Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pennsylvania's Hibernians and the Clergy

Roman Catholic clergy figured prominently in Pennsylvania’s
“Molly Maguire” prosecutions. During the 1870s, Archbishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia, Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan of Harrisburg, Bishop Tobias Mullen of Erie, Father Daniel McDermott of New Philadelphia, Father Joseph Koch of Shamokin, Father Daniel O’Connor of Mahanoy Plane, Father Joseph Bridgeman of Girardville, and many more, massed together to declare Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men and alleged “Molly Maguire” terrorists one and the same. Archbishop John Williams of Boston, Cardinal John McCloskey of New York, and Archbishop Patrick Ryan of St. Louis joined with Pennsylvania’s clergy in condemning the AOH men.

The clerics published their views in diocesan newspapers from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Erie. Press coverage in the eastern cities echoed the clerics’ views and prepared the ground for the trials to come.

John Kehoe, AOH delegate for Schuylkill County executed in 1878 and posthumously pardoned in 1979, tried to cut through the resulting clamor. In fall 1875, from his seat as Girardville's high constable, Kehoe wrote to a local editor to protest the press’s conflation of the AOH with the “Molly Maguire” label.

Kehoe said: “… the Ancient Order of Hibernians … is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members. … Now, nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order with any acts of lawlessness, and nothing can be more inconsistent with the wishes of the people than the agitation of this matter by the leading papers of this country. The articles which have appeared on this matter have done an incalculable amount of harm, and, as a friend to law and order, I would advise their cessation.”

A few hardy clerics supported the AOH and the mineworkers’ cause. Just months before Kehoe wrote his letter from Girardville, Father James Brehony of St. Joseph’s Church in Summit Hill joined forces on behalf of the mineworkers with Thomas Fisher, AOH Carbon County delegate subsequently hanged as a “Molly.” The priest and the AOH delegate sat down together with Charles Parrish, director of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, to negotiate the wage issue.

Their meeting proved unsuccessful. The following year, Fisher sat in Mauch Chunk Jail, charged with an alleged “Molly Maguire” crime. 

By January 1877 numerous AOH leaders, including Fisher and Kehoe, had been imprisoned, tried, and convicted. Within months, they would be sentenced to death. 

By February 1877, mineworkers’ wages had fallen to such a point fathers were unable to feed their families. Father Brehony organized a “Catholic colony” movement, in his words, “to enable Catholics who wish to leave the coal regions, to form a colony and thus avoid the disadvantages of separate removal to a distant part of the county.”

A reporter for Archbishop Wood’s diocesan newspaper described the mineworkers’ plight: “Removal or starvation are the alternatives that now stare thousands of the coal region broadly in the face. The expectation of bettering their condition there, of even obtaining a decent livelihood for themselves and their families is plainly hopeless.” The wages now being paid the men “simply place them in a condition of slow starvation …”

At the height of the “Molly” trials, an unnamed priest from Ohio addressed a group of Hibernians in Philadelphia. This priest shared Father Brehony’s passion and his willingness to confront those in authority. The unnamed priest gave a scathing assessment of Archbishop Wood’s actions against the AOH. Newspapers in Philadelphia and Shenandoah refused to give this priest’s name, his parish, or the name of his bishop. They identified him only as “connected with a prominent church in Ohio.”

The unidentified priest “denounced the action of Archbishop Wood in anathematizing the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and held that the members are the most fervent supporters of the Catholic faith.” Of Archbishop Wood's order of excommunication against AOH men in the Philadelphia diocese, the Ohio priest told Hibernians assembled in Philadelphia: “My bishop, through the official organ of his diocese, pronounced the action of the Philadelphia hierarchy as an injustice that was only worthy of the despot of Russia.”

Of the wholesale identification of the AOH with alleged “Molly Maguire” violence, the unnamed priest from Ohio concluded: “The movement against you is a Know Nothing strike at every Irish organization, and every man concerned in it deserves to be loaded with execration.”

To further explore this history, visit