and challenged Rev. Ross to prove his claims. In a letter to the editor of the Call, Yorke wrote, “I will pay one hundred dollars in gold coin of the United States to any charity named by Rev. Donald M. Ross if he can prove to the satisfaction of three non-Catholic lawyers that the above statement, or substance of them, occur in any Roman Catholic publication as statements of Roman Catholic teaching.”[28] This challenge became the basis for the controversy. Claiming moral high ground, Ross refused to accept the challenge. Was this because he knew that his claims were spurious and not based in fact? Another member of the A.P.A., G.A. Hubbell, manager and secretary of the Patriot Publishing Company, would not allow this opportunity to challenge Catholicism pass, so accepted the bet on behalf of Rev. Ross and put up the gold coin to back his man.[29] So Rev. Ross went to work compiling and organizing his source material to prepare for his presentation which would be reported in the daily pages of the Call.

Donald M. Ross, born in 1862 in Ontario, Canada, trained as a lawyer at Manitoba College and University. He had lived in Zanesville, Ohio before making his way to the Bay Area. In 1891, he graduated from the San Francisco Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo and was appointed pastor, first at the Church in Vacaville, where he was touted for building the Church and had “received about 500 into the Church on examination…through his evangelization efforts.”[30] During the years of the controversy, he served as Pastor at the Lebanon Church in San Francisco. Because few written records were kept of APA meetings or initiatives, his length of service and duties within the organization are not known, but his arguments against the Catholic Church are well documented in this controversy.

Peter C. Yorke was born in Galway, Ireland in 1864. Educated for the priesthood in Ireland, he was ordained in 1887. San Francisco’s Archbishop Riordan had identified Yorke as a “bright and talented priest, possibly one with a future in the American hierarchy” and enrolled him in the newly established Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.[31] Following reception of his doctorate, Archbishop Riordan appointed Yorke as his secretary and chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Once Riordan abandoned the quiet reservation which had characterized the Church’s early response to the bigotry of the APA, he unleashed “the eager young cleric on local bigots collectively identified as American Protective Association enthusiasts.”[32] Fr. Yorke eagerly took on this new assignment becoming a well-known and outspoken advocated for the Catholic Church in and around San Francisco.

In the December 10, 1895, a reporter dubbed this episode the “Ross-Yorke Controversy” and it would dominated the pages of the Call for the next several months. Reporters attended speaking events and editors printed letters in the daily paper. Yorke’s speech, “Rome’s Red Schoolhouse,” responded to charges made against the church concerning education. He said, “men who know nothing about history have accused the church of favoring ignorance” and reminded readers that it was the church that “saved learning when the barbarians extinguished the old Roman civilizations.”[33]Contrary to the claims made by certain Protestant ministers that Catholics were uneducated and anti-Enlightenment, Yorke advocated for public school education for children. However, he was opposed to religious education in a public-school setting, because, he said, “Religion is good, but if all religions were allowed to enter the public schools, it would soon be bedlam.” He acknowledged that there are too many religions in America and it would cause confusion if they were all allowed to be taught in public schools. However, because the Catholic church believes in teaching religion to children, “it establishes its own schools and pays for them out of their own pocket. It does not try to bring the catechism into the public institutions, but where it is able to it teaches the catechism and pays for the teacher.”[34]

This passage could point to Father Yorke’s respect for religious pluralism or, contrarily, could speak to his understanding that Catholicism was still a marginalized and minority faith tradition which held little political power in San Francisco at this time. Regardless, his advocacy for upholding the separation of church and state established by the Constitution would fall on deaf ears. Just a few days later, in the pages of the Call, another APA enthusiast and Methodist pastor, Rev. W. W. Case, charged that the United States was in danger from “atheism, Mormonism and Roman Catholicism,” and that the Catholic hierarchy is “seeking to gain control of the country,” and encroaching upon the public-school system.[35] Charges of Catholic political supremacy and influence over schools would ring throughout the controversy. The public-school system was perceived to be the vehicle upon which Protestant values, American patriotism, and loyal citizenship would be taught to children, both native born and immigrant. Furthermore, it was thought that enrollment in parochial schools would insulate children from the patriotism that was valued by the APA and would result in firm loyalty to the Pope, rather than with American democratic principles.

