Spiritual Destitution

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (5) start of chapter

When in 1832 the first Council of Baltimore assembled, the Catholics of the United States numbered not less than half a million. In 1830, according to Bishop Dubois, the Catholic population of the diocese of New York was 150,000, of whom 35,000 were in the city of that name. In 1834 the number in the latter must have been at least 50,000, and in the diocese 200,000, as emigration was steadily setting in; and though the emigration of that day was generally diffused through the country, still the greater portion of this life-current was even then directed to the Empire City. There were at that time—in 1834—in the entire of the State of New York and the portion of New Jersey combined with it in the diocese, but nineteen churches, not a few of which were utterly unworthy of that distinction—being miserable wooden shanties, hastily run up by poor congregations; and the number of priests for this enormous territory, which is now divided into five dioceses, did not exceed five-and-twenty! Too many of the scattered congregations of this vast diocese had not for years seen the face of a priest, or heard the saving truths of religion from a minister of their own faith; and the young people grew up to manhood and womanhood with only such imperfect knowledge of sacred subjects as the scanty information of simple parents could afford them.

One may easily imagine how difficult it was, under those circumstances, for the Irish Catholic to preserve the faith. The Irish Protestant, no matter of what sect or denomination, found a church and a congregation wherever he went, and with him there was neither inducement nor necessity to change. Indeed, the position held then, and for long after, by the Catholics in America, did not offer any special attraction to those of other communions to join their ranks; and while all sects of Protestantism enjoyed comparatively ample means and opportunities for public worship, the Catholic lacked them altogether in too many instances. Save in cities and towns, and not always in these either, the Catholic had no church, no priest, no instruction, no spiritual consolation—nothing, in fact, to depend on for the preservation of the faith, until the coming of the better days for which he ardently longed, but the grace of God and his own steadfastness.

Albany, and Buffalo, and Brooklyn, and Newark, which are now, in a Catholic sense, cathedral cities, and the centres of prosperous dioceses, having a complete ecclesiastical organisation of their own, were each 'served' by a single priest in 1834. When Bishop Dubois visited Buffalo in 1829, he found a congregation of 800 Catholics, about half of whom were Irish, who had been occasionally visited by a clergyman from Rochester; but, previous to that arrangement, they had been for years without having seen a minister of their Church. The first church—a little wooden structure—erected in Buffalo was in the fall of that year. But in 1847, when Buffalo was formed into a diocese, the state of things discovered by Bishop Timon, not only in his first visitation, but on subsequent occasions, was little different from that recorded by Bishop England of his three Southern States; and while there were more Catholics to be found in the towns springing up in the State of New York, the spiritual poverty and destitution were as marked in the North as in the South. Bishop Timon had fifteen priests to assist him, and sixteen churches; but we are told, on the Bishop's authority, that most of them 'might rather be called huts or shanties;' and when there was a church, of whatever kind, there was scarcely a sacred vessel for the use of the altar, and the vestments were 'few and poor.'

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