Monday, September 15, 2008

A Life of Dedication

Father Thomas Quirk

by David Parmer
Loveberry to Confluence
A horseman clad in black and astride a stout white horse was in no hurry as he descended Loveberry Hill. Although unhurried, the gait of the horse was purposeful and the rider assured as the green hills, reminiscent of the hills of County Cork, his native home, passed behind his back. It was Saturday and Father Thomas Aquinas Quirk was on his way to Confluence to give Mass the following day to the parish of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.

Following Loveberry Run at the bottom of the hill to its mouth, Father Quirk nudged his trusty horse up Sand Fork to Crooked Run, past the homes of many fellow sons of Erin. Sheep and stock dotted the green and lush meadows. The results of heavy toil were visible everywhere. Following Crooked Run eastward to the southern slope of Pine Knob, the padre ascended the hill opposite to the ridge overlooking Goosepen Run. It was a wonderful view. Well tended farms with placid sheep and fields of corn and wheat passed one after the other. Born in the midst of the Irish potato famine and the time of starvation, Father Quirk was relieved that this was a land of plenty and starvation was not a vexing problem to afflict his flock.

The ridge overlooking Goosepen Run was crossed by a tranquil country road which, within a few miles of his destination, began descending through the Farrell and Dolan farms on Grass Lick Run. The Farrell and Dolan families were faithful members of his St. Michael’s congregation. They looked forward to seeing the approaching Father Quirk on the familiar stocky white horse which that night would be boarded at the Dolan Hotel in Confluence. Ethel Doyle recalls that Father Quirk, even in his late age, followed this route of travel from Loveberry to Orlando, and she can see the stocky white horse in her mind’s eye to this day.

From 1884 until his death in 1937, Thomas Quirk was the pastor of St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church and two sister parishes: St Bridget’s and St Bernard’s. Until the end of his career when he grudgingly allowed himself to be chauffeured in autos, Fr. Donal O’Donovan, in his book, The Rock from Which You Were Hewn, wrote “he traveled his circuit on horseback with vestments, sacred vessels and altar stone strapped to his back.”

St. Michael’s
It was under Fr. Quirk’s leadership that both of St. Michael’s Orlando church buildings were constructed. The wooden church on the hill was erected in 1907. Built similarly to his home church of St. Bernard’s, this St. Michael’s church building celebrated but eight years of services, weddings, and funerals until it was struck by lightning and burned in 1915. The second St. Michael’s Church, built of brick, situated in Oil Creek’s bend, was dedicated in 1916. Fr. O’Donovan, quoting Fr. Quirk, on the choice of the brick church’s location on the flood plain, “The young generation has grown so infernally lazy that they hate to climb the smallest elevation.”

Left: Fr. Quirk in later years
Priestly Dedication
Fr. Quirk became a revered figure to his Orlando congregation as well as to the other churches in his charge during his long tenure as steward of the flock. In his funeral eulogy, Fr. Donal O’Donovan, who wrote the history of the Catholic Church in Lewis County, said of Father Quirk:
“This wonderful man worked unfailingly as a priest throughout his long years of priesthood-sixty-seven in all-and departed this life in a quiet and splendid death at the age of ninety-three. His life of priestly service was such that he has become part of our heritage. Indeed, one is inclined to make the observation, even long after they have placed his body in the earth, one is not quite sure that he is dead.”

In 1987, Martin Sweeney was in his ninety-third year and living in a nursing home in Morgantown when he was interviewed by Earl Heater for an oral history. Sweeney remembered Father Quirk’s dedication to his flock. “He would visit the sick and needy in all kinds of inclement weather throughout the country side.” Ethel Doyle confirms Sweeney’s remembrance. She recalls that she often saw Father Quirk on his trusty horse in the coldest of weather, gloveless, with his hands blue from the cold. His dedication was perhaps the source of the reverence in which he was held by his flock, members of whom would travel from church to church within the parish each Sunday to hear his consoling words of praise to God. Assigned to the wilds of central West Virginia, with far-flung parishes to tend and to nourish, Fr. Quirk unflinchingly served his call. Speaking of Fr. Quirk, Donal O’Donovan spoke of his dedication:
“In the winter of 1893, Father Quirk made eighty-three sick calls. On one occasion, he saddled his horse at midnight to ride thirteen miles to administer the sacraments to a dying young mother who had just given birth to her baby. He returned home on Easter Sunday morning in time to offer Mass for his congregation.”