Throughout the controversy, attempts were made by the APA to publicly distance itself from its anti-Catholic sentiments and present itself as a purely political organization. In the pages of the Call, Rev. Ross said, “the A.P.A. was called into existence as the Old Whig or Republican party was called into existence, simply to take sides in purely National issues, not to contest any religion or religious belief.” His next statement countered this argument, “…righteous laws can [not] be enforced in a nation where a religious sect has control.” And, to prevent Catholics from becoming too populous and too enmeshed in the politics of the country, Ross opined, “I believe that immigration should be restricted.”[36] Despite his protestations to the contrary, the APA was not merely a political organization, but one whose members regularly expressed opinions which were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. It supported candidates and political positions that sought to restrict immigration, public funding for Catholic schools, and Catholic political and economic influence.

Other APA members shared similar views in the pages of the Call in the lead up to the climax of the controversy. Attempting to situate the APA as anti-clerical and not wholly anti-Catholic, local APA chapter Chairman H. W. Quitzow opened a meeting with the following statement, “the enemy are now under the searchlight of the A.P.A.,” apparently referring to Catholic clergy and specifically, to Fr. Yorke. Rev. W. W. Case furthered his argument, saying, “I myself am not here to berate or traduce the large class of citizens among the Roman Catholic citizens, who make up the laity of that church. I pity those thousands of people who are now in superstition and paganism, because they were trained in countries where there were no schools.”[37] This veiled reference, directed at Irish and Mexican Catholics, is indicative of the APA’s main tenants, pro-public-education, and anti-immigration with the express goal of limiting Catholic involvement in politics.

A few days later, the Call reported that the challenge made by the “eloquent champion of the Catholics” was accepted by a “silver tongued orator of the American Protective Association.”[38] In his letter to the editor, Yorke challenged Ross to prove to the satisfaction of three non-Catholic lawyers that his four propositions were official church teaching. The four claims that Rev. Ross made about the Church were: First, “the Roman church has the right to exercise its authority without any limit set to it by the civil powers;” second, “the Pope and priests ought to have dominion over temporal affairs;” third, “the Roman church and her ecclesiastics have a right to immunity from civil law;” and fourth, in case of conflict between ecclesiastical and civil powers the ecclesiastical ought to prevail.”[39] Yorke set the following conditions to ensure that the judgement would be rendered by non-biased parties. Ross and Yorke were each to choose a non-Catholic lawyer, and those two lawyers were to choose a third. Ross countered with his terms again in the pages of the Call, “…I choose six evenings between the 1st and 28th of February 1896. I am to open my argument each evening for one hour, then you reply one hour; I reply for ten minutes, you have ten minutes, and I close with five minutes.”[40]

Yorke acted first and chose an acquaintance, Episcopalian lawyer from Oakland, Mr. W. W. Foote to represent him in the controversy. Foote agreed to review the materials provided by Ross, but not listen to or participate in a public debate.[41] A few days later, prominent anti-Catholic figure, Chairman H. W. Quitzow was appointed by Rev. Ross as his legal representative.[42] Mr. Foote, in a letter to the editor, noted that Mr. Quitzow was associated with the APA and reserved the right to “reconsider my consent to act on the committee.”[43] Quitzow eventually dropped out of the contest amid claims of his lack of impartiality. Ross’ next appointee was no better. Major Edwin A. Sherman, well-known as an anti-Catholic bigot and lawyer, was “more devoted to Masonic work than to the bar” was chosen.[44] A third lawyer was never identified. Amid doubts expressed by Mr. Foote concerning the lack of impartiality of this episode, and the plans laid forth by Rev. Ross to hold a public debate, Fr. Yorke wrote in a letter to the editor that this “so-called debate is a humbug,” a deceptive or false trick to be played on the people of San Francisco. Yorke emphatically stated that he had no intention of debating Ross. Further, Yorke condemned Ross’ efforts and wrote, “I do not intend to meet D. Ross.”[45]

Ross ignored Yorke’s response and proceeded to rent the Metropolitan Hall, printed handbills, and sold tickets to the event scheduled for four nights, from February 24 through 28, 1896. Instead of an impartial meeting between two professional men, it became a publicity stunt orchestrated by the APA designed to further denigrate the Roman Catholic Church and garner support to advance their cause. Following the event on February 24, the Call reported under the headline, “First Gun of Rev. D. M. Ross” that Ross had denied that he had even made the four propositions which had begun this controversy. However, following that denial, those very same propositions were the subject of the speeches delivered on the subsequent nights.

