Instances of the Progress of the Catholic Church in America

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVIII (4) start of chapter

Up to the year 1834 Milwaukee was the exclusive home of the Red Indian; when in that year a French Canadian, who is now about ten years dead, settled there, as a trader in furs. This first white settler was justly called the father of the city that soon after rose on the shore of Lake Michigan, and the founder of the Church of which he was the earliest and most liberal benefactor. It was not until towards the year 1837 that the Catholics of Milwaukee had the services of a priest permanently settled in that city. The Rev. Patrick Kelly then became the pastor of some thirty souls. In 1839 the first church was erected in Milwaukee, and was the only church in the entire of the Territory, since the State, of Wisconsin. In 1840 the population of the rising city was about 2,000, the Catholics being then one-third of the whole. In March 1844 the diocese of Milwaukee was erected, the Right Rev. John Martin Henni being appointed Bishop. The Bishop found in his vast diocese a Catholic flock of 20,000, scattered in every direction, twenty churches, most of them of the rudest construction, and two priests—the Rev. Martin Kundig and the Rev. Thomas Morissey. But behold the wonderful change effected in a few years, the result of European emigration. Where there were 20 so-called churches in 1844, there are now 322 churches, 16 chapels, and 75 stations; and where there were but 2 priests, there are now 163—besides 2 ecclesiastical seminaries, 2 male academies, 6 female academies, 8 religious communities, and 5 charitable institutions, with a Catholic population, mostly Irish and German, of 400,000. As an illustration of the amazing growth of religious institutions in the fruitful soil of the West, the development of a single one,—that of the Order of 'Notre Dame'—might be cited.

It is not more than sixteen years since four Sisters of this famous Order founded a house in Milwaukee,—the first house in the States; and now the Order is represented by 58 convents in different parts of the Union, and nearly 500 Sisters who educate and train more than 20,000 children. In the month of August 1867, 60 ladies received the white veil and 38 received the black veil, in the mother house of Milwaukee. Besides the Order of Notre Dame, the diocese enjoys the services of Sisters of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders. For this wonderful progress of the Church and growth of religious institutions, 'we are, under the blessing of God, indebted to the zeal, untiring energy, and good judgment of our venerable and beloved bishop,' writes an excellent Irishman, who has risen to high honour in the city of his adoption. As a finish to this picture, it may be added, that the assembled bishops of the Council of Baltimore recommended the division of the State of Wisconsin into three dioceses, with Milwaukee as an Archiepiscopal see.

Brooklyn, which in 1834 was attended by a single priest, has now twenty-four or twenty-five churches in the city alone, with at least 12,000 children educated under the care of religious Orders—of Mercy, Charity, St. Dominic, the Visitation, St. Joseph, Sisters of the Poor, Christian Brothers, and Brothers of St. Francis. New churches are now being erected throughout the diocese, as well as in the city; and in the latter an entire square is devoted to the site of a magnificent cathedral, which will be a model of architectural splendour. The Irish mainly constitute the Catholic population of Brooklyn, as of New York, and most of the Eastern cities. Still in this, as in other dioceses —indeed, in all dioceses—more priests are required. Of the thirty other churches, besides those of the city, we find that some are attended every two weeks, several once a month, and one only every six weeks. Nevertheless, it is progress—progress—progress—in all directions.

In 1847 Bishop Timon took possession of the see of Buffalo, where, to use his own words, 'in the new diocese there were then sixteen priests and sixteen churches; though most of those churches might rather be called huts or shanties.' That venerable prelate—whom I had the satisfaction of meeting towards the close of 1866—has since gone to receive the reward of a life glorious to religion. That Bishop has left behind him a noble legacy to the Church,—165 churches, including one of the most beautiful cathedrals now in the country; 126 priests; 4 colleges and seminaries; 9 male and 18 female institutions, to which are attached colleges and academies; 16 charitable institutions, 4 being hospitals, and 12 asylums; with 32 parochial schools. And hard work had Bishop Timon for the first years of his mission, in meeting the wants of a fast increasing flock, and resisting the evil spirit of ill-regulated 'trusteeship.' But if his labour was great, so is its result.

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