This is the first of two articles in The Catholic Spirit published by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in 2002.
Right: Thomas Aquinas Quirk's 1870 ordination portrait.
Left: Fr. Thomas Quirk and is horse Barney
Left, below: Detail from photo of Fr. Quirk with his horse Barney.
Lewis County’s last resident living Civil War veteran (Union) died peacefully at 2:45 P.M. September 12, 1937, fifty-three years to the day of his arrival in central West Virginia. He was surrounded by his brother Patrick, nephews Tom and Howard, loving friends, neighbors and parishioners. The Right Reverend Monsignor Thomas Aquinas Quirk (pronounced "Kerk") was 93 and the onset of pneumonia following a severe fall on the day of his last Mass, one week previous, was simply too much for him to bear. He had been a priest in the diocese West Virginia for 67 years, actively so until his final illness,
He was a soldier, scholar, priest, editor, educator, practical farmer, oil boom enthusiast, historian for the diocese, seer-like prognosticator. Often associated with the Barry Fitzgerald-like posed photo in 1934, with his horse Barney, the man behind the image is more extraordinary still. As we view the reality of a lifetime, he is beyond ordinary measurements of greatness.
Many of the Irish Brigade members acquiring the arts of war returned to Ireland to participate in the unsuccessful Fenian Rising in 1867. It was his own brother, Patrick, who reported the story of Father Quirk returning to Ireland after the American Civil War, “springing” a Fenian prisoner from jail, forever making him persona non gratis in his homeland.
Thomas Quirk alluded to a few skirmishes for his part of the war as a lowly adjutant, but never spoke about his battle experience. However, in his history of the Wheeling Diocese, completed in 1925 and serialized in the West Virginia edition of the (Pittsburg) Catholic Reporter, in describing the fear and familiarity of imminent death American soldiers in World War I battlefields lived with, one vividly senses that he was drawing from his own experience as a soldier. He describes “… that anguish of soul, that biting apprehension of death, the tremors that will visit the bravest heart during the lone night watches—the most priceless jewels of a soldier’s experience.”
Left: Tools of the trade- Fr. Quirk's chalice and paten.
The mournful cry of the whippoorwill at early light on the carnage fields of the war gave voice, for many, to their grieving, but the devoted male bird is noted for nurturing its young and infusing new life. All his life Thomas Quirk would attend to the first cry of the whippoorwill, not only as a predictor of weather, but, perhaps, as a symbol of his transforming war experiences, calling him to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church as well as continuing renewal of his commitment to compassionate service for those living out the victories and defeats of that war throughout the new state of West Virginia.
Left: The Irish College in Paris
Right: St Sulpice in the suburbs of Paris.
He took classes for his own interest at the nearby Sorbonne in medicine and law. The Sulpicians trained their missionaries to be as self-sufficient as possible in frontier regions, endowing them with many practical tools that would be needed where various institutions as yet did not exist or were very remote. At the seminary itself, he was particularly interested in mathematics and physics, completing extra summer studies in these fields. He studied also with some of the finest theologians and philosophers in Europe, then on the faculty of the seminary. His earlier education was of the “prep school” variety where he honed his Latin, Greek, and probably also modern European languages such as French and German. (He would readily quote Schiller in German in a letter to Bishop Donahue, considerately translating for the good Bishop.)
To this day you will find wills and other documents drawn up and witnessed by Thomas Quirk for his parishioners. He wrote impeccable deeds and wills. Protestants and Catholics alike sought him out for medical, legal and pending business decisions. At the time he was in France medically the French were on the frontier of the body/mind nexus. (Freud studied in Paris before developing his science of the mind) Many healings have been attributed to Father Quirk’s recommendations over the years. He kept on hand a variety of European homeopathic medicines as well as various herbal remedies. He was out vaccinating people against smallpox in the state’s last great scare at the turn of the last century.
Answering the appeal for seminarians from Bishop Whelan, newly appointed first Bishop of West Virginia, Thomas Quirk responded shortly before his completion at St. Sulpice. The plan was to complete any needed education at St, Vincent’s, the diocesan Seminary in Wheeling and be part of the next ordination class. He arrived in Wheeling in September of 1869.