In the first speech by Ross, his fourth proposition: “in case of conflict between the ecclesiastical and civil powers the ecclesiastical ought to prevail” was addressed. In Yorke’s response, printed in the pages of the Call, he noted that Ross never attempted to “produce the proposition as it stands” nor did he succeed in proving the substance of his claim. Yorke reasoned that this misquote by Ross originated from the forty-second clause of the Syllabus of Errors which read, “In the conflict between the laws of the two powers, the civil law prevails.”[46] Yorke explained in a letter to the editor which was printed verbatim that this proposition is a universal affirmative and as such is not true. He wrote, “The American constitution recognizes cases where the civil law does not prevail against the ecclesiastical. Indeed, the aim of the Constitution is to remove from the domain of the civil law matters which might cause a conflict. Thus, for instance, our civil law does not prevail in spiritual affairs, it does not regulate the service in our churches, the salaries of our ministers. The proposition condemned by the Pope is also condemned by our American system.”[47]

Ross’ claim implied that Church authority is supreme over civil authority, but Yorke clarified that church authority is separate and distinct from civil authority. He said, “What we do advocate is her [Church] supremacy as the teacher and guardian of the law of God” and that the state must submit to this higher authority which seeks to protect the rights of man. In other words, moral law is higher than civil law because it comes from God, which is above the state. “The state does not make it and is not the judge of it.”[48] Ross made the assertion that “when politics and the church come into conflict it is the duty of the church to remain firm and to heed not the State laws that come in conflict with it.”[49] Yorke replied that Ross used that quotation to “impress upon the minds of his hearers the idea that the Catholic Church was interfering in politics, and that when she said such a course was the right course, the politicians had nothing to do but obey.” Ross’ attempts to elevate Catholic teaching above civil laws to suggest that civil laws that come in conflict with Catholicism are not to be obeyed by Catholics because supreme authority rests in the hands of the Pope, not civic or federal governments were firmly rejected by Yorke.

During the second lecture, Ross treated the second proposition; “The Pope and the priests ought to have dominion over temporal affairs.”[50] Yorke pointed out Ross’ misrepresentation of Church teaching. Yorke reasoned that Ross’ claim originated in the twenty-seventh clause of the Syllabus of Errors which reads, “The sacred ministers of the church and the Roman Pontiff should be entirely excluded from all administration and ownership of temporal things.”[51]Yorke’s response is telling and indicative of his exasperation with Ross, he wrote, “The Catholic teaching about dominion over temporal affairs I have explained time and time again. The church and state are two separate societies. One deals with spiritual affairs; the other with temporal affairs. The dominion over temporal affairs belongs to the civil authority, not to the Pope or the priests. This is Catholic doctrine. It is also American doctrine.”[52]

Yorke further reasoned that every sect in the United States claimed the right to teach the doctrines which it holds true. He pointed out that the Constitution guarantees this right in the First Amendment and as long as the teachings of a church do not offend public morality, churches are free to teach what they see fit. Because of this claim Yorke said, “D. Ross declares that the Pope and the priests claim temporal dominion.”[53] Yorke’s refutation of Ross’ claims offer an early argument for religious liberty in an ever-growing environment of religious plurality.

In another letter to the editor, Yorke further clarified that the Pope only has indirect temporal power by using this example, “For instance, if he [the Pope] thinks that the liquor traffic is a menace to good morals he might forbid the liquor traffic. But his prohibition would only be by spiritual authority and would be efficacious only for those who recognize that spiritual authority.”[54] Yorke concluded, “no wonder Ross was afraid to face three lawyers who would not be deceived by the spurious and irrelevant matter which he inflicts upon those who pay two bits to be humbugged. No wonder he preferred to engage in a debate instead of producing his proofs.”[55] Whether this controversy stemmed solely from misinterpretations or misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine or was purely political in nature, the attitudes and opinions expressed by Rev. Ross had deep roots in the religious conflicts which originated in Europe following the Protestant Reformation.

