Tag Archives: The Pittsburgh Catholic

Don’t drink: Father Mathew’s temperance tour in Pittsburgh

Father Theobald Mathew, Ireland’s 19th century temperance priest, visited Pittsburgh in July 1851 during a two-year American tour. Cork-born Michael J. O’Connor, who eight years earlier became the first bishop of the new Catholic dioceses in Western Pennsylvania, hosted the itinerant from July 13 to July 30 at the ecclesiastical residence.

O’Connor “set the example to his flock by solemnly receiving the pledge from the hand of the venerable ‘Apostle of Temperance’ and adding his name to the list of those who were already enrolled in the good cause,” The Pittsburgh Catholic reported.[1]”Father Mathew”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, July 26, 1851. O’Connor established the newspaper in 1844. The secular Pittsburgh Daily Post described the bishop kneeling to receive the pledge as “a glorious spectacle.”[2]”Father Mathew: Most Interesting and Edifying Proceedings”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 22, 1851.

It also was an extraordinary turn for O’Connor, who like other U.S. Catholic prelates had been skeptical of Mathew’s methods and reputation years before his American tour. Part of the reason was Mathew’s “easy fraternization with Protestants,” according to Catholic author and lecturer Michael J. Aquilina.[3]”Pittsburgh Takes the Pledge”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 5, 2005, quoted, and Aug. 12, 2005. Written by and adapted from Aquilina’s April 17, 2005, Lambing Lecture, Holy Spirit … Continue reading O’Connor characterized his own temperance efforts as being “on a more religious basis than it is in Ireland. The pledge is administered before the altar.”[4]Quinn, John F., Father Mathew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America, University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2002. p. 158 and Note 13, p. 228. Quote from … Continue reading

His was not the first or only effort to dry the city. “The temperance movement was probably as characteristic of Pittsburgh morality as any reform and possessed more interest and dramatic vigor than most. A number of local temperance societies had been organized before 1830, but in that year the various societies formed a union and undertook a real campaign.”[5]Baldwin, Leland D., Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1750-1865. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1937. p. 249.

Soon after becoming bishop in 1843, O’Connor traveled to Europe to recruit religious personnel to build the new see. In Ireland, he accepted an invitation to speak at one of Mathew’s rallies. “It was probably that personal encounter with Father Mathew and the eyewitness experience of his work that changed Bishop O’Connor’s attitude,” Aquilina wrote. The Kerry Evening Post reported in August 1845 that O’Conner offered grace before the meal of “a great fete” for Mathew hosted by the Teetotalers of Killarney.[6]”The Rev. Theobald Mathew In Killarney, Festivities On The Lake”, Kerry Evening Post, Aug. 23, 1845.

Father Mathew visited Pittsburgh in July 1851.                            Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

An estimated 8,000 people took the temperance pledge during Mathew’s two-week Pittsburgh crusade. The Catholic and secular press coverage did not detail the demographics of those vowing to reject alcohol, though presumably most were men. The reporting also did not reference the famine-fleeing Irish who began arriving in the years immediately before Mathew’s visit. By 1851, about 12,000 Irish immigrants lived in Pittsburgh and neighboring Allegheny City, just over 20 percent of the area population. Victor Walsh has asserted:

Many of Father Mathew’s pledge signers were the Irish-Catholic laboring poor who believed that he possessed supernatural powers that would protect them from evil and misfortune. Passive and capricious, they flocked to the crusade more out of deference to Father Mathew than out of a commitment to organized personal reform. As a consequence, the cause quickly faded in its appeal after Father Mathew’s departure.[7]Walsh, Victor A., “Across ‘The Big Wather,’ The Irish Catholic Community of Mid-Nineteenth Century Pittsburgh”, The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 1, … Continue reading

Mathew spoke on topics other than temperance, such as charity. “Never did we hear the claims of the poor, or the affluence of the rich, more ably or eloquently enforced; in some cases the effect was thrillingly impressive,” the Daily Post reported.[8]”Father Mathew”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 29, 1851.

After Mathew departed, the Catholic offered this editorial assessment:

He has been successful in Pittsburgh beyond the most sanguine expectations of the friends of total abstinence. During the time of his stay, the number of those who have visited the Bishop’s residence for the purpose of taking the pledge from him has been steadily increasing, and he was compelled to prolong his visit beyond his original intention … We sincerely believe that the benefits produced by the visit will be permanent. … If [Mathew’s estimate that only 4 percent of those who take the pledge later “violate the promise”] is correct, his exertions in the cause of temperance have been an inestimable blessing to those amongst whom he has labored. It is not difficult to get men to take the pledge when it has become the rage to take it in a particular locality; but to get men to adhere to the pledge when the temporary excitement is passed, is a difficulty which our most zealous temperance reformers in this country have found it impossible to overcome.[9]Father Mathew“, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 2, 1851.

The editorial lamented “how few” of the 6,000 Pittsburghers adhered to the temperance pledges they made in 1841, when frequent anti-drink parades marched to “whip up enthusiasm” for the campaign begun in 1830.[10]Baldwin, Story of a City, p. 250.

Four decades after Mathew’s departure, another Irish-born priest, Rev. Morgan Sheedy, operated “a large temperance society” from St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church in the city’s “Point” district, then an Irish ghetto. He regularly protested against liquor licenses and claimed “the number of saloons was greatly lessened and the liquor traffic brought under restraint.”[11]Sheedy, Rev. Morgan M., “Ten Years on Historic Ground: Early and Later Days at the Pittsburgh Point.” Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 1922, p. 141.

Aquilina noted that Alcoholics Anonymous, created in the 1930s, “would have been unthinkable without Father Mathew’s advance guard,” while in Pittsburgh his “good effects cascade down the generations and down the centuries.”[12]”Pittsburgh Takes the Pledge”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 12, 2005,

See more of my work on the Pittsburgh Irish.

Pittsburgh, circa 1850s.                                                                    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

References

References
1 ”Father Mathew”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, July 26, 1851. O’Connor established the newspaper in 1844.
2 ”Father Mathew: Most Interesting and Edifying Proceedings”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 22, 1851.
3 ”Pittsburgh Takes the Pledge”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 5, 2005, quoted, and Aug. 12, 2005. Written by and adapted from Aquilina’s April 17, 2005, Lambing Lecture, Holy Spirit Byzantine Church Hall, Pittsburgh, Pa. Bates, John C., The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania: Its Origins, Establishment, and Resurrection. The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, 2020, p. 352.
4 Quinn, John F., Father Mathew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America, University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2002. p. 158 and Note 13, p. 228. Quote from O’Connor letter to Paul Cullen, Jan. 10, 1842.
5 Baldwin, Leland D., Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1750-1865. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1937. p. 249.
6 ”The Rev. Theobald Mathew In Killarney, Festivities On The Lake”, Kerry Evening Post, Aug. 23, 1845.
7 Walsh, Victor A., “Across ‘The Big Wather,’ The Irish Catholic Community of Mid-Nineteenth Century Pittsburgh”, The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 1, January 1983.
8 ”Father Mathew”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 29, 1851.
9 Father Mathew“, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 2, 1851.
10 Baldwin, Story of a City, p. 250.
11 Sheedy, Rev. Morgan M., “Ten Years on Historic Ground: Early and Later Days at the Pittsburgh Point.” Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 1922, p. 141.
12 ”Pittsburgh Takes the Pledge”, The Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 12, 2005,