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History of St. Augustine Church

St. Augustine's was the first permanent establishment of the Augustine Order in the United States. Such notables as President George Washington, Commodore John Barry and merchant Stephen Girard contributed to the building funds of the original church on this site.

Father Matthew J. Carr began St. Augustine's in 1796 to serve the increasing number of German and Irish immigrants who settled in the northern sections of the city. Designed by Douglas Fitzmaurice Fagan and completed in 1801, it stood as the largest Church in the city at that time. The bell tower, added in 1829, was the work of William Strickland, who designed a similar tower for Independence Hall. Father Carr also established St. Augustine's Academy in 1811, one of the earliest, Catholic efforts in secondary education. St. Augustine’s Academy was the forerunner of Villanova University.

By 1838, St. Augustine had 3,000 parishioners. In the 1840's, sentiment against the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants was inflamed by the press. The recently created Native American Party, later known as the "know Nothings", complained against the naturalization of immigrants. On May 8, 1844, after three days of anti-Catholic rioting, the mob burned the church and rectory. Also destroyed was one of the finest theological libraries in the United States, containing 3,000 volumes. The church sued in court and rebuilt the church with the funds awarded. This case was one of the first tests of the rights of citizens to religious freedom under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, thereby affirming William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges.

The present church, completed in 1847, was designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the architect of such Philadelphia landmarks as the Academy of Music and the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.