The Diary of William Quarter, Chicago’s First Bishop

Compiled by Father Martin Zielinski ’78

Bishop Quarter’s diary is a hybrid document. It is not a personal, daily diary, like those of well-known diarists such as John Adams, Mary Chestnut, who wrote about the Civil War in the South, or Anne Frank. Quarter did not begin to keep a diary until January 1843. His diary does contain some personal information, commentary on his pastoral visits throughout the diocese, and sacramental reports. His entries are not done on a consistent daily basis.

Although a reader would like more personal information about the first Bishop of Chicago from the diary, it does provide insights into mid-19th century life in the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. The publication of the diary is meant as a scholarly contribution to the centennial celebration of Mundelein Seminary. Bishop Quarter founded the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in 1844, and Cardinal Mundelein founded Mundelein Seminary in 1921 under the university’s original charter.

Fr. Zielinski, emeritus professor of Church History, has worked on this project off and on for more than 20 years. He hopes that readers will find the diary of interest and help them get some understanding of the various pastoral, spiritual, and personal challenges facing the first bishop of Chicago.

Brief Biography of William Quarter

Early Life and Education: 1806-1829

William Quarter, the first Bishop of Chicago, was born on January 21, 1806, at Killurin, near Tullamore in County Wexford, Ireland. Quarter was born just after a politically tumultuous time in Ireland. Less than ten years earlier, County Wexford was the site of three battles associated with the United Irishmen Uprising of 1798. The British government not only crushed the various uprisings of 1798, but also a subsequent one led by Robert Emmett in 1803. During the early years of William Quarter’s life, Irish politics shifted from a strategy of overthrowing the British rule in Ireland by violent means to gaining political rights for Catholics through legal means. This new strategy was led by Daniel O’Connell through the Catholic Board established in 1811 and eventually succeed when the Roman Catholic Relief Act was approved by the British Parliament in 1829.[1]

Although too young to directly participate in these notable events of Irish politics, Quarter began his education during this formative period of Irish history. He started his formal education in a boarding school run by a retired Presbyterian minister, Rev. Mr. Deran. The curriculum of the school emphasized the classics – Greek, Latin, history, and math. After two years, Quarter moved to another academy in Tullamore run by John and Thomas Fitzgerald. He would remain there for six years. At age sixteen, he decided to enter Maynooth College.[2]

The episcopal journal of Bishop Quarter does not give any indication when he decided to become a priest. However, another source, does provide some clues about his vocational decision. Rev. James J. McGovern, in his memorial volume celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Archbishop Patrick Feehan’s episcopal consecration, mentions that the Quarter family was friends with a Rev. McAuley, who happened to be visiting the Quarter family at the time that William was preparing to enter Maynooth Seminary. Father McAuley’s stories about the need for priests to serve Irish Catholics in the United States of America prompted a dramatic change in Quarter’s life. Instead of entering Maynooth Seminary, William asked his local bishop for a letter of good standing so that he could undertake his studies for the priesthood in North America.[3] Only after securing this letter, did William tell his parents about his desire to become a priest in North America.

On April 10, 1822, William Quarter departed Ireland. He would never return. No information is available on his port of departure, name of ship, or length of voyage. A voyage on a sailing ship of that time could be a short as four weeks or as long as fourteen weeks. William arrived in Quebec, probably in mid to late May. He hoped to be admitted as a student for the Archdiocese of Quebec, but Archbishop Joseph-Octave Plessis declined to accept him. Next Quarter went to Montreal where Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue also refused to accept him. Eventually, Quarter made his way to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the president of Mt. St. Mary’s College, Rev. John Dubois, S.S, founder of the college, accepted him as a seminarian.[4] Quarter’s previous education proved to be an asset for Mt. St. Mary’s. In addition to pursuing his ecclesiastical education, he also was a teacher of Greek and Latin. He would remain at Mt. St. Mary’s until 1829, when he left for New York City.