Left: Ethyl Doyle

Martin Sweeney felt that his flock was as dedicated to Father Quirk as Father Quirk was dedicated to God. Helena McCudden was one of Father Quirk’s faithful who traveled from church to church to partake of Fr. Quirk’s sermons. A longtime teacher in southern Courthouse District, Helena lived below St. Bernard’s on Loveberry and was devoted to her pastor. She authored historical manuscripts about St. Bernard’s Church and Fr. Qurk which are archived with the National Park Service of the Department of Interior.

His Irish Background
During his lifetime, Fr. Quirk achieved a worthy reputation for his good works and dedication to the Catholic faith. There was substantial public interest in the priest who rode on horseback through the mountains, ministering to his congregation. To feed the public interest, news reporters sought out interviews of anyone who claimed to know Fr. Quirk. At various times, the “priest of the hills,” became someone even Fr. Quirk could not recognize because of the embellishments added to his resume by reporters.

Father Quirk spoke little about himself and his family. Some of the biographical information about Father Quirk given by his relatives appears incorrect and does not jibe with the well-researched biographical information given by Fr. Donal O”Donovan in his book referenced herein about the history of the Catholic Church in Lewis County.

Fr. O’Donovan
gives Fr. Quirk’s place of birth as County Cork, Ireland in 1845. The family consisted of nine sons and five daughters. Beginning in local schools, Thomas was selected to attend a classical school directed by Cistercian monks at Mount Mellary in County Waterford.

This school emphasized classical studies and languages, offering Latin, Greek, French, and English. Apparently Fr. Quirk absorbed knowledge like a sponge and was a very successful student, earning a reputation as “an excellent classical scholar.”

.Left: map of southern end of Ireland, yellow dot is in County Cork where Fr. Quick was born & raised. Mt Mellary in County Waterford is just east of County Cork.

Left and Right: Photos not of the hills in central WV, but of the hills between young Thomas Quirk's home in County Cork and his school at Mt Mellarey Abby in County Waterford.
After his schooling at Mount Mellary, Thomas followed the Irish trail to America, arriving during the midst of the Civil War. It is believed that Fr. Quirk joined the Union army and was introduced to the Commonwealth of Virginia as a soldier wearing the blue uniform.

Many of the students at the Mount Mellary classical school furthered their education for the priesthood at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. With this in mind, Thomas returned to Europe and entered priesthood studies at the seminary. According to Fr. O’Donovan, in 1868, Bishop Richard Whelan of Wheeling, seeking recruits to serve the wilds of central West Virginia solicited his priesthood alma mater of St. Sulpice for volunteers to the cause. Fr. Thomas Aquinas Quirk responded to the call and spent the remainder of his life in West Virginia in service to his Lord.
Lecturer, Lawyer, Doctor, Scholar and Horse Lover
Recalling in his oral history interview, Martin Sweeney observed that Dr. Rohrbaugh, President of Glenvillle State Teachers College, frequently asked the noted Fr. Quirk to lecture at the college. Sweeney recalls that Dr. Rohrbaugh was of the opinion that “Fr. Quirk was one of the most intelligent men in the world.” Sweeney also noted that Fr. Quirk wrote many deeds of conveyance for his parishioners and that a prominent lawyer in Weston said that Fr. Quirk wrote perfect deeds. Sweeney noted that Fr. Quirk was fluent in five or six languages, including Greek and Latin. Sweeney remembered that on one occasion Fr. Quirk was called as a witness during a trial. During the course of the trial, one of the lawyers, undoubtedly trying to impress Fr. Quirk with his own intelligence, asked him a question in Latin. Fr. Quirk promptly answered the question, but in Greek, leaving the lawyer dumbfounded.

Right: Dr. Rohrbach, President of Glenville College and admirer of Fr. Quirk

Sweeney also remembered that Fr. Quirk would frequently minister to the physical needs of ailing congregants by providing home remedies which he would prepare from native plants and that his church members relied heavily upon his medical advice.

Horses also were a great love of Fr. Quirk. Sweeney recalls how Father Quirk loved to ride and that he was quick to accept a challenge from anyone on the road to see whose horse was the fastest. Father Quirk’s four-legged traveling companions over the fifty-three years of his service to his churches were named Bob, Remy, Partnership, Trixy, and Prince. Donal O'Donovan said Father Quirk's favorite horse was Prince, his last one, and that Prince outlived his master.

Thomas Quirk's handwriting and signature, from the bottom a certificate of marriage.