On the fourth night, Ross was declared the victor by his representative, Major Sherman. As noted, neither Yorke, nor his attorney Foote, attended the proceedings. However, Yorke had an “inside man” present who reported all that Ross had claimed. This, and the extensive coverage offered by the Call, provided all the material Yorke needed to publicly refute Ross’ arguments over the next few weeks. Ross claimed to have researched from his “extensive library of Catholic sources.” However, Yorke reported that upon careful examination of Ross’ sources, fifteen authors were quoted and only two contained the imprimatur or official approval of the church.[56] The most plausible evidence for Ross’ arguments came from the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, however, Yorke found them to be misinterpreted, muddled and misrepresented by Ross.[57] This episode demonstrates the lengths that advocates of anti-Catholicism would take to discredit Catholic doctrine.


During this controversy, Fr. Yorke responded to Rev. Ross with sound reasoning and enlightened arguments. Rev. Ross, on the other hand, repeatedly misinterpreted or misrepresented Catholic teaching to his audience in an attempt to increase the divisions already existent between the two faiths. In context of social and political upheaval and changing demographics, Americans have had persistent questions about newcomers. A tendency to exclude “the other” is a theme which runs through our history. Recent arrivals and those perceived to be different became targets of bigotry and discrimination because of fears that newcomers would cling to their own customs, language, and religions. Immigrants were repeatedly condemned as un-patriotic and anti-American. The challenge that Catholics represented to the notion of a perceived homogeneous Protestant nation was just one of many the periods in history when normative ideas that constructed the nation were challenged by a religious group. Protestants appreciated the religious freedom that was enshrined in the Constitution, however, had pinned their hopes that Catholics would give up their superstitious ways and walk into the light of Enlightenment thinking. When this failed, they attempted to use public institutions; first, the public-school system to instruct children in Protestant and patriotic values; second, electoral politics to limit political influence of Roman Catholics; and third, the promotion of immigration restriction.

The Ross-Yorke controversy in Gilded Age San Francisco illustrated the American Protective Association’s attempts to limit Catholic political influence. The APA held the view that government was established to promote and uphold Protestant values and patriotism. Anything which challenged that ideology was a threat. As Catholics in America began achieving positions of authority in civic government, factories, schools and professional occupations, these feelings of resentment and deep-seated fears reemerged.

A rejuvenated nativism was almost certainly destined for a lack of long-lasting popular support in cosmopolitan San Francisco. However, without the benefit of historical hindsight, Father Peter C. Yorke treated these controversies with all seriousness; as if the political, and religious freedom of Catholics would be exhausted without his resistance. APA meetings were infiltrated by his agents and their claims were published, then promptly discredited by Yorke’s reasoned and researched responses.[58] This episode is illustrative of the grip of discrimination and bigoted behavior in the United States. Father Yorke characterized anti-Catholicism as “ghosts of bigotry,” apparitions that reappear without warning at various times throughout our history.


Brusher, Joseph S. "Peter C. Yorke and the A.P.A. in San Francisco." The Catholic Historical Review. Vol. 37, No. 2, Jul., 1951. 129-150.

Corrigan, John and Neal, Lynn S. editors, A Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Curry, D.D., James, History of the San Francisco Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and Its Alumni Association . Vacaville: Reporter Publishing Company, 1907.

Desmond, Humphrey J. The A.P.A. Movement: A Sketch by Humphrey J. Desmond. Washington: The New Century Press, 1912.

Gjerde, Jon, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. S. Deborah Kang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Kinzer, Donald L. An Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

Lockwood, Robert, P., Anti-Catholicism in American Culture. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2000.

Manfra, Jo Ann. "Hometown Politics and the American Protective Association, 1887-1890." The Annuals of Iowa 55 (1996): 138-166.

McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

“Pope Pius IX, SYLLABUS OF ERRORS (1864),” Accessed Feb 26, 2017.

“Protestant Paranoia: The American Protective Association,”, Accessed Feb 26, 2017.

Wallace, Les. The Rhetoric of Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association, 1877-1911, Edited by Timothy Walch and Edward R. Kantowicz. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Walsh, James P., ed. The San Francisco Irish, 1850-1976. San Francisco: The Irish and Historical Society, 1978.

Yorke, Rev. P.C. Yorke, The Ghosts of Bigotry: Six Lectures by Rev. P.C. Yorke, D.D. San Francisco: The Text Book Publishing Co., 1913.

