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Bishop Fitzpatrick's call to aid suffering in Ireland

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On Jan. 25, 1847, the ship Hibernia arrived in the Port of Boston having completed its journey from Ireland. The news it carried not only confirmed stories that the people of Ireland were suffering, but horrified Bostonians with details illustrating the severity of the famine, prompting them into action.

Wasting little time, Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston issued a pastoral letter calling upon his flock to fulfill their Christian duty and relieve the suffering of those in need. "A voice comes to us from across the ocean. The voice that crosses the ocean should reach our hearts; should make them thrill and vibrate to the core; should stir up their lowest depths. For it comes from our own home; or at least from the home of our loved fathers and friends." He paints a desperate picture, stating that for a land that has been through so much hardship, it has yet to encounter a crisis so severe in all its history.

The letter was published in The Pilot of Feb. 13 and called upon each pastor to read it to their congregation, and then arrange services with a collection for the benefit of the suffering or call for a special meeting to that effect. Bishop Fitzpatrick himself, the article reveals, had read the letter at 10 a.m. Mass and vespers at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross the previous week, and a meeting in the basement chapel that evening had raised $3,000. The article concludes with the names of contributors and the amount each gave, and continued with the same from parishes around the diocese.

The results of these efforts are evident in a letter written from Bishop Fitzpatrick addressed to Archbishop William Crolly, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, dated Feb. 27, 1847. In the letter, it is revealed that Bishop Fitzpatrick had enclosed notes of credit to be withdrawn from various financial institutions amounting to 4,117 Pounds, 11s, 8d ($20,000); the total money raised by the diocese during its initial efforts. "It has been deemed more expedient to transmit the help we have to offer in money, rather than in provisions," Bishop Fitzpatrick writes, "because in this manner it can reach the sufferers and be distributed amongst them with less delay."

He suggests that the four archbishops of Ireland meet and distribute the money proportionately to the amount of suffering in their respective regions and leaves it to them to determine how it can be used most effectively. He also notes that "it is not our intention, of course, that the aid we send should be confined to Catholics alone, but that want and destitution should be sufficient claim to participate in it."

Bishop Fitzpatrick does express fear over rumors that the incoming money would prompt greedy men to inflate prices of food "to increase their wealth and fatten on public misery," but he hopes this does not prove true. He also relates that soon ships carrying provisions "with the blessing of God and Charity of America" will bring provisions and not unload at the doors of contractors, "but near the cabins of the poor who may come and receive bread without money and without price." He even remains hopeful that U.S. naval vessels might disarm and be used as transports to further these efforts.

As revealed in The Pilot, he informs Archbishop Crolly that permanent relief associations have formed with the intention of persisting for the duration of the famine. He expects them to increase in number and that monthly collections will allow him to send additional assistance.

As a representative of his flock, sending money would not be serving them fully "without giving expression to their deep sympathy and the sentiments with which they make this offering. Of them I can truly testify that they have beautifully exemplified the words of the great Apostle that, though there are many members, yet there is but one body." If one member suffers, all members suffer.

Of those who contributed, he writes: "Their numbers are not great; their means are still less, for nearly all are poor. But there are those, and many too, who have been unwilling to think of tomorrow for themselves because they want to do something for the relief of Ireland today."

The reply from Archbishop Crolly still exists in Bishop Fitzpatrick's papers and is dated March 22, 1847. He thanks Bishop Fitzpatrick for his gift and reveals he called a meeting of the archbishops as suggested and they are preparing to distribute aid to the most in need of all denominations. A second letter, dated May 21, 1847, reveals that an additional 800 Pounds ($4,000) was sent weeks later.

As promised, more aid would continue to be sent to Ireland in the form of currency and ships laden with provisions. By the summer of 1847, the total amount of money raised in the diocese for this purpose exceeded $150,000 -- the equivalent of about $5 million today.

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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