The Fox Hounds Meet the Priest

Tom Pumphrey grew up on Goosepen and lived there during his early life. Tom recalls many years ago that a Mr. Brinkley who lived in the Roanoke area voiced to him a half-hearted complaint against Father Quirk. One evening, Mr. Brinkley was enjoying a lively fox hunt with his pack of fox hounds. The hounds had the wily, but exhausted fox cornered and was going in for the kill when Father Quirk, returning from a late night call, chanced upon the battleground. Deeming the odds unfair to the fox, Father Quirk got off his horse, found a club and beat off the frantic dogs, allowing the fox to escape. Tom could tell that Mr. Brinkley was not too upset with the padre who was held in the highest respect by the whole of southern Lewis County.

Visits to St. Bridget’s
Tom Pumphrey also recalls Fr. Quirk visiting his congregation at St. Bridget’s on Goosepen. Tom and his family lived in a house on property owned by Pat Fealey at the junction of the Three Lick and Goosepen Road. The Fealey family lived in the farmhouse on the same property and it was here that Fr. Quirk would stay when he was serving St. Bridget’s. Tom always looked forward to Fr. Quirk’s visits because he, along with his brother Jim, was eager to unsaddle Fr. Quirk’s large white horse, and tend to its needs in the Fealey stable.

Left: Tom Pumphrey

Right: Agnes and Tom Murphy, the parents of Ethyl Doyle, two of the many parishioners who traveled to Loveberry to say their goodbyes to their beloved pastor

A Buggy Ride to Loveberry

As Fr. Quirk was reaching his last days on earth and unable to visit his churches, his devoted friends and parishioners made visits to the ailing prelate at Loveberry to express their fealty. As if it were yesterday, Ethel Doyle remembers her stepfather Dan Murphy readying his horse and buggy for the long trip to Loveberry. “My step-father Dan Murphy and my mother Agnes (Wanstreet) Murphy thought the world of Fr. Quirk. Father Quirk was a quiet man, but even as an old man, had a twinkle in his eyes, when visitors came,” Ethel reminisced. “He lived in a plain, simple, humble cottage, without a sign of wealth or material things,” Ethel reflected on her solemn visit to his home over seventy years ago.

Even the Good Must Die

For over fifty years, Fr. Quirk ministered to the spiritual needs of his Orlando brethren and became a part of its history for the ages. Even today, the name of Fr. Quirk is a recognized and beloved name to Lewis County Catholics born years after his death. A short time before his death, Fr. Quirk was elevated to Monsignor by Pope Pius XI, adding to his legend. True to his religious and personal modesty, Fr. Quirk referred to the high honor as “ballyhoo” and as “throwing high honors on an old bag of bones.”

Thomas Aquinas Quirk, pastor of St. Michael’s of Orlando, passed away quietly in September 15, 1937 and was laid to rest at his beloved Loveberry home in the cemetery of St. Bernard’s.

left: The burial of Thomas Quirk at St. Bridget's Cemetery

Fr. O’Donovan, concluding his praise of the earthly works of this simple, dedicated man, stated:
“We give thanks to Almighty God for the gift of Thomas Aquinas Quirk to this Wild Wonderful West Virginia. We give thanks to his wonderful parents and family for a wonderful son who gave his life for the Glory of God in a foreign land.

Well could he utter at the end of his life those beautiful thoughts expressed by a fellow countryman, Padraic Pearse, poet and patriot:
. . . . . Lord, I have staked my soul
. . . . . I have staked the lives of my kin,
. . . . . On the truth of Thy dreadful word,
. . . . . Do not remember my failures
. . . . . But remember my faith.
''Deep peace of the Son of Peace to You,' Father Thomas Aquinas Quirk.”

Please see also This Day in West Virginia History

comment 1: Donna Gloff

The monastery at Mt Melleray was built in the 1830s, not long before young Thomas attended school there. Mt. Melleray was the first monastery to be built in Ireland since the Reformation in the 1500s. It is active today and is available for individual retreats. Telephone:+353 (0)58 54 404

The seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris dates back to the 1600s. "The Sulpician seminaries, above all the one in Paris, were famed for their solid academic teaching and high moral tone." -Wikipedia (Today St. Sulpice is noted for its role in the movie The Davinci Code.)

Left: The pulpit at church of St Sulpice in Paris, attached to the seminary where Thomas Quirk prepared for the priesthood.

comment 2: Donna Gloff

This map of Ireland shows the counties Galway ("G"), Roscommon ("R"), Sligo ("S"), the home counties of most of St. Michael's parishoners, and Cork ("C"). Fr. Quirk's home county and Waterford ("W"), where his school Mt. Melleray was located.

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