The Constitutional Convention got off to a slow start in May 1787. Having met already for a week, on Sunday, May 20th, the group decided not to work, but instead to attend a religious service. Interestingly, they decided on a Catholic Mass. There were no Catholics present in the group (the Catholic delegate, Daniel Carroll, from Maryland, had not yet arrived in Philadelphia). Besides, Philadelphia held the country's largest Episcopalian church and, this same week, the city was hosting a national convention for the Presbyterian church.
Catholics, up to this point in the American colonies and the young American nation, had been overtly persecuted. Catholics were forbidden from voting or holding public office. John Jay, who would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, procured a law in New York maintaining the ban on Catholic participation in politics. In Massachusetts, it was a capital offense for a priest to preach or celebrate Mass publicly.
When asked why they attended Mass, George Mason, a Protestant, wrote: "it was more out of Compliment than Religion, and more out of Curiosity than Compliment." Ah, the curiosity of Catholicism! Something that still draws people today.
Mason went on to describe what the experience was like: "While I was pleased with the Air of Solemnity so generally diffused through the Church, I was somewhat disgusted with the frequent tinkling of a little bell, which put me in mind of the drawing up of the curtain for a puppet-shew." I guess the altar bells are not for everyone!
Nonetheless, the experience was powerful that enough George Washington led a group of Protestants the following Sunday once again to Catholic Mass at St. Mary's Parish in downtown Philadelphia. His message was clear: bigotry against Catholicism would no longer stand. Thank you, President Washington.