The Bishop's Trials

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XX (4) start of chapter

In North Washington the Catholics were 'few and generally negligent.' No priest since the previous year. 'The Methodists have a meeting-house, the Baptists a temporary place, but there is no other house of worship.' The Bishop not only preached in the Court-house in the evenings, but said Mass in it in the mornings; and the congregations increasing, the converts, including people of colour, coming in, and favourable impressions being made upon others, who took time to consider what they should do, we are not surprised to learn that 'the Baptist and Methodist leaders were drawing off the hearers to the best of their power.'

On his arrival in Plymouth he finds but one Catholic; but in a day after he discovers a second. Still, he is well received, and actually establishes a Book Society. 'Finding,' he says, 'an anxiety to hear me, I consented to remain, and preach twice this day, to about 40 persons at eleven o'clock, and to a much larger congregation at five o'clock, at the Academy, which was the only public building in the town.' For three days he preached, both morning and evening; on the third evening he 'preached to a very crowded congregation in the Academy, after which the Book Society met, and elected their officers.' It was on that evening that the Bishop discovered the second Catholic in the town.

In other places he finds a few Catholics, the greater number attending the Methodist or Baptist places of worship, there being no Catholic church, and the visits of a priest being 'few and far between.' Whatever the nature of the congregation, whatever its admixture of nationalities, Irish are to be found amongst them; thus, next to a high-sounding Spanish name, we alight upon a Daniel Flynn, a Michael Dempsey, or an Ignatius Crowley. Deputations wait upon him to request he will preach in Protestant churches or in Court-houses, which he generally does, and with advantage to the cause of truth. But converts are lukewarm, and Catholics relapse into indifferentism; and priests cannot be had, or are not always reliable, being discouraged by the hardships of a seemingly unpromising mission; and troubles and perplexities plant the Bishop's mitre with plentiful thorns; and rheumatisms rack his bones, and fevers break down his strength; and, to add to his afflictions, poverty oppresses him. 'I was frequently,' says the Bishop of three great States, 'without a dollar, from the wretched state of the income, and the bad disposition of the infidel portion who professed to belong to the flock.' Still, in spite of incessant toil in the mission, and drudgery in his seminary, and the constant pressure of poverty, he continued to extend his Book Society, and establish in Charleston, in 1822, a weekly newspaper, called The United States Catholic Miscellany, which, under his management, became one of the most potent means of vindicating the faith, and refuting the calumnies so constantly circulated by its opponents; in fact, it soon grew to be a power in the country.

'December 28th, 1822. Columbia. I preached in the House of Representatives, at the request of the Legislature.'

'April 24th, 1823. Celebrated Mass and exhorted, and after dinner returned to Camden, and stopped by invitation with Mr. Salmond, a Presbyterian.'

'April 24. Mr. Salmond was kind enough to find the Catholics and to bring them to me. They consisted of the following persons (French, Spanish, and Irish names), to whom I gave the usual commission. I gave them some books, and heard the confession of one who presented himself. At the request of the inhabitants I preached in the evening, in the new Presbyterian Church, to a very large congregation. I afterwards baptized three children.'

With one other extract we shall conclude a notice of the Bishop's diary, from which sufficient has been given to afford the reader a true picture of a mission throughout which Catholics were thinly scattered, and in which they had to depend, in a very great measure, upon their own steadfastness to retain even a semblance of their faith. In purely country districts—perhaps not visited for years by a clergyman—matters were necessarily worse; notwithstanding which there were many, many instances of Irish Catholics keeping the faith alive under the most discouraging circumstances.

April 29th, 1823.—Fayetteville. Heard confessions, celebrated Mass, and exhorted; had four communicants—baptized a child. I found that the congregation had regularly prayed together on the Sundays and holidays, until the sickly season, when they fell off. I endeavoured to prevail upon them to resume the good practice. Superseded the former commission, and issued a new one to John Kelly, Dillon Jordan, Laurence Fitzharriss, Doctor James Moffet, and Daniel Kenny. Was invited to preach at the State House. In the evening I again saw the Catholics, and exhorted them to persevere—spoke to several individually. At eight o'clock I preached in the State House to a very large and attentive audience.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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