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Catholic Church, McDonough County

By Rev. Father John Larmer, Montello, Marquette county, Wisconsin

The history of the Catholic church in McDonough county is inseparable from its social and political history, as will appear further on in these pages. As early as 1832, Catholic settlers immigrated into McDonough county--some from Maryland, others from Kentucky, and a few from Ireland, almost direct. Among the earliest settlers was the McKay family, from Baltimore; the parents, however, were born in Ireland. This family located in the northern portion of the county, and their humble home became the regular place where the Catholic priests periodically held divine services. In the western portion of the county, Joseph Reilly and others settled, they coming from Kentucky. Joseph Reilly probably came in 1833, and at his home and Mr. John Hardesty's, Catholic priests from Missouri, for years, ministered to the spiritual wants of the Catholics in their neighborhoods. In the southeast portion of the county, a family by the name of Carlin settled not far from Table Grove; this family was subsequently joined by other brothers and relations; these Carlins originally came from Ireland.

Nauvoo, on the Mississippi river, was the residence of the priests who attended the Catholics in the northern, middle and southern portions of McDonough county. The Catholics, as above stated, of the western portion, were attended principally by priests from Missouri. It probably will surprise the present generation of young Catholics, and others, that the now second city in Illinois, Peoria, less than 40 years ago was of so little importance that it received just the same spiritual attendance from the priests stationed at Nauvoo, in its turn, that the few Catholics received at the home of John McKay, in the northern portion of McDonough county. The writer had this fact from the Rev. Thomas Kennedy, who was one of the first resident pastors of Nauvoo. He stated it was his custom to start on horseback from Nauvoo monthly; visit the Catholic settlers in the territory, including Hancock and Henderson counties, and reach McKay's in McDonough county, say mass, rest, and change his horses, then proceed to St. Augustine, Fulton county, hold Catholic services there, then, with occasional stops, go to Peoria, do the same, and return by the end of the month to Nauvoo. This was the usual routine for years, of other priests, until the development of the country made other arrangements necessary, by placing resident pastors at Peoria and elsewhere. The citizens as well as the Catholics, need not blush, but may be proud of the Catholic priests who early ministered spiritually in McDonough county; some of them were distinguished for learning and piety, and, to a man, were zealous for the spread of the gospel, and by their presence and counsel, quietly given without fee or reward, assisted in the development and material prosperity, not only of McDonough, but neighboring counties. Some of them, as will be seen further on, became distinguished, and will live in the history of Missouri, Illinois, principally the great city of Chicago, and the state of Michigan.

First Missionaries, or Early Priests

As I am limited in space in this chapter, I will partly dispense with dates, for to be accurate to a month or year, in some instances, would require much more research, probably without result, than the writer can spare time. But this will not impair the accuracy of any statement set down in this work. The writer was well acquainted with nearly all the priests set down here, and had what he writes from their own lips, indeed, some of the priests were dear friends; such friendship, strange as it may seem, arises between the old and the young. The first priest who ministered in McDonough county since its settlement, in this century, whom there is any tradition or record of, was Rev. Peter Paul LeFevere. There is certain evidence that he officiated in McDonough county, on his way to the church of St. Augustine, in Fulton county, in 1834. Father LeFevere's residence was in Missouri. There is, however, no doubt but that earlier than that year he visited the scattered Catholics in McDonough and neighboring counties. This priest was a very distinguished man, humble and learned. He was consecrated Catholic bishop of the state of Michigan, November 21, 1841, and died March 4, 1869.

The next was Rev. John George Alleman. Father Alleman is still remembered by the oldest settlers. He was a most learned and pious, but funny man. Although a Frenchman, the writer never met an Irishman who could excel him in wit and practical good humor. He loved the writer as a son, and the missionary spirit he infused into him in early years by example and instruction braced him up against every impediment to develop the good work he and others began. Father Alleman's residence was at Fort Madison, Iowa, and his labors in McDonough and neighboring counties covered the time the Mormons were in Nauvoo. Strange to relate, Joseph Smith and the leading Mormons, at all times professed the greatest respect and friendship for the big French priest, as they called him. Father Alleman once related to the writer that he had no means of getting across the Mississippi river to attend a sick Catholic in McDonough county, but the Mormons, having made known to Joseph Smith that the priest wished to cross, the latter not only had him ferried over, but furnished him a conveyance to the sick man. Smith telling Father Alleman that next to the Mormons, the Catholics were the best of all religions. "For," continued Smith, "the priests attend to their people faithfully and mind their own business, whereas the other preachers are continually bothering the Latter Day Saints." Father Alleman wittily remarked with thanks, "there was a diversity of opinion on that subject." Father Alleman died of apoplexy in the Sisters' hospital in St. Louis, September 10, 1866.