Priestly Ministry in New York City: 1829-1843          

On September 19, 1829, William Quarter was ordained a priest by Bishop John Dubois.[5] Fr. William Quarter served as an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church (Barclay St.)[6] for the first few years of his priesthood. He was instrumental in getting Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the religious order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, to run a free school at the parish. In 1832, New York City was struck by an outbreak of cholera.[7] Fr. Quarter was tireless in his efforts to help victims of this pandemic not only in the neighborhood surrounding St. Peter, but also in the neighborhood of St. Mary’s parish which had burnt down in November 1831. He helped find shelter for sixty children who were made orphans by the outbreak. His selfless attention to those suffering from cholera so impressed a family with whom he resided that the wife, three daughters, and two sons converted to Catholicism.[8]

For the remaining decade of his priestly ministry in New York City, Fr. Quarter would serve as the pastor of St. Mary’s Church. In the two years since a fire had destroyed the previous church, a new one had been built.[9] Bishop Dubois named Fr. Quarter as pastor on June 9, 1833. In addition to his usual pastoral and spiritual duties, Fr. Quarter paid special attention to Catholic education. He succeeded in convincing the Sisters of Charity to assign three members of that community to his parish to open, first a boarding school, and then a free school, which in a short time had five hundred students. He also encouraged the establishment of various confraternities and sodalities for the spiritual welfare of his parishioners.[10]

            Another area of his ministry that deserves brief comment is Quarter’s work with converts. The Catholic Church in the United States of America primarily grew in numbers through the millions of immigrants that came to the country between 1820 and 1920. However, converts to the Church were another source of increased growth.[11] Two of the best-known mid-19th century converts to Catholicism were Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker. In fact, Isaac Hecker received instruction from Bishop John McCloskey, auxiliary bishop of New York and later the first cardinal of the Catholic Church in America. For his part, Fr. Quarter helped prepare John Oertel, a Lutheran minister, for reception into the Catholic Church in 1840.[12]

            During the decade from being named a pastor until his appointment as the first bishop of Chicago, 1833-1843, William Quarter lived through a tumultuous time for the city of New York and the Diocese of New York. Just a couple of years after he had become pastor of a church that had burned down, the city of New York had a major fire. On the evening of December 16, 1835, a fire broke out in a warehouse on Merchant St. (now Beaver St.) and quickly spread due to very strong winds. By the time the fire was brought under control, over fifty acres of land were destroyed and over five hundred buildings. Damage was estimated at $20 million. Although his parish was spared, numerous warehouses, banks, and other businesses were reduced to ashes.[13]

            In the following year (1836), one of the best-known episodes of anti-Catholicism in U.S. history occurred. Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal was published in the city. The book claimed to be an account of her time in a Montreal convent where she was subject to sexual abuse by a priest and other lurid details of convent life. Monk’s book added fuel to the fire of anti-Catholicism that had started with the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charleston, Massachusetts in 1834.  The aggrieved party in that episode was a woman named Rebecca Reed, who also published a book in 1835. Although the claims made by Reed and Monk proved to be lies, their stories captured the imagination of many Protestants. Although Fr. Quarter had no direct contact with either of these episodes, he lived in a city with growing religious tensions that could erupt in riots and violence as it did shortly after his departure for Chicago.[14]

            The religious tensions in New York City were not just between denominations. Sadly, Bishop John Dubois experienced numerous examples of internal tensions among the Catholics of the city. One source was the disappointment many Catholics, clergy and laity, felt with the appointment of the French-born and French-speaking Dubois. Given the fact that the Catholic population in New York City was more and more of Irish background, New York Catholics expected Rome to appoint an Irish-born priest as bishop.[15] This led to a tense relationship with several the Irish-born clergy of the city and with parish trustees, especially at St. Patrick Cathedral.[16]

            Trusteeism involved the legal rights of lay boards of trustees, who often had incorporated to buy property and build churches. Their initiatives helped in the expansion of the institutional Church throughout the United States of America. Serious difficulties arose when lay boards of trustees claimed the right to appoint and dismiss pastors. This set them at odds with the local bishops, who argued that the right claimed by the trustees, infringed on the powers of episcopal jurisdiction. It is not an exaggeration to say that trusteeism was one of the persistent challenges to bishops throughout the 19th century.[17] For Bishop Dubois, the trustees of St. Patrick Cathedral adopted the stance “’to give him trouble as one intruded on them by undue influence.’”[18]

            For the Irish-born Fr. Quarter, this hostility of some Irish clergy toward Bishop Dubois must have been painful. The bishop was a mentor, father-figure, and someone whom Quarter worshipped.[19] He probably accompanied Bishop Dubois when the bishop made a pastoral visitation of the diocese in 1837.[20] Quarter was aware of the troubles with the trustees of St. Patrick Cathedral. He would be sensitive to the fact that such internal disputes hurt the image of the Catholic Church in New York City and provided further fuel to anti-Catholic nativists in their media attacks on the Church. He also would be keenly aware of the toll that such internal disputes were having on the bishop. In 1837, Bishop Dubois requested that a coadjutor be appointed. Pope Gregory XVI named John Hughes as the coadjutor.[21] Over the next couple of years, Bishop Dubois suffered several strokes that limited his ability to serve and to manage the diocese. He died on December 20, 1842 at age seventy-eight. Fr. Quarter was chosen to give the eulogy for Bishop Dubois.[22]

