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The steamship that changed the history of the Hartford Diocese

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On the leaf of a pocketbook was a difficult note to decipher. The New York Times reported that it read, "On board the Pacific, from L'pool to N. York. Ship going down..."

On Jan. 23, 1856, the SS Pacific set off on its voyage from Liverpool to New York. This was a typical journey for the wooden steamer, which was considered one of the premier ships of her day. She had sailed from New York to Liverpool and back countless times since her maiden voyage in 1849. On board was the Bishop of Hartford, ready to return home after a trip to Europe.
The ship was never seen again.
Captain Asa Eldridge was setting sail. A captain of some renown, he set the transatlantic crossing record for a commercial vessel. "Capt. Eldridge possessed not only self-confidence and daring, but skill and endurance, and the generous traits which are in imagination connected with the true-born, American sailor," Massachusetts Rep. Charles Francis Swift wrote of him in "History of Old Yarmouth." The ship carried 141 crew and 45 passengers.
On board that day was Bishop Bernard O'Reilly of Hartford. Born in Ireland in 1803, Bishop O'Reilly left Ireland in 1825 to pursue ecclesiastical studies in Montreal and Baltimore. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1831 and soon started serving in New York. It was the time of cholera, and the state was in disarray. There were too few priests at that time, so Bishop O'Reilly rose to the occasion.

The Pilot wrote of Bishop O'Reilly in 1857, "At that trying period, the priests were comparatively few in New York. It might truly be said, 'The harvest is great, but the laborers are few.' At such a time, a priest with health and strength and zeal, must be very much appreciated; the young Father Bernard was just such a priest, and it is slight praise to say that he was appreciated. Many who yet survive to tell of the terrible pestilence, mention his name with reverential awe, and his superhuman exertions with admiration."
By December, Bishop O'Reilly transferred to Rochester, New York. This was a challenging transfer because there was only one other priest west of Niagara Falls at the time. He eventually became vicar general of the Diocese of Buffalo, supervising another generation of priests at the seminary. Altogether, Bishop O'Reilly spent 19 years in Rochester before Pope Pius IX appointed him second Bishop of Hartford.
The Diocese of Hartford was only six years old in 1850 when Bishop O'Reilly arrived. The Pilot reported, "No sooner had he entered on the duties of his See, than he justified and honored the wisdom of his appointment." He proceeded to bolster the seminary and protected this flock from a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment in the region. At one point, Bishop O'Reilly stared down a mob descending on the House of Mercy in Providence.
While serving in Hartford, Bishop O'Reilly began traveling to Europe to help recruit priests for Hartford. The work was difficult and at times discouraging, but it was effective. It was for this reason that Bishop O'Reilly once again set off to Liverpool. Bishop of Boston John Bernard Fitzpatrick wrote of this fateful trip, "he was returning from Europe whither he had gone to obtain Brothers of the Xian Doctrine for schools in his diocese and for other objects connected with the interests of religion." Bishop O'Reilly took the opportunity to visit his family and friends before boarding the SS Pacific.
We will never know what happened next. The ship was due to arrive back in New York, but it never came. Ships began looking through the waters to no avail. The SS Pacific, her crew, and passengers, had disappeared somewhere along the journey.
It wasn't until 1861 that a hint appeared of what happened. A message in a bottle was discovered on the western coast of the Scottish mainland. On the leaf of a pocketbook was a difficult note to decipher. The New York Times reported that it read, "On board the Pacific, from L'pool to N. York. Ship going down. (Great) confusion on board. Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss, that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published, WM. GRAHAM."
The New York Times cross-referenced the manifests of numerous missing boats from the time and found a match with the SS Pacific. William Graham was aboard that day. The winter of 1856 was particularly harsh and Captain Eldridge was inexperienced on that particular route.
On June 17, 1856, Bishop O'Reilly's funeral service was held in Providence. "There are present at the ceremony the Archbishop of New York, four other bishops of the province and fifty-two priests. The Bishop of Boston celebrates the Mass, the Archbishop of N.Y. pronounces the eulogy," Bishop Fitzpatrick wrote in his journal.
The Diocese of Hartford remained without a bishop for two years before American-born Francis Patrick McFarland was assigned there on March 14, 1858.


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