Monday, June 4, 2012

Life of a Priest in the Wilderness

What was it like to serve in a diocese such as that in the 1860s Upper Peninsula region? The rugged terrain—coupled with an influx of immigrants eager to transform their New World dream into reality in the mining outposts of this northern wilderness—brought some pressures to bear upon missionary priests of the time.

In a letter on August 4, 1863, Bishop Frederic Baraga explained:
In my diocese everything continues in its usual, quiet way. Churches and congregations keep on increasing, but unfortunately the number of my priests increases but slowly. We suffer much from the want of priests. Unless a priest has a little of the missionary spirit, he will not like to go so far north; such priests prefer to remain in the more civilized states. But the few that are in my diocese, fifteen in number, are, thanks be to God, good priests, faithful and zealous laborers in the vineyard of the Lord, and each of them has several stations to attend.
What, exactly, did going “so far north” actually entail? One journal entry by the multi-lingual Bishop Baraga hints at some northern influences:
July 16. Expectatio Steamboati. Sehr kuehl, imo kalt! Ich machte diesen Morgen Feuer im Ofen, in spite of July! (“Awaiting a boat. Very cool, yes even cold. I made a fire this morning, in spite of July!”)
Travel was made difficult, owing to that same rough terrain. Roads were primitive. It seems the preferred mode of transportation was by steamer, if it could shorten the route between parishes on the Bishop’s missionary circuit. Evidently, Bishop Baraga utilized such means so much that he had his favorite carrier, as was mentioned in the notes for one journey:
A hurried visit was next paid to Ontonagon from where the Bishop went to Marquette on his favorite steamer, the North Star.
Travel hazards and challenging weather conditions were only a few among many barriers to attracting qualified priests to serve in this northern outpost. Father Antoine Ivan Rezek, author of the History of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette and himself a priest in the region, explained further:
This spirit of self-sacrifice is not given to everybody; no wonder, therefore, that the Bishop was unable to people his diocese with priests as fast as he desired. The missionary life…barely gave a meager living. Two hundred dollars, ill named salary, was the earthly premium placed upon the talents, education, physical and spiritual accomplishments. Placed into the wilds of Lake Superior one was…liable to corrode than to advance…. With these disadvantages in view, men who did not possess sufficient self-reliance kept aloof from these uncivilized regions.
Keeping in mind these administrative challenges faced by the Bishop, it was promising news indeed to have been able to confer the minor orders upon candidates Flannigan and Sweeney, as we saw yesterday.

Above left: The Church of Saints Peter and Paul near the Flannigans' homestead in Greenland, Michigan; from History of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette, page 179; in the public domain.


  1. Today, Google maps tells me it is 114 miles from Ontonagon to Marquette, a trip of little more than 2 hours. The steamboat ride would be fun to take today (in the summer!) :)

    1. That's a good reminder to check the miles these men traveled, Iggy. I'll keep that in mind for the post on the story of traveling to Father Flannigan's ordination location. And to think that, from his early years in the Upper Peninsula, Bishop Baraga was known as the snowshoe priest. Hmmm...114 miles in snowshoes???

  2. Excellent point, IG. It amazes me to compare mileage and ease of travel today against what was a major journey for our ancestors. I live in Southern California, and every time I cross the desert or take a weekend drive up to the Sierra Nevadas, I try to soak in what a dangerous major journey that was for most emigrants coming to California, really until the interstate highway system came into being in the 1900s.

    Colleen @ Colleen & Jeff's Roots

  3. Jacqui, You're doing some really impressive historical work here, I am doing some research on Frederic Baraga and your blog is one of the best comprehensive integrative texts of the primary sources that I've come across so far!

    Thank you for this!


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