Appointment as First Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago

            Starting in 1829, the year William Quarter was ordained, the bishops of the United States of America held the first of seven provincial councils in Baltimore.[23] By 1829, the Catholic population of the United States had grown from 25,000 in 1790 to 500,00 in 1829. The number of dioceses had increased from one to eleven.[24] The number of states had increased from thirteen to twenty-three. This growth in the population of the country, and the geographical expansion of the nation, prompted the American hierarchy to meet o address new pastoral challenges and plan for the expansion of the Catholic Church in the country. In some cases, the establishment of a Catholic diocese in a particular state took place many years after the state was admitted into the Union. For example, the diocese of Chicago was only erected twenty-five years (1843) after Illinois was admitted into the Union (1818). On the other hand, the diocese of Milwaukee (1843) was established five years before Wisconsin was admitted into the Union (1848).[25] Depending on the geographical location of the new dioceses, the American hierarchy was either being proactive in requesting the establishment of new dioceses, or was responding to the reality of a large Catholic population needing the ecclesiastical organization of a diocese.

            When the American bishops met in Baltimore in May 1843 for the Fifth Provincial Council of Baltimore, one urgent item was the establishment of new dioceses. They petitioned the Holy See to establish five new dioceses – Chicago, Hartford, Little Rock, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. It was easier to establish new dioceses than to find competent and qualified priests to be the first bishop. In places like Chicago, where the Catholic population included German-speaking and French-speaking Catholics, the ability to speak one of those languages would be helpful. This did not seem to be a primary consideration for the bishops meeting in Baltimore as they nominated William Quarter for the see of Chicago. However, Bishop Rosati (St. Louis), was so concerned about the need to have a bishop who spoke more than one language appointed to Chicago that he sent a letter to Rome objecting to Quarter’s nomination. Also, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (Philadelphia) made his objections to Quarter’s nomination known to the Congregation of Propaganda Fide.[26] These objections did not sway the Holy See, and Father William Quarter was appointed the first Bishop of Chicago in a decree of Propaganda Fide dated November 16, 1843.[27] The Apostolic Letters of Appointment arrived in New York City in February 1844. On March 10, 1844, Father William Quarter, along with Father Andrew Byrne, bishop-elect of Little Rock, and Father John McCloskey, coadjutor bishop of New York, were consecrated by Bishop John Hughes assisted by Bishops Whelan (Richmond) and Bishop Fenwick (Boston) as co-consecrators.[28]


[1] Thomas E. Hachey and Lawrence J. McCaffrey. The Irish Experience Since 1800: A Concise History, 3rd. Ed. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010), 21-37.

[2] Prior to 1795, the majority of Irish students studying for the priesthood did so in Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. The Henrician and Elizabethan religious reforms of the 16th century dissolved the institutional structures of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the British government was concerned the Irish seminarians studying in Europe might be influenced by revolutionary ideas and return to Ireland to promote such radical ideas among the Irish people. To undermine this potential danger, the British government supported a bill in 1795, passed by the Irish Parliament, to establish a Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth. An annual grant was approved to finance the support of the seminary. Ibid., pp. 23-24.

[3] James J. McGovern. The Catholic Church in Chicago (n.p., 1891), p. 19.

[4] McGovern, p. 20. There is no clear indication as to why Quarter went first to Canada and then to the United States of America. McGovern indicates that one reason Quarter was refused by the Archbishop of Quebec and the Bishop of Montreal was because of his youth. Also, Quarter’s fluency in French may have not been sufficient for the needs of these two Canadian dioceses. The decision to seek admission at Mt. St. Mary’s College may have been at the suggestion of either of the two Canadian bishops or friendly, but unnamed, Canadian priests.

[5] For background on John Dubois see: Thomas J. Shelley, A Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York: 1808-2008 (Strasbourg, France: Editions du Signe, 2007), 90-106, or the shorter entry in Michael Glazier and Thomas Shelley J. Shelley, eds. The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997), s.v. “Dubois, John,” by Thomas J. Shelley. William Quarter had formed a close relationship with Fr. Dubois, and when the latter was made the Bishop of New York in 1826, Dubois convinced Quarter to join that diocese after completing his seminary studies.

