The Sign of the Cross

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (7) start of chapter

There is not a priest of any experience in the American mission that has not met with the most interesting proofs of the holy flame burning in the hearts of Irish Catholics far removed from a church. The delight of these good people at a visit from one of their own clergymen—the Sogarth aroon—is indescribable. A friend, who now holds an eminent position in the ministry, told me how he was affected by the feeling exhibited by an Irish woman whom he visited, as much by chance as design, in the course of a missionary tour whose extent might be counted by hundreds of miles. He came to a house in the midst of the woods, but surrounded with every appearance of substantial comfort; and on entering through the open doorway he found a number of young people in the principal apartment. He was welcomed, but coldly, by the elder girl, who told him that 'mother' was somewhere about the place with the boys. The clergyman asked some questions, which at first were replied to with evident restraint; but when he said he was a Catholic priest—and an Irish priest, too—there was an end to coldness and reserve. The girl had taken him for a preacher, of one of the many sects to be found in every part of America, and her courtesy was rather scant in consequence. 'Oh, Father, don't go!—I'll run and fetch mother!' cried the girl, as she ran out to impart the joyful tidings to her parent; the priest in the meantime establishing friendly relations with the younger children. Soon were hurried steps heard approaching the house, and one voice, half choked with emotion, saying: 'Mary, Mary, darling, are you serious?—is it the priest?—is it really the priest?' answered by that of the daughter with: ' Yes, mother dear, it is the priest, sure enough.' In rushed a woman of middle age, her arms outstretched, and her face flushed with strong excitement. Falling on her knees on the floor, she exclaimed, with an accent of passionate supplication, that thrilled the priest to his heart—'Oh, Father! for the sake of God and His Blessed Mother, mark me with the sign of the Cross!' Her face, though merely comely at best, was positively beautiful in its expression as her pious request was complied with. The example was contagious.

The entire family were at once on their knees, and 'Me, Father!—don't forget me, Father!—Father, don't forget me,' from the youngest, showed how the mother's spirit pervaded her children. It was some hours before the good woman's excitement subsided; and as she busied herself to do fitting honour to her guest—whom she assured she would rather see in her house than the King on his throne, or the President himself—she constantly broke off into pious ejaculations, full of praise and thanks. The priest remained long enough under her hospitable roof to celebrate Mass, which to her was a source of joy unspeakable, as she looked upon her dwelling as sacred from that moment; and to strengthen by his instruction the strong impression already made upon the minds of her children by their pious mother. This good woman's husband had been carried off by malignant fever, leaving to her care a large and helpless family; but, as she said, 'God gave her strength to struggle on for them,' and she did so, bravely and successfully, until the eldest were able to help her, and abundance and comfort were in her dwelling. For many years she had not seen the face of a priest, or entered the door of a church; but the faith was strong in her Irish heart, and every morning the labours of the day were blessed by the prayers of the family, who repeated them as regularly before they retired to their untroubled rest; and on Sundays the prayers of Mass were read, and the litanies were recited. Thus was the faith kept in the midst of the forest, until the time came when the church was erected, and the congregation knelt beneath its sacred roof, and the voice of praise blended with the swelling peal of the organ, and the exiles really felt themselves 'at home' at last.

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