After the Mormons left, the French philosophical sect, socialists, Monsieur Cabat being their founder and leader, took possession of Nauvoo. This sect has no affinity to latter day socialism. Cabat's system consisted in a community of goods and social perfectionism. He and his community were mere theorists, unpractical in all that concerns daily life; therefore, when an attempt was made to reduce these theories to practice, the community failed hopelessly and broke up; some remaining at Nauvoo, others going to Warsaw, in Hancock county, and a few went to Iowa, and established the village of Arcadia. These circumstances strange as it may appear, brought about the better development of the Catholic church in McDonough and neighboring counties. The eyes of the civilized world were on Cabat's system, as he had taught it in colleges in France, and was a writer of marked ability, and when it fell hopelessly through, the members being French and ought to be Catholics, the serious attention of the archbishop of St. Louis, and others were directed to save and reclaim Cabat's deluded, but honest dupes. Rev. John St. Cyr, who had been the first priest who said mass in the city of Chicago, and who built the first church in it. After successful pastoral labors in that city, had been recalled to Missouri; and from Northern Missouri, from time to time, crossed over the Mississippi to Warsaw, in Hancock county, Illinois, and organized a Catholic congregation, bringing back to the Catholic church nearly all of the disbanded socialists he found in that section. Father St. Cyr, also, extended for a time regularly, his pastoral labors to the western portion of McDonough county. Father St. Cyr will be mentioned again in the chapter on Tennessee congregation. He died at the Sisters' convent, in St. Louis, of which he had been chaplain for years, on February 21, 1882, being over 80 years of age. He was a mild and scholarly man, gentle as a lamb, as the old settlers used to say, and full of zeal for the spread of the gospel of Christ. Sketches, if not a full history of him, have been published by the Historical Society, of Chicago.

A house being purchased in Nauvoo, which formerly had been a residence and a store of a Mormon, Father Thomas Kennedy was located there, he using the store for a church and the other portion of the building as a residence. This then was the first attempt on the east side of the Mississippi to locate a permanent resident priest and give McDonough county, and the county east of it, including Peoria, a permanent pastor, to, at least, visit the principal stations once a month, McKay's in the northern portion of McDonough county being looked on as the center of Father Kennedy's district. Rev. Thomas Kennedy was not what could be called a learned man, yet he was a fine classical scholar and a mathematician of no mean repute, but he was better than a scholar, he was an humble but vigorous servant of Christ. In his zeal in preaching the word of God he would frequently weep, hence the irreverent called him "the crying priest," but he had enough of the Irishman about him, and even his boot, those who dared insult the priesthood in his person. After nearly 30 years arduous labor in the ministry in Illinois, he died in Hyde Park, Cook county, Illinois, in 1873.

Rev. Father Griffin probably succeeded Rev. Thomas Kennedy. Little of his history is known to the writer. He was carried off in the prime of life, a martyr to his Master's cause, he wishing to give double service at distant points, caught malarial fever, on Christmas day and died suddenly. Certain it is he was a faithful clergyman and beloved by his people, as they had, we think, a praiseworthy rivalry which congregation would have the honor of his body in their midst. Nauvoo people wanted and did bury him there, but the members of St. Augustine's congregation and others from McDonough county went, and by force, disinterred his body, and brought it to St. Augustine, Fulton county, and there his remains lie buried.

The building of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad forced a change on the ecclesiastical authorities as to the manner of attending the spiritual wants of the Catholics in McDonough county.

In the preceding lines it was a pleasure to the writer to give the facts stated and preserve from oblivion the labors of worthy pioneer clergymen who suffered untold hardships in those early days for Christ's sake. Some things will now be related with great reluctance, but if the history of a locality is worth writing it should be done well and frankly or not at all. To omit facts which had a direct bearing on the future would be to give an egg shell without the meat. A historian is not a respecter of persons, their feelings or their prejudices, but a narrative of facts for the information and instruction of posterity.