[6] St. Peter on Barclay Street is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the state of New York. Among its notable parishioners were Pierre Toussaint and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter. The parish, located near the World Trade Center, served as a staging point for rescue and recovery efforts on 9/11. The body of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, chaplain of the New York Fire Department, was brought to the church after its discovery in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

[7] For information on the 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City see: http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/cholera-1832.html. The outbreak resulted in the deaths of approximately 3500 people in the city.

[8] McGovern, pp. 24-25.

[9] The cause of the fire likely was arson. See: Shea, pp. 498-499.

[10] McGovern, pp. 26-28.

[11] For some information on Catholic converts in the 19th century see: Lincoln A. Mullen, “The Contours of Conversion to Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century,” U.S. Catholic Historian 39 (Spring 2014): 1-27. This article indicates that an estimated 60,000 people converted to Catholicism between 1831 and 1860.

[12] For background on John Oertel and his conversion see: McGovern, pp. 29-32, John Gilmary Shea. History of the Catholic Church in the United States (Rahway, NJ: The Mershon Company Press, 1890), 521-522 and The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), s.v. “John James Maximilian Oertel,” by Thomas Meehan, accessed September 14, 2017, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/John_James_Maximilian_Oertel. Oertel would later establish a German Catholic newspaper in Baltimore. In 1875, Pope Pius IX made him a Knight of St. Gregory for his service to the Catholic Church. Bishop Dubois claimed there were between 300 and 600 converts a year in the Diocese of New York (See: Thomas J. Shelley, The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York: 1808-2008), 73.

[13] For a short description of the 1835 fire see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_New_York.

[14] For a short history on anti-Catholicism in the United States see the article by Mark Massa, S.J. at http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-316.

[15] Bishop Dubois was aware of the disappointment among New York City Catholics. In fact, he addressed the issue in his first pastoral letter to the diocese. “’We are aware that our appointment to this See has been objected to by some whom we have not been acquainted with and who do not know us. They were probably influenced by the best, most patriotic, and generous motives’” quoted in Richard Shaw, John DuBois: Founding Father (New York: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1983), 117.

[16] Evidence of the poor relationship between Bishop Dubois and the Irish clergy can be found in a letter from Father Thomas Levins to Father Paul Cullen, rector of the Irish College in Rome. “’Bishop Dubois has no funds. He cannot derive any from the Catholic Community. They will not contribute for he is disliked, unpopular, hated. It is his own fault. His favorite theme is abuse of the Irish people and Irish priests,” quoted in Shaw, p. 147. The relationship between Bishop Dubois and Father Levins, rectory of St. Patrick Cathedral, was tense. See: Shelley, A Bicentennial History, 103-104.

[17] For background on trusteeism see: The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History, s.v. “Trusteeism,” by Patrick W. Carey.

[18] Quoted in Florence D. Cohalan, A Popular History of the Archdiocese of New York (Yonkers, New York: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1983), 42. See also: Shea, p. 505.

[19] McGovern, 20 and Shaw, 173.

[20] Shaw, 163.

[21] Hughes was a former student of Dubois. The relationship between the two men was not friendly. On this see: Shaw, 173.

[22] The lack of friendship between Hughes and Dubois was evident at the funeral of the bishop. Bishop Fenwick (Boston) was to have preached at the funeral, but was delayed in his arrival. Bishop Hughes refused to give the eulogy, claiming the service has lasted long enough. Bishop Hughes said the eulogy would be given at a later date. See: Shaw, 172-173.

[23] For a brief history on the Provincial and Plenary Councils of Baltimore see: The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History, s.v. “Provincial and Plenary Councils of Baltimore, by Michael J. Roach.

[24] Hugh J. Nolan, ed., Pastoral Letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, v. I: 1792-1940 (Washington, D.C.: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1984), 467.

[25] Robert F. Trisco, The Holy See and the Nascent Church in the Middle Western United States (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1962), 9.

[26] Ibid., 88. Bishop Rosati did not attend the Fifth Provincial Council of Baltimore. He was in Europe at the time having completed a successful diplomatic mission for the Holy See to Haiti that concluded with a concordat between Haiti and the Holy See. Rosati made his objections known to the Nuncio in Paris. Rosati was not in good health and died on September 25, 1843, about eight weeks before Quarter’s formal appointment.

[27] Trisco in his book does not indicate any other reasons as to why Bishops Rosati and Kenrick objected to Quarter’s nomination. He does mention that Bishop Kenrick commented that he thought neither Quarter nor Byrne were “commendable.” One wonders why he would make that comment if he knew anything about Quarter’s priestly ministry. It is possible Kenrick had other candidates in mind for Chicago and Little Rock who did not receive the support of other bishops at Baltimore when the list of nominations was composed.

[28] McGovern, 32.


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