* Sabrina Harper is a graduate student completing (May 2020) a master’s degree in United States history at the University of California, East Bay.

[1] John T McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 11.

[2] John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, editors, Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 50.

[3] Jon Gjerde, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. S. Deborah Kang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 4.

[4] Corrigan and Neal, 50.

[5] Rev. P.C. Yorke, The Ghosts of Bigotry: Six Lectures by Rev. P.C. Yorke, D.D., (San Francisco: The Text Book Publishing Co., 1913), 319.

[6] Yorke, 319.

[7] Gjerde, 18.

[8] Robert P. Lockwood, Anti-Catholicism in American Culture (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2000), 23.

[9] Lockwood, 26.

[10] Yorke, 34.

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Joseph S. Brusher, “Peter C. Yorke and the A.P.A. in San Francisco,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Jul., 1951): 129.

[14] Brusher, 129.

[15] Jo Ann Manfra, "Hometown Politics and the American Protective Association, 1887-1890", The Annuals of Iowa 55 (1996): 138.

[16] Manfra, 149.

[17] Donald L. Kinzer, An Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964), v.

[18] Kinzer, 41.

[19] Ibid., 41.

[20] Ibid., 33.

[21] “Protestant Paranoia: The American Protective Association,”,

[22] Les Wallace, The Rhetoric of Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association, 1877-1911, ed. Timothy Walch and Edward R. Kantowicz (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990), 72.

[23] Humphrey J. Desmond, The A.P.A. Movement: A Sketch by Humphey J. Desmond, (Washington: The New Century Press, 1912), 4.

[24] Desmond, 10.

[25] Wallace, 74.

[26] "Father Yorke’s Speech,” The San Francisco call, November 21, 1895,

[27] “Ross Lifts the Gauntlet,” The San Francisco call, December 2, 1895,

[28] Ibid.

[29] “First Gun of Rev. D. M. Ross” The San Francisco call, February 25, 1896

[30] James Curry, D.D., History of the San Francisco Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and Its Alumni Association (Vacaville: Reporter Publishing Company, 1907), 151.

[31] James P. Walsh, ed., The San Francisco Irish, 1850-1976 (San Francisco: The Irish and Historical Society, 1978), 46.

[32] Walsh, 47.

[33] “Father Yorke’s Speech,” The San Francisco call, November 21, 1895,

[34] Ibid.

[35] “To Church in a Body,” The San Francisco call, November 25, 1895.

[36] “To Church in a Body,” The San Francisco call, November 25, 1895,

[37] “Ross Names Him To-Day,” The San Francisco call., December 9, 1895,

[38] “Ross Lifts the Gauntlet,” The San Francisco call., December 2, 1895,

[39] “First Gun of Rev. D. M. Ross,” The San Francisco call., February 25, 1896,

[40] “Ross Lifts the Gauntlet,” The San Francisco call., December 2, 1985,

[41] “Ross Names Him To-Day,” The San Francisco call., December 9, 1895,

[42] Brusher, 139.

[43] “W. W. Foote May Not Act with Quitzow,” The San Francisco call., December 12, 1895,

[44] Brusher, 140.

[45] “Controversialists on a Public Debate,” The San Francisco call., February 24, 1896,

[46] ‘First Gun of Rev. D. M. Ross,” The San Francisco call., February 25, 1896,

[47] “Father Yorke to Rev. Ross,” The San Francisco call., February 26, 1896,

[48] “Father Yorke Replies to Ross,” The San Francisco call., March 4, 1896,

[49] “Quotations from Cardinal Manning,” The San Francisco call., March 5, 1896,

[50] Ibid.

[51] “Pope Pius IX, SYLLABUS OF ERRORS (1864),”,, accessed Feb 26, 2017.

[52] “Father Yorke to Rev. Ross,” The San Francisco call., February 26, 1896,

[53] “Quotations From Cardinal Manning,” The San Francisco call., March 5, 1896,

[54] “Father Yorke to Rev. Mr. Ross,” The San Francisco call., March 6, 1896,

[55] “First Gun of Rev. D. M. Ross,” The San Francisco call., February 25, 1896,

[56] “ Examination of Rev. D. M. Ross,” The San Francisco call., March 3, 1896,

[57] Brusher, 141.

[58] Walsh, 46.

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