PORTLAND – An adage reminds us, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The controversy raging over the location of an Islamic center and mosque near “Ground Zero” in Manhattan may seem like a “new” crisis, but this same issue with different players reveals an ugly side of the human condition, well documented throughout American history.

Beginning in the 1820s, large numbers of Irish and German immigrants (mostly Catholic) began to pour into the United States. Anti-immigration opposition, labeled as “nativism,” began to rise out of fear that these poor laborers would take jobs meant for native born Americans. Many believed that immigrants were exhausting charitable and welfare budgets.

A larger number of nativists were also convinced of a wider conspiracy that the Roman Catholic hierarchy was determined to undermine American values of freedom, democracy and religious liberty.

Increasing nativist influence and political power made waves in the American public sphere throughout the 19th Century. One result was the formation of a nativist political party called The American Party. Also referred to as “The Know Nothings,” due to their policy of saying “I know nothing” when asked about their group or its plans, their impact was felt both nationally and locally in Maine.

If any of these 19th century events sound similar to those currently under way, please read on. If building a mosque near “Ground Zero” seems like a desecration to sacred ground, consider the following parallel from 19th century American history.

In 1832, on the occasion of George Washington’s 100th birthday, a group of citizens organized a commission to construct the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital.

Private donations financed construction, but Congress stepped in with a $200,000 donation in 1854 when private funds dried up.

Around that same time, foreign governments were invited to donate a marble block with their own message of congratulations. But when Pope Pius IX made such a donation on behalf of The Papal States, the “Know Nothings” sprang into action. They rigged elections to the Washington Monument Commission, packing it with their members. They proceeded to remove the papal marble block and reportedly threw it into the Potomac River.

Congress immediately rescinded its appropriation and work on the monument was halted, not to begin again until well after the Civil War. The Washington Monument was finally dedicated in 1882 and the papal marble block was replaced in 1982.

But nativists did not limit their activities to politics. Throughout the 19th century, Catholic churches were burned or vandalized in Maine communities, such as Lewiston, Bangor and Bath. When the Roman Catholic bishop wanted to build the Cathedral Church in the mid-1800s, Portland city officials refused permission to build it fronting on Congress Street. They were opposed to giving a Catholic cathedral a place of prominence on the city’s main thoroughfare.

Bishop David Bacon ultimately built the Cathedral facing Cumberland Avenue.

None of these anti-Catholic fears were ever realized. Over the next two centuries, Catholics integrated into the American society while maintaining their strong faith and devotional life. Their strength, ingenuity, hard work and loyalty contributed to the economic, political and moral fiber of American society.

These are only a few examples of how fears and prejudice undermined our national civil peace. Other groups besides Catholics have suffered from fears and prejudices. Ironically and sadly, some groups previously victimized by unfounded nativist accusations and fears later became perpetrators of these behaviors.

I understand the arguments of needing a vigilant citizenry dedicated to protecting families, property and civil liberties from those forces dedicated to their demise. Our police and military forces exist for these purposes and should have all the tools within our constitutional limits to protect us.

Needless fears, prejudices and scapegoating quickly become hysteria, threatening the civil peace of all citizens. Just as Catholics were demonized in the 19th century, so Muslims are demonized now. Just as American Catholics contribute to every aspect of American society and serve in our military, so do American Muslims.

We do not need to choose between vigilance and civil peace. We do need to study history and learn when fear overtook rational reflection and wise discernment.

If we refuse to learn from the past, or refuse to believe that we are just as capable of such rash behavior, we stand vulnerable to repeating these ugly chapters of our history. How will we write today’s chapter of our nation’s history?