Early Missions of the Roman Catholic Church in America

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (11) start of chapter

From original documents in his possession, Dr. White gives, in his Appendix to Darras' 'General History of the Church,' some characteristic letters from missionary priests to their Bishop, Dr. Carroll. A passage or two from these letters will afford an idea of missionary life in those days. Considering the sharp provocation to its use, the poor priest's strength of language in the following, written from West Pennsylvania, is but natural. The writer is an Irishman:—

Your reverence (he writes) can have no conception of my distress here, even for the necessaries of life, for really I have not anything like a sufficiency of food such as I get, and, indeed, poor and filthy it is. Most of the Irish, who, though poor, were by far the most generous, have now quit this settlement; five or six German families alone remain, whose chaplain I may call myself, since I cannot pretend to travel for want of a horse, and these people, indeed,—abstraction made of religion—are the last of all mankind for sentiments of humanity. The poor man I live with is not paid what was promised for my board, and, whether he intends it or not, he treats me accordingly. Perhaps he can't help it. Bread is the sole support of his family. Morning, noon, and night, flour and water, or bread and water, with a little burnt grease thrown over it, is the support of his starved and almost perfectly naked family. Since my arrival, the only meat they had was a little pig about twenty or thirty pounds, and a calf ten days old, of which we eat this whole week, till it became musty and green for want of salt. . . . Thus have I spent five months of a very rigorous Lent, that threw me into a diarrhoea, that, in such wretchedness and cold, made me pass a most penitential winter.

Another priest writes from Milltown, Pa., in January 1799. After informing his Bishop that he had a large tract of land about twenty miles from there, and that he had placed his sister, a nun, on it, allotting her and her Order five hundred acres, he requests him to send him, in the spring—

Twenty Munster or Connaught men, and if they are poor, I'll pay them as much a year or a day as any other gentleman in the country, provided they are Catholics, because there are plenty of other descriptions here already; but I don't approve of it. Thus you'll free me from a reprobated class of infamous Scotch-Irish, superior in all kinds of wickedness, only in a superlative degree, to the most vile convicts. . . . This before I would not mention to you, until I could be settled, in dread you might suppose interested views might oblige me to exaggerate in my reports. .... In consequence of the cold, I am dislodged from my spring house, and obliged to turn into the pig-sty —that is, the poor honest man's own house, where cats, young dogs, and young fowls, both men and their wives, sons and daughters, all in one store-room comfortably kennel together. But what is more humorous is, that I am kept in pledge, in this sweet-scented situation, for my quarter's diet and lodging.

There is something comical in the bitter wail of distress emanating from poor Father Whelan, who, for many years a missionary in Kentucky, now, January 1805, addresses his Bishop from Clay Creek, Pennsylvania:—

As to Thomas Maguire and his wife, a priest might as well go and lodge in a wolf-pen as with them—he being a wild Irish savage, she being either of the Sambo or Shawnee breed, though some say she is a Hottentot. But, let the case be as it may, she is one whose exterior appearance and interior disposition differ totally from any woman I ever conversed with. At the second word, she will give me the lie to my face. Her husband, though present, would say nothing to all this. . . . No man in Bedlam suffers more than I do, in the company of four wolves. I hope it is a temporal purgatory, and will atone for some of my sins.

Among the many great works associated with the episcopacy of Dr. Carroll, two may be noticed—the foundation of the Jesuit College of Georgetown, and the establishment, under Mrs. Seton, of the Sisters of Charity at Emmettsburg.

From the date of the foundation of the College of Georgetown to the present hour, this parent house of Catholic learning has steadily pursued a noble career of usefulness and honour, educating thousands of the best youth of the country, preparing many of them for the most eminent position in every walk of life, and every department of the public service. And at no period of its splendid career has this first of Catholic American institutions held a higher place in public esteem than it does at this moment. I had the pleasure of walking through its halls, and visiting its rich and varied library, in which there are works of the rarest kind, inestimable in the eyes of a collector. The president is an Irishman, as distinguished for his learning and piety as for his gifts as a preacher.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America