Before the building of railroads through McDonough county the Catholics, nearly to a man, were farmers, who, with their families, as a rule squared their lives with the maxims of the gospel. The priests had only to instruct, exhort, and rarely correct, for evil doers were few, consequently between the priests and the farmers, making up their religious assemblies, an affection existed between them which conferred happiness on the people, and had the most consoling and beneficial effect on the priests. With the advent of railroads some farmers, it is true, came, but another and not desirable class, either as citizens or church members, spread themselves over the incipient towns growing up on such railroads. The Catholic church, being the mother of all her children, never neglects recalling the erring, if they give her half a chance, therefore to look after this class the bishop of Chicago, who had at that period the supervision of the Catholic church of all Illinois, located a priest at Galesburg, with McDonough county within his pastoral jurisdiction. Rev. Fra. Fitnam was, probably, the first appointed priest under the change. Father Fitnam attended the Catholics in Macomb and its vicinity in halls or private houses. With this clergyman came the first trouble and sorrow to the Catholics. The writer will now clear up the circumstances of his case, really known to the community for the first time, as Fra. Fitnam kept his own counsel first and last. Everybody seemed to know all about his case, yet no one of the people really knew what they were talking about. Father Fitnam had simply a misunderstanding with Anthony O'Regan, then bishop of Chicago, about some business transactions of Fitnam's beyond the church. Fitnam claimed the bishop had no business to meddle in his private business transactions, and Bishop O'Regan, instanter, branded him as "contumacious," and removed him from the active ministry. This, then, was all there was in this scandal. Subsequent events had nothing to do with the matter further than making the breach wider. Father Fitnam had hopes of the bishop relenting, but he then did not know the manner of man the bishop was. He attended mass, kneeling at the door, the last, as it were, of his people, when his successor was officiating, and he only stopped going to church when the rudeness and babbling of his former members became unbearable. The writer has this fact from a trustworthy and intelligent witness. Such is the world. The Jews spread their garments and palm branches in the way for Jesus, cry hosannas, and three days afterwards changed their tune, and shouted, "Crucify him," The disciples cannot expect better treatment than the Master."

I dwell on this case because to-day, even, it is not forgotten in McDonough and neighboring counties. Bishop O'Regan, who removed Father Fitnam, had been only a few years from an ancient but rural college in Ireland; he had no experience in missionary life; knew little about America, and treated priests as if they were school boys. These things being presented to Cardinal Barnabo and Pius IX, he was called to Rome and received the most terrible castigating from the pope, and ordered to resign. The writer had it officially from Bishop O'Regan's successor that if Father Fitnam had presented himself with the proper dispositions he would have been restored. Whether it was the ingratitude and cruelty of the people, and feeling the injustice done him, made him lose the spirit of his priesthood, certain it is, he drifted, from step to step, further away from the Catholic church, and after a long time became tired of secular life and retirement, joined the Protestant Episcopal church, and is now in that communion, serving a church in Southern Minnesota.

Next came Father O'Neil, the elder, as he was called. This clergyman did not stay long. He had been a professor in Fordham College, New York, under the famous Archbishop Hughes, therefore roughing it on the prairies, among a rural people, was too much of a change for him, and he was removed to St. Patrick's church, Chicago, where he died. This Father O'Neil had a national reputation as a scholar, and on account of his extensive erudition and wonderful memory, was nicknamed the "walking library."

Father O'Neil, the younger, succeeded the elder priest at Galesburg. He was no relation of his predecessor. He had been educated in Ireland and Canada, and was an innocent and good man. He brought his mother and two sisters to live with him at Galesburg, which, as subsequent events proved, was a great misfortune to them. They sold their little patrimony in Canada, supposing they would have protection and a permanent home with their brother, the priest. The priest's sisters were very young and thoroughly educated; the writer knows them well; but the average Catholic, then, of a railroad town, being only the dregs of their countrymen and church, soon began to create disturbance, and could see no merit, only vice, in education and respectability, even in a priest's family. Then, as the hand car of the railroaders was, as the saying is, a free horse, and on to go Sundays, the meddling of such people, who would kiss the priest's hand, and slander him and his nearest relatives when his back was turned, spread their idle tales that his family were getting rich at their expense, etc., over the whole section of the country, impairing Father O'Neil's usefulness. Father O'Neil was a zealous missionary priest, and the frequent exposure on the prairies in McDonough and Warren counties, brought on a fit of sickness which impaired his physical strength and mental faculties. He was a very sensative man and not calculated to wrestle with the habits of low characters which it were necessary to correct, and therefore never recovered his mental balance, and, of course, had to be replaced. With Father O'Neil, the pastoral relation of McDonough county terminated with that of Galesburg. His insanity, if it can be called such, consisted in the belief that he was unworthy to exercise the sacred ministry, and that all drinking of intoxicating liquor, for he was strictly temperate himself, was a sin. Poor O'Neil, were you now in America instead of old Ireland, many would call you a wise man, and your mania, if reducted to practice, would save the country from acrimonious recriminations on the temperance question, and a great deal of oxpensive legislation in the northwest. Father O'Neil's mother and sisters, of course, now had no home, beggary and worthlessness always takes pleasure in the sorrows and humiliations of the virtuous and respectable, so in this case; the people turned on them, but Bishop Duggan, of Chicago, to his honor, saw justice done these lone and afflicted females, as far as was in his power. Here is a lesson for afflicted women, in the future in McDonough county. These sisters of the priest, who was no longer able to protect them, after their first sorrow, did not repine and throw themselves on others. Well educated as they were, genteel, Irish girls, no other course was open for them but service; they went where they were not known and to large towns, where people were not afflicted with detestable curiosity, and quietly worked for a living, faithfully attending to their duties as christians, until they settled down in life. The writer being in Ireland during the summer of 1875, met Father O'Neil and was able to render him an incalculable service; he is now living in charity of his poor friends, in his native country, Kilkenny, Ireland, which is a lasting reproach to the Catholic church of Illinois, as the canon law of the church provides for the respectable support of invalid, as well as unfortunate priests.

