Irish Priests in Cincinnati
By: Ryan Doyle
The research conducted in this essay is taken from the Cincinnati death records from 1865-1912 and focuses on Irish priests, specifically on how they died and where they are buried, as well as trends in deaths that could point to a larger contextual understanding. The majority of the priests that are recorded to have died during this time were non-Irish; in fact, forty out of the forty-seven priests in the death records hailed from other countries, mostly the United States and Germany, but also other countries like Poland, Belgium and France. Immigrants settled in Cincinnati in this period in waves, primarily from northern and western Europe, explaining the predominance of German and Irish born priests. Furthermore, Catholics were not allowed to practice inside the city limits until 1825, making a sense of community in burials even more heightened (WPA Guide to Cincinnati). Irish Catholics were predominantly buried in New St. Joseph’s, while non-Irish Catholics tended to buried in various other locations, especially Old St. Joseph’s. Several other Catholic cemeteries were used for these priests, including St. Mary’s, St. John’s and Calvary. A few priests were buried much further from the city, likely due to having either a different faith or wanting to be buried closer to family and friends.
The deaths themselves were caused by either disease or age-related symptoms for the most part, accounting for 76 percent of total deaths. Of the deaths by disease, just under half were caused by tuberculosis. This can be explained by the fact that from 1900-1915 there was a spike in tuberculosis deaths, based on the records from Dunham Hospital, the tuberculosis hospital in Cincinnati (Dunham). Since priests were called to administer to the dying as well as having a hand in running hospitals, it is to be expected that as a group they would be affected by any epidemic that affected the city. Other deaths were caused by accidents or chronic conditions in younger men, usually kidney damage under the label of nephritis, or liver damage, marked as cirrhosis. The ages at death were predominantly over the age of forty (63.7%), implying a comfortable and fairly physically easy life. The deaths were rarely accidental and could usually be attributed to the body’s decline in old age.
The one accidental death that was of note was the case of the priest Reverend Michael Robinson, of unknown nationality. He was buried in South Bend, Indiana at an unspecified location. His cause of death was listed as “Drowning in Ohio River”, which would raise questions as to whether or not the death was truly accidental or the result of murder or suicide. If the death were the result of a suicide attempt and that was noted officially on the death record, the priest would not have been able to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, because suicide was a mortal sin. The Church has unbent some of its stances on suicide in modern times, viewing it as a grave matter to be resolved before God, but was adamant at the turn of the twentieth century on the point of its sinful nature.
One example of a death of old age is that of the Father John D. Condon. Condon was a Jesuit priest whose church was St. Thomas on Sycamore Street, pictured on the right, a church famous as being the site of the great theological debate between then Bishop John Baptist Purcell and Alexander Campbell (St. Thomas’ Sycamore). In 1837, a debate was staged between Camplbell, a Baptist and the Bishop of Cincinnati on the subject of education, namely whether or not the Bible should be taught in schools. The debate escalated beyond the scope originally suggested, and shifted to an argument on the relative merits of each religion, with Bishop Purcell being perceived to have won (Purcell, Campbell). As a Jesuit, Condon likely worked with the poor and in the field of education, being two of his order’s missions. As Reverend Condon grew older, he likely became more and more frail, preferring to delegate most of his physical work and service in exchange for the more spiritual pursuits of the clergy. This aspect of his duties consisted of ministering to the sick and performing sacramental rites. In his ministering to the dying, he picked up his bronchitis, further weakening him for the fatal cerebral hemorrhage that led to his death. He was then buried, as most Irish priests were, in New St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
Diseases affecting the heart appeared across age groups of priests, occurring in approximately eleven percent of the deaths of the total priests and twenty-nine percent of the Irish priests. It was the second most common type of death behind deaths associated with infectious disease, both in the general sample and in the specific sub-sample of Irish priests. These ranged from mitral valve insufficiency, a weakness in the seal around the mitral valve that impairs cardiac efficiency, to full cardiac paralysis. This class of diseases is more fully explored in another essay, but significantly affected the Irish priests with two out of the six total cases affecting the seven Irish priests recorded. Heart disease deaths indicate that these priests were either weakened from former disease or predisposed to it from either lifestyle or genetics, meaning that before the advent of modern cardiac treatments, the affected were essentially playing “Russian Roulette” with their years, not knowing when their deaths were coming. All the ill could have done is hope and restrain some of their physical activity once the chest pains start.
The case of Father Kennedy illustrates this lifestyle. Kennedy was the pastor who is credited with founding the current parish of the Church of the Assumption in 1873 by moving the location of the services to a then-private building, which still exists as a church today in Walnut Hills on Gilbert Avenue and McMillan Street. This church initially catered to white Catholics, but was known in more recent times for being a racially integrated Catholic Church as of 1961. Father Kennedy died approximately concurrently with the opening of the parochial school by the Sisters of Mercy, but served as a pastor for all of his time at the church, delivering sermons to his parish (Parishes). Being the de facto leader of his parish by being labelled a pastor, Father Kennedy likely had to deal with diocesan paperwork and choosing homilies or sermons, not the work of an average priest which would involve tasks like blessing the sick, helping him avoid death from infectious diseases. Father Kennedy died of mitral valve insufficiency and endocarditis, implying that because of an acquired infection or inborn condition, his heart’s ability to pump was compromised, leading to his eventual death via congestive heart failure.
In comparison to the Irish priests, priests as a whole died just as much from kidney-based diseases as cardiac diseases. Given as this is a small sample size, no definitive conclusions van be reached, but kidney disease in this sample seemed not to affect the Irish. Eleven percent of priests in the records died of nephritis or Bright’s disease, both diseases involving inflammation of either the kidney’s functional unit – the glomerulus – or the spaces between them. Kidney disease is precipitated by high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes – conditions generally associated today with people of high affluence. However, around the turn of the twentieth century, people would be exposed to various toxins and pathogens just by drinking water, predisposing many of the citizens of cities to liver and kidney damage. This damage would also lead to another symptom noted on the death reports – uraemia – which is described as a buildup of waste products in the bloodstream, affecting the organs as they are unable to escape the waste processes of metabolism.
The fact that none of the priests died of violent deaths indicates an amount of respect for the priest within the society, either a personal sense of respect on the part of the potential criminal or a sense that the community as a whole would punish this crime severely. Priests, after all were highly respected by their communities, even during a time of anti-Catholic sentiment like the turn of the century. When businesses denied jobs or other positions to Catholics, especially immigrants, priests served as connectors for finding these immigrants jobs with other local Catholics, as well as housing and a source of charity if necessary. Simply put, priests were the cornerstone around which these communities were organized. Without the priests and their combination of rhetoric of tolerance and brotherhood and their charitable works, the immigrant Catholic communities would have had a great deal more difficulty in acclimating to America and thriving in a world new to them, eventually weaving themselves into the patchwork of American life.
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