Friday, March 21, 2008

The Priest and the Orangeman - A Lesson in Tolerance

St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne, Ontario Canada is a beautiful, old stone church that sits in the meadows along a well traveled dirt road a short distance from the village itself. From its founding in 1860, it has been ministering to the area farmers and townspeople continuously for the past century and a half.

St. Patrick's Catholic Church Lansdowne, Ontario, CA ©Charles Nugent
This part of eastern Ontario, situated along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, was originally settled by immigrants from Ireland. The population of Lansdowne and the surrounding area in the mid-1800s consisted of mostly Irish Catholics.

As the community grew and prospered, there was a need for a new church. Funds were collected, land purchased and the solid stone church built. A few years and a pastor or two later, the parishioners decided that it was time for a new rectory.

The pastor convinced the finance committee that the new rectory should be built of stone just like the church. The parishioners, being both prosperous with their farms and generous with their contributions, donated the money and plans were drawn up.

 However, a problem soon arose in that there was no one in the congregation who was a stone mason. "No problem" said the pastor, "find one from a neighboring parish". After searching far and wide, the committee appointed to find the stonemason, reported back that their search had been fruitless.

Now this was a growing area and stone buildings were being built in many places so the pastor found this news hard to believe. Refusing to accept the fact that there was no stonemason in the area, he continued to grill the committee on their findings.

 Finally, with a slightly trembling voice, the chairman spoke. "Father, there is one stonemason in a nearby township. However, he and his sons are not only very busy with other work, but he is also a Protestant and an Orangeman* to boot!"

 Instead of the expected "well, thanks for trying" reply, the pastor slammed his fist on the table and roared "I don't care if the only stonemason is the Devil himself! This rectory is going to be built of stone. Now, go hire this man and his sons and build my rectory."

And that, according to local tradition as related to me by one of the area's amateur historians, is how St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne came to have a matching stone rectory.

In addition to being a good story (and, despite my literary license in fashioning the dialog), this is also a good example of how people, when left to themselves, will put aside ancient hatreds and prejudices to cooperate with those they dislike to the mutual benefit of both.

It was probably fairly easy to find the Protestant stonemason who, more than likely, had many Catholics as clients. Both the stonemason and his Catholic customers probably continued to believe that the other was ignorant and dammed to Hell as a result of that ignorance.

While neither would ever consider a social relationship or, God forbid, their children marrying those of the other faith, the stonemason could easily suspend these beliefs in the interest of more business while his Catholic counterparts did the same in the in order to get the building they wanted.

In a free market, people's actions are guided by self-interest. Having the opportunity to advance and make a better life, individuals first find it beneficial to leave other people alone and devote their energies toward building a better material life for themselves and their families.

They still hold strong beliefs, both positive ones such as their religious faith, and negative ones like their prejudices. However, in exchange for being left alone and to believe as they wish, they reciprocate and allow their neighbors to continue to believe differently.

This is called tolerance. Tolerance is not accepting the beliefs and opinions of others as being equal to ones own. A person practicing tolerance is firmly convinced that their beliefs are correct and those of their neighbor are incorrect so there is no equivalency here.

St. Patrick's Church &  Cemetery in Lansdown, Ontario   ©Charles Nugent
However, rather than wasting time and resources fighting over these differing beliefs, each tacitly agrees to not only allow the other to continue to hold on to their incorrect beliefs but will actually defend  others' right to do so. This is not because they agree with the other. They don't. Rather, it is because each
knows that if they attempt deny their neighbor the right to hold incorrect beliefs, they risk losing the right to hold their own beliefs.

Tolerance not only encourages a live and let live attitude it also enables us to interact with each other to our mutual benefit in areas, like commerce, which do not require that we compromise our beliefs in the process.

Tolerance thus becomes the basis for a peaceful and prosperous society. However, tolerance is not for all.

A tolerant society, in which people work together as needed to solve mutual problems, has little need for a strong body of permanent leaders. As problems and needs arise, leaders emerge to manage the project and then return to their business.

However, this attitude of everyone doing their own thing does not sit well for those who have grand visions of what the society should become. In order to stay in power as a leader it is important for the leader to create a situation where the he or she is needed, and what better way to do this than by the classic method of divide and conquer. By dividing people into groups and stirring up fear and hatred among the groups, a person can emerge and remain the one leader who keeps everyone from killing each other.

England's treatment of Ireland is a classic example. About a thousand years ago the English King Henry II decided that Ireland should be a part of England. The Irish, of course, didn't quite agree and thus began a long struggle to keep the Irish in line. Following King William III's victory in the so called Willamite War of the 1690s, a decision was made to both confiscate the lands of the Irish nobility (a common practice) in the North of Ireland, which had long been a source of rebellion, as well as evict the peasants living on the lands.

Title to the lands was then given to nobles loyal to William and the lands themselves repopulated with peasants from the Protestant Scottish lowlands. Being a minority living in a Protestant enclave on a Catholic island, it was no problem keeping the new population of the north of Ireland loyal as their very lives depended upon the protection of the English Crown. Discriminatory laws for the native Irish and preferential treatment for the Protestants in the north resulted in the desired hatred between the two groups.

Refusing to work with each other, both groups stayed poor while the King continued to rule. But, in time some from both groups began to seek a new life in Canada. At that time, occupied with other parts of the empire, London had little time for Canada and people there were more or less left to themselves. With no one to fan the flames of hatred and division, the Irish of both religions grudgingly began to develop a working relationship so that the Irish community in Canada prospered while Ireland itself languished in hatred and poverty.

The Protestant stonemason and his sons were hired to cut the stones needed for the rectory at St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne Township. While the pastor paid the stonemason for his work, more than likely he did not invite the stonemason to take a break and have a beer with him. But, then again, taking a break from his own work and observing the stonemason and his sons laboring in the hot summer sun, the pastor may have seen the stonemason, for a moment, not as a Protestant and Orangeman, but as a neighbor doing a job.
Rectory of St. Patrick's Church in Lansown, Ontario   ©Charles Nugent
Remembering the admonition from Jesus to love thy neighbor, the pastor just might have invited the stonemason and his sons to take a break and join him for a beer. The stonemason, visualizing the satisfaction of a cool drink on a hot day, probably accepted.

Thus, the two men (and the sons), again could have set aside their differences to enjoy the common pleasure of a cool drink on a hot day. One will never know which scenario actually played out during that long ago summer. However, one thing we know for certain - the conversation during that break was NOT about religion or politics!

*NOTE: The term Orangeman refers to a Protestant of Scots descent living in what is now known as Northern Ireland or Ulster. The ancestors of these people were moved from Scotland to Ireland by the British King, William of Orange (Orange was a duchy in Holland where William came from). The term Orangemen has been applied to the Protestants in the north of Ireland whose loyalty is to the British Crown.

No comments: