Keeping the Faith

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (8) start of chapter

When visiting the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Cincinnati, I was made aware of a remarkable instance of how the faith was kept by the Irish in the days when, from want of priests and churches, the spiritual destitution of Catholics was extreme. In a ward of this splendid hospital, the munificent gift of two Protestant gentlemen to an Irish Sister,(34) a young priest was hurrying fast to the close of his mortal career. He had been a chaplain in the Federal service, in which, as in the ordinary sphere of his ministry, he was much beloved, on account of his great zeal and devotedness; but consumption, the result in a great measure of hardship and exposure, set in, and the termination of a lingering sickness was at hand. His father and mother—the father from Tipperary, the mother from 'the Cove of Cork'—settled amidst the woods of Ohio, about twenty miles from Cincinnati, and not a family within many miles of their home. About that time there were not more than a dozen priests in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, and but two brick churches in Ohio. This was the state of things when Bishop, now Archbishop, Purcell was consecrated. Little spiritual provision then for the Irish family in the woods. But the faith was strong in the hearts of the Irish parents, and they determined that their children should not be without its knowledge. Every Sunday the father read the prayers of Mass, and then gave an hour or an hour-and-a-half's catechetical instruction to his young flock. Every night the younger children, each in their turn, recited the accustomed prayers; and with the aid of good Catholic books, and a couple of the best of the Catholic newspapers, the right spirit was maintained. The father, who was then in independent circumstances, and is now the owner of 700 acres of land, used to send, four times a year, a 'buggy' for a priest, who celebrated Mass in the house, and explained, in a better manner than the father could have done, the principles of the Catholic religion. The family grew up a credit to their Irish father, himself a credit to his country. One of the sons, thus taught amidst the solitude of the woods, was then closing a noble career of priestly usefulness, and others were exhibiting the influence of their training in various walks of life. The sound Catholic teaching at home counteracted whatever might have been prejudicial in the district school, to which, at a suitable period, the young people were sent. I had the satisfaction of seeing this line old Tipperary man, who, at seventy years of age, had the appearance of one much younger. It was men of his stamp, I felt, that did most honour, in America, to their native land.

Bishop England often mentioned his visit to a family whom he found in the midst of the woods, and who had not seen a priest for forty years! But the faith had been preserved through the piety of the parents. The Bishop described this wonderful fidelity as a miracle of grace.

From the foregoing we learn how the faith has been kept: in the following we have an instance of what a humble man may do for its advancement.

In a rising town of one of the Northern States an Irish priest, actuated by religious zeal, attempted to build a church for the accommodation of his flock, which at that time was small in number and feeble in resources. The task was beyond his and their means, and the work, but partially accomplished, was necessarily suspended. A poor Irishman was passing through the town, on his way to the West, when, attracted by the appearance of the unfinished building, he enquired what it was intended for, and why it was allowed to remain in that incomplete state.

The reply, while it afforded the desired explanation, was mocking and derisive. 'That building! Oh, it was the Papists—them Irish Papists—that tried to get it up; it was too much for them; they couldn't do it, nohow. It does look ridiculous—don't it, stranger?' 'It does look mighty quare, sure enough,' was the quiet rejoinder of the poor working man, who added, as he first looked at his informant, who had passed on, and then at the incomplete structure; 'but, 'pon my faith, I'll not lave this place 'till it's finished, and I hear Mass said in it, too.' He remained to labour; and being a sober and thrifty man, his labour throve with him. As other emigrants passed through the town, also on their way to the West, he induced several of them to remain, and to these he soon imparted his own spirit. A more vigorous effort was made, and made successfully, mainly owing to this one humble man, who ere long heard Mass in the temple he so effectually helped to raise; and before many years had passed, there were convents and schools, in which his children, and the children of others once as poor as himself, imbibed a thorough knowledge of their religion, and caught the spirit of their fathers. To behold the cross on that church was the object of his ardent desire. He did behold it, and so have many thousands, who worshipped beneath the roof which it adorns.

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