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Chapter 56

A month had scarcely elapsed since the ecclesiastical retreat, when all the cities of Illinois were filled by the most strange and humiliating clamors against our bishop. From Chicago to Cairo, it would have been difficult to go to a single town without hearing, from the most respectable people, or reading in big letters, in some of the most influential papers, that Bishop O'Regan was a thief or a simoniac, a perjurer, or even something worse. The bitterest complaints were crossing each other over the breadth and length of Illinois, from almost every congregation: "He has stolen the beautiful and costly vestments we bought for our church," cried the French Canadians of Chicago. "He has swindled us out of a fine lot given us to build our church, sold it for 40,000 dollars, and pocketed the money, for his own private use, without giving us any notice," said the Germans. "His thirst for money is so great," said the whole Catholic people of Illinois, "that he is selling even the bones of the dead to fill his treasures!"

I had not forgotten the bold attempt of the bishop to wrench my little property from my hands, at his first visit to my colony. The highway thief, who puts his dagger at the breast of the traveler, threatening to take away his life if he does not give him his purse, does not appear more infamous to his victim than that bishop appeared to me that day. But my hope then was, that this act was an isolated and exceptional case in the life of my superior; and I did not whisper a word of it to anybody. I began to think differently, however, when I saw the numerous articles in the principal papers of the State, signed by the most respectable names, accusing him of theft, simony, and lies. My hope, at first, was that there were many exaggerations in those reports. But as they came thicker day after day, I thought my duty was to go to Chicago and see for myself to what extent those rumours were true. I went directly to the French Canadian church; and to my unspeakable dismay, I found that it was too true that the bishop had stolen the fine church vestments, which my countrymen had bought for their own priest for grand festivals, and he had transferred them to the cathedral of St. Mary for his own personal use. The indignation of my poor countrymen knew no bounds. It was really deplorable to hear with what supreme disgust and want of respect they were speaking of their bishop. Unfortunately, the Germans and Irish people were still ahead of them in their unguarded, disrespectful denunciations. Several spoke of prosecuting him before the civil courts, to force him to disgorge what he had stolen; and it was with the greatest difficulty that I succeeded in preventing some of them from mobbing and insulting him publicly in the streets, or even in his own palace. The only way I could find to appease them was to promise them that I would speak to his lordship, and tell him that it was the desire of my countrymen to have those vestments restored to them.

The second thing I did was to go to the cemetery, and see for myself to what extent it was true or not that our bishop was selling the very bones of his diocesans, in order to make money. On my way to the Roman Catholic graveyard, I met a great many cart loads of sand, which, I was told by the carters, had been taken from the cemetery; but I did not like to stop them till I was at the very door of the consecrated spot. There I found three carters, who were just leaving the grounds. I asked and obtained from them the permission to search the sand which they carried, to see if there were not some bones. I could not find any in the first cart; and my hope was that it would be the same in the two others. But, to my horror and shame, I found the lower jaw of a child in the second, and part of the bones of an arm, and almost the whole foot of a human being, in the third cart! I politely requested the carters to show me the very place where they had dug that sand, and they complied with my prayer. To my unspeakable regret and shame, I found that the bishop had told an unmitigated falsehood when, to appease the public indