'We want to become Catholics'

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (13) start of chapter

Not very long before I visited a place in Tennessee, a 'delegation' from a district in which there was not a single Catholic waited on an Irish priest of my acquaintance; their object being to consult with him as to the feasibility of building a Catholic church in the place. 'A Catholic church!' exclaimed the priest; 'what can you want of a Catholic church, and not a Catholic in the place?" The answer was remarkable: 'We here are all ex-soldiers, and have been in the war; and when we returned, the preachers, —Methodists, Presbyterians, and others—asked us to join their churches, as before. We said nothing at the time, but held a meeting, and sent this reply: "Before the war, you told us that Catholics were capable of committing every crime; that priests and nuns were all bad alike. We went to the war; we were in hospitals, and we met members of our own society there; but the only persons who did anything for us, or cared anything about us, were these same Catholics, the Priests and Sisters that you so represented to us. We were in the prisons of the North, and it was the same. Now what you told us about Catholics was not true. We can't have any further confidence in you, and we will have nothing more to do with you. If we be anything, we will be Catholics." That was our reply; and we now come to consult a Catholic priest, to see how best we may carry out our intentions, and become Catholics.'

The above I give, not because it is the most remarkable of such applications, which are very numerous, and are constantly made in many dioceses throughout the States. The majority of another such 'delegation' told the Bishop on whom they waited that they had been strong Know Nothings before the war; and one of them declared that he had assisted to 'tar and feather' a priest, and that in so doing he thought he was doing service to God!' We don't know what the doctrines of your Church are; these we desire to learn; but though we don't know its doctrines, we have seen its conduct during the war, and that conduct we admired.'

That the Sisters—those truest exponents of Catholic charity—win the respect of Protestants at other times than during war, and in the ordinary discharge of their duty, we have a proof in the following incident:—

The Archbishop of San Francisco and other Catholic Bishops were on their way to the Council of Baltimore; and as the Bishops and the clergy by whom they were accompanied desired to have the use of an apartment or cabin, in which Mass could be daily offered up, the Archbishop made a request to that effect to the Captain of the vessel, who thus replied: 'Archbishop, there are twenty preachers on board who asked me to allow them to preach, and I have refused them, because they would create nothing but confusion. But, Archbishop, though I am an Episcopalian, I am much obliged to you. The yellow fever broke out in my crew, and my ministers deserted me; but you sent the Sisters, and they came and nursed my men all through their sickness. I never can forget it; and whatever I can do for a Catholic Bishop or for the Sisters, I will do most gladly. You shall have the room, Archbishop.'

And as these words are written, the same terrible scourge is thinning the ranks of the Sisters in New Orleans, many of whom have fallen martyrs to their zeal and duty.

A Southern General said to me, 'The war has worn away many a prejudice against Catholics, such was the exemplary conduct of the priests in the camp and the hospital, and the Christian attitude of the Church during the whole of the struggle. Many kind and generous acts were done by the priests to persecuted ladies, who now tell with gratitude of their services. Wherever an asylum was required, they found it for them. I wish all ministers had been like the priests, and we might never have had this war, or it would not have been so bitter as it was.'

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:

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ebook: The Irish in America