How Three Irish Immigrant Priests Helped Me Find My Roots
by Sheila Ives
As I was reading scanned pages from the book about Father Eugene Mary O’Callaghan, I found many interesting things about my great- great uncle Father John Quinn. He was born in 1824 in Kanturk and had studied at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, near Dublin.
In 1852 he immigrated to the United States, and in 1854 he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was ordained in 1858. He and many other Irish born young men became priests to minister to the growing Irish population in Ohio.
He served in various parishes in Lucas, Sandusky and Huron counties. At this time these areas were under the jurisdiction of the Cleveland diocese. I had never given any thought as to why he was serving in Wakeman at the time my grandmother arrived to stay with him.
However, in reading the book, I learned that these early Catholic priests were considered “missionary priests” and as such had little say about where they were sent to serve. Also, these priests could be arbitrarily sent to another location if they were considered troublesome to the bishop.
This is what happened to Father Quinn. He had a dispute with Bishop Richard Gilmour, and as punishment he was reassigned from his large parish in Toledo, Ohio, where he had built a school, to the small parish in Wakeman, which only had thirty families and no school. Father Quinn filed an appeal with the Vatican about this assignment, and that’s where Father Eugene Mary O’Callaghan entered the picture.
Father O’Callaghan was born in 1831 in Newmarket, a small village near Kanturk, Co. Cork. He arrived in Toledo, Ohio in 1847 and worked as a day laborer on the Miami and Erie Canal. He received his education at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
In 1856 he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland and was ordained in 1859. Father O’Callaghan was an imposing individual, standing six feet tall with dark hair and blue eyes. He was highly intelligent, articulate and skilled at making legal arguments. He clashed often with the bishops and wrote what were considered subversive letters using a pseudonym.
He spoke out passionately for the rights of his fellow priests and advocated for fair treatment and compensation. He represented Father Quinn in his appeal. Unfortunately for Father Quinn, his appeal with the Vatican was rejected, and the matter was referred to the Diocese of Cincinnati.
The issue was never resolved. Father Quinn suffered a stroke in 1884 and lingered until 1887, when in died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Toledo.
I wanted to know more about Father O’Callaghan, so I started reading other articles about him. One source stated that his papers and a copy of his will were kept at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. That got me thinking.
Did Father Quinn have a will? Buíochas le Dia —Thank God—he did! I will never forget how astounded I was to read the section where he listed the names of his brothers and sisters, his parents, a nephew and one of his uncles.
Finally, I had a breakthrough with this information about my grandmother’s family. So, I got busy locating parish baptismal records and found that Father Quinn had had ten siblings. A few had remained in Ireland; a sister went to Liverpool, England; one brother to Australia and three brothers had immigrated to the United States.
Their parents were named Timothy Quinn and Mary Daly. With further research I discovered that my grandmother had had five brothers.
Father John Quinn had named another Irish immigrant priest, Robert A. Sidley, to be the executor of his will. Father Sidley had been born in Co. Limerick in 1827. As a young boy he came to Geauga County, Ohio, with his family.
He was ordained in 1856 after preparing for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland. In reading his obituary, I learned that during the American Civil War, he would row a boat from Sandusky, Ohio, to Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, where there was a
Confederate prison camp. (Johnson’s Island was named for its owner at the time, another Irish immigrant, Leonard Beatty Johnson, from Co. Wexford, Ireland.)
Although there had been a regularly appointed chaplain, the Confederate soldiers disliked him. In Father Sidley’s words, “They hated him—and all because he was a Northerner—a man furnished by the government against which they had rebelled. And so, when I went there as a Catholic priest, being neither North nor South, I was welcomed. I served Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
Father Sidley served for many years as the pastor of SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Sandusky. There in the parish records he kept, another family mystery was unlocked for me.
In a baptismal record from 1884, written in Latin by Father Sidley, I found the maiden name of my mother’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Johnston. When Margaret died in 1898, Father Sidley entered her death information and recorded her place of birth as Ireland. Margaret Johnston is buried in St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Sandusky, the same cemetery where Father John Quinn is buried.
Although I still have many unanswered questions about my Irish ancestors, the journey to discover who they were and where they came from has been a meaningful one. To understand their lives, I have spent hours reading about the history of Ireland, particularly the famine years.
I have become more knowledgeable about Irish culture and customs. Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I’m learning Irish). As a reader of the Ohio Irish American News, I know you’ve seen the ad for the classes held in the convivial atmosphere of P. J. McIntyre’s.
If you’ve been hesitating to sign up, just do it! The classes are fun, instructors Bob and Vincent make the classes interesting, and you’ll meet some nice people. Cleveland has a vibrant Irish American community, and there are so many things to see and do. I have started to explore what it has to offer.
So to Father John Quinn (1824-1887), Father Eugene Mary O’Callaghan (1831-1901), and Father Robert A. Sidley (1827-1904), for ministering to the needs of poor Irish immigrants who came to northern Ohio, and for inspiring me to explore my own Irish heritage, I say with gratitude in your native Irish tongue, Go raibh míle maith agaibh (Thank you).