German and Irish immigrants had completed work on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike (routes 33 and 47 today). The workers settled on lands along the road and required the Church’s ministrations. As a young curate (priest) he was mentored by one of the great priests of the diocese, Father Henry Parke. At some point Father Parke departed for France on the bishop’s work and left the actual running of the parish to the young assistants, who eliminated debt and collected parish dues with consistency.
During this time Father Quirk was the actual editor and chief contributor of West Virginia’s first diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Messenger. This newspaper was started by Father Parke and nominally edited by Wood County businessman Henry O’Brien. Its stated mission was “to counter anti-Catholic bigotry and positively promote the views of the universal church in the United States.”
“The present penchant for luxurious, palatial schoolhouses, guiding and prompting both the state and parochial boards of education, is but the reprehensible mania for universal extravagance, common in our current hour and must die out. The systems of education, not the houses, are most in need of improvement and advance. Educational fads and follies have fairly drowned out the young idea. It shoots no more for it is kiln-dried in the pod.” (1924)
Further research confirms Father Quirk’s natural affinity for education. A late life portrait of Blessed Edmund Rice, lay founder of the Irish Christian Brothers, a teaching order, by common consent of those still living who remember him, bears an uncanny resemblance to our Father Quirk in later years. Catherine Rice, Father Quirk’s mother, was second cousin to the well-known educator and nurturer of orphans. It is also to be noted that Lord Monteagle (a Spring-Rice) one of the “good” landlords of the 1846 potato famine, was some family connection. Two separate reports indicate Thomas Quirk was twice offered the lordship of Monteagle, but declined because of his Catholicism among other reasons. This title, in later tines, was passed every few years to cousins collateral due to lack of direct heir. This Lord Monteagle was British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late 1830s and one speculates that Father Quirk’s educational opportunities in the British school system (where he was a cadet in the sense of our ROTC) was promoted by the Rice connections. Several older priests in the diocese remarked upon his peculiar Latin pronunciation. Could he have the legacy of the British Public Schools Latin with its closer to the original Latin pronunciation rather than the more modern Italianate mode of speech?
Sand Fork and Oil Creek
Over the years Father Quirk was assisted in his three church assignment by a number of priests, including Father Mueller, Father Swint, Father Mark Krause and Father James Tierney.
Left: Fr. Quirk with his assistant Mark Krause.
In these diaries Father Quirk would jot down events ( Boer War, presidential campaigns) weather, sick calls and Mass attendance at the three churches in his care “The wine froze in the chalice this morning.” (1903) he wrote when a particular cold spell affected the dilapidated Civil War era structure full of wind and cold. He related on March 28, 1900, “My bees were actively at work on the peach trees that are just now in full bloom. In the evening it rained heavy showers. As I write 11 p.m, it is raining still and threatens to rain through the night. 72 degrees without a fire. If it does not turn cool there will be an abundance of peaches. The grass is growing fast and the wheat looks very well.”
He prayed to St. Anthony the Finder (Padua) to bring success to the oil well drilled in the Loveberry Ridge property in the late summer, early fall of 1900. His hope was to acquire profit, along with everyone else, in West Virginia at that time to build a new, solid church. The well was a dry hole for oil but one week later. One mile down the hill, the great Copley well No. 1 brought in the greatest gusher of that age. Indirectly the Irish and German owners of the oil lands of that well and others contributed to the construction of the present St Bernard’s Church in 1910.
A New Year
“Monday 31st misty and very sloppy- 70 degrees. It grew windy but not cold toward evening. Mud is deep now. It is clouded and warm as I write- almost 12 a.m. And now the old year is gone and the old 19th century is ended.- goodbye! goodbye! A new year and a new age opens. I name this XXth century the century of magnificent promise. My natal century was rich in many things. But boasted much beyond its performance. It brought back popular liberty and with that, as ever a rejuvenesence of Catholicism. The century just opened must witness many, many revolutions- the greatest of these a social revolution, now a great desideratum. Courage you XXth century men! We have prepared the arena for you and when we are sleeping in the cold clay all alone and all forgotten, your battle will be raging and your shouts of victory ringing joyously.
Welcome, 1901 A.D. –Thomas Quirk.”