A Martyr to Duty

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER I (13) start of chapter

Father Geary, a Halifax priest—originally from Waterford, and now about four years dead—frequently attended 'sick calls' at a distance of a hundred miles from the city, along the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, and did so without the assistance of horse or vehicle of any kind. He had literally to walk the hundred miles, and this he has done as often as four times in the year. As the tidings of distress reached the city, generally by boat, the zealous missionary at once girded his loins and prepared to set out on his long and arduous journey, frequently in the depth of a Nova Scotian winter, when the snow lay two feet thick on the ground, the thermometer was many degrees below zero, and a cutting blast blew right in his teeth. There was not in his mind a thought of shrinking, a second's doubt as to the necessity of then setting out: a human soul was in peril, and the priest's duty was to reach the sick person's bedside as speedily as possible; and this he did. Twenty miles before breakfast was 'a trifle' to Father Geary.

Within the last ten years a Nova Scotian priest has discharged the duties of a district extending considerably over one hundred miles in length; and while I was in Halifax the Archbishop appointed a clergyman to the charge of a mission which would necessitate his making journeys of more than that many miles in extent. And when a missionary priest, in 1842, the Archbishop would make a three months' tour from Halifax to Dartmouth, a distance—going and returning—of 450 miles; and would frequently diverge ten and even twenty miles from the main line into the bush on either side, thus doing duty for a population of 10,000 Catholics, who had no spiritual resource save in him, and a decrepid fellow-labourer on the brink of the grave.

It is not three years since a young Irish priest, then in the first year of his mission, received what, to him, was literally a death summons. He was lying ill in bed when the 'sick call' reached his house, the pastor of the district being absent. The poor young man did not hesitate a moment; no matter what the consequence to himself, the dying Catholic should not be without the consolations of religion. To the dismay of those who knew of his intention, and who remonstrated in vain against what to them appeared to be an act of insanity, he started on his journey, a distance of thirty-six miles, which he accomplished on foot, in the midst of incessant rain. It is not possible to tell how often he paused involuntarily on that terrible march, or how he reeled and staggered as he approached its termination; but this much is well ascertained—that scarcely had he reached the sick man's bed, and performed the functions of his ministry, when he was conscious of his own approaching dissolution; and there being no brother priest to minister to him in his last hour, he administered the viaticum to himself, and died on the floor of what was then, indeed, a chamber of death. Here was a glorious ending of a life only well begun.

Bermuda is included within the spiritual jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Halifax, and to this fact is owing one of the most extraordinary instances of a 'sick call' on record. A Catholic lady in Bermuda was dying of a lingering disease, and knowing that further delay might be attended with consequences which she regarded as worse than death, she availed herself of the opportunity of a vessel then about to sail for Halifax to send for a clergyman of that city. The day the message was delivered to the clergyman a vessel was to sail from Halifax to Bermuda, and he went on board at once, arrived in due course at the latter place, found the dying lady still alive, administered to her the rites of the Church, and returned as soon as possible to his duties in Halifax; having, in obedience to this remarkable 'sick call,' accomplished a journey of 1,600 miles.

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