We now come to the history of the church in Macomb, proper. Rev. Philip J. Albrecht was appointed to take charge of Macomb, Warsaw and Oquawka; he finally established his residence at Macomb, officiating in an old house which was used as a church, it being on property bought from Birch Maury's family. Father Albrecht was on the Macomb district for four years. He was then transferred to a German church in Chicago, and is now Catholic pastor of a church in Kranzburg, Dakota.

In February 2, 1865, Rev. John Larmer was transferred from St. Patrick's church, Chicago, to take charge of Macomb and the missionary districts in the surrounding eight counties, and to organize them into regular parishes and build churches, so that pastors could be placed, to reside in them--all of which was done. The people of Macomb were in the hands of unscrupulous politicians, as the parties were nearly equally divided, a few votes being the balance of power in McDonough county. This gave Rev. John Larmer a great deal of unnecessary trouble, as the politicians looked on the members of his church as political prey. Really, this was a lasting injury of Macomb. He repaired and raised the old house and made it a pastoral residence, at an expense of over $1,000, in the summer of 1865. For this improvement he never received a cent, and the congregation should remember, for this and other indebtedness, St. Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians: "Let no man overreach or circumvent his brother in business, for the Lord is the avenger of all these things."

In repairing the old house, as there was a dispute among the old settlers which was the oldest house on the west side, Rev. John Larmer hunted for some evidence, and in taking down the high old-fashioned chimney, he found on the first layer, a limestone three inches thick, and 18 square, with "C. Jackson, February 2, 1832," marked upon it. That date went back farther than any of the disputants opined.

In 1867, Rev. John Larmer built the Catholic church in Macomb, after much trouble and labor. It cost between four and five thousand dollars--material, it is true, was over 60 per cent dearer than subsequently. The Protestants of Macomb subscribed liberally; but the politicians who had made so many promises of what they would do when the Catholics would build their church, with a few exceptions, backed square out. The citizens of Macomb had reasonable hopes that the building of the Catholic church would have an influence to increase its population, and so it would have, had the politicians minded their own business and not considered the Catholics as legitimate prey to help them, too often unworthy, into office. Then there was no encouragement given to strangers, who came to seek locations for manufacturing purposes, by men who held their properties higher than water fronts could be bought in the city of Chicago, and yet these properties were used for calf pastures. Finally the citizens, although warned that their northern trade, which extended to the Mississippi river, would be cut off and lost, and a host of little towns grow up if they did not secure the Peoria & Warsaw railroad to pass through Macomb. Yet they made no real united efforts until it was too late, therefore the same causes which dwarfed the Catholic church, dwarfed Macomb and took away those reasonable hopes which its advantages and surrounding fertile country gave a right to expect a greater growth.

The Catholics buried their dead west of Macomb, but through negligence had no road to their grave yard, and when they tried to get a road, the men they put in office did as they always had done--only when they asked a ticket to vote--looked on them as unreasonable and left them to help themselves. A lot therefore was bought of Joseph Burton, opposite the city grave yard, and the Catholic dead removed. The history of this purchase is not a creditable one--sufficient it is to say, Rev. John Larmer had to come as usual to the rescue or Mr. Burton would have had to take it back again.

The Catholics of Prairie City were attached to St. Augustine, Fulton county, until the church of Avon was built which was done under Rev. John Larmer's pastorate.

The Catholics of Bushnell from time to time endeavored to get property for a future site of a church, but up to the time Rev. John Larmer terminated his pastorate, had not acquired any--simply because they were few, and none of them had resolved to remain permanently in Bushnell. They were attached, however, to the Catholic congregation of Macomb.

In regard to the church in Tennessee, to Joseph Reilly and a few others belongs the honor of having built the first Catholic church in McDonough county, Mr. Bowman donating the lot. The church, however, was merely closed in, and Rev. John Larmer had the lot fenced and the church finished as well as the means and circumstances of the congregation would permit. Tennessee Catholic congregation was made up partly out of one of the four divisions Rev. John Larmer made of the Fountain Green Catholic congregation. There was an excellent set of christians, and consequently good citizens in Tennessee congregation. Joseph Reilly and wife first of all, the Camerons, Hardestys, and last Patrick McCune and wife, who lived in the town of Tennessee, and others, yet there were some--as the writer learned when in Ireland--who received their parish priest's blessings on condition that he would not return.

Joseph Reilly, at the request of Rev. John Larmer, donated the grave yard to the Catholic congregation of Tennessee, and had it fenced in, and Joseph Reilly himself, was the first buried in it. He was an exemplary christian, humble, frank, and honest to a fault.

Rev. John Larmer, resigned his pastoral charge February 22, 1872, being seven years on the mission in McDonough and surrounding counties. His resignation had been tendered several times during three years before it was accepted by Bishop Thomas Foley, administrator of Chicago. Rev. John Larmer is now pastor of Montello, Wisconsin; his church and residence are on one of the most picturesque sites in the west. He has built up four churches and organized several missions since he left Macomb.

The writer has now brought the ecclesiastical history of the Catholic church in McDonough county down to 1872, or the close of Rev. John Larmer's pastorate--let others continue it--but one thing he is assured of whether he himself or others in future write the history of the Catholic church in the great state of Illinois, an honest pride can be indulged in that the priests in McDonough and surrounding counties were, with one or two exceptions, unusually learned, talented and faithful body of men. All of them could be truly said to have carried the church on their backs, having no organization, except the last, Rev. John Larmer, who reduced the church to order and identified each locality with a church, which he caused to be built. Their labors and hardships were unseen, and I no doubt, like the writer, they would have abandoned missionary life for the humblest church in a settled district--but one supreme motive loomed up before them--they realized that they were saving souls, working for God and the future welfare of their people and the localities they labored in.

After Father Larmer had finished his work here and had been transferred to Chicago, Rev. Father Thomas Francis Mangan took charge of the spiritual welfare of this congregation and remained about two years. He was a man of excellent abilities, and a worthy christian gentleman, and beloved by all. He is now in charge at Freeport, Illinois. He was followed by Father D. J. Cogan, who remained one year. The next pastor was James Tuohy, a fine man, and a splendid scholar, who was not only loved by the members of his flock, but enjoyed the respect of all in the community. He remained about two years, and made some improvements around the house, and was succeeded by Father Maxmilan Allbright. This gentleman after leaving here, died in a hospital in Chicago. He was followed by Rev. P. J. McGrath, who remained two years and was followed by Rev. Father John Ryan, the present pastor. They have a most excellent church, and a large and flourishing congregation, numbering nearly 600 members.

Catholic Church at Tennessee

In 1857, St. Mary's church was erected in the village of Tennessee. It is 25x40 feet in size, and has a seating capacity of 275. Upon the organization of the church it had a membership of 30, and has retained that number to the present time. Since the organization of St. Mary's church, there has been about 12 converts. They hold services once a month. Those who have served the church as priests since the organization, are as follows: Philip Albrecht, five years; John Larmer, 10 years; Father Manning, two years; J. G. Cogan, one year; James Tuohy, two years; John Allbright, two years; P. C. McGrath, one year; John Ryan, four years. The present priest resides at Macomb.

Rev. John Ryan, present pastor of the Catholic church at Macomb, Illinois, is a native of Ireland, and was born in the parish of Murroe, county Limerick, early in this century. He made his ecclesiastical studies principally in All Hallows college, Dublin, Ireland, which were supplemented, subsequently, by one year's study at the Diocesan seminary, Vincennes, Indiana, where, in due course, he was ordained priest, on the 5th day of July, 1846, by Right Rev. Celestine de la Helandiere, the Bishop of Vincennes. He served on the same one mission, in Northern Indiana for 18 years, when he came to the diocese of Chicago, and for four years was pastor of the Catholic congregation at Canton, Fulton county, Illinois, whence he was transferred to the pastorate of Kewanee, Henry county, Illinois, and after serving for 11 years and three months, then he was transferred to his present habitat--Macomb--where he has gained the respect of all.

Source: The History of McDonough County, together with sketches of the towns, villages and townships, educational, civil, military and political history; portraits of prominent individuals, and biographies of the representative citizens, 1885, pages 490-499. Transcribed by Karl A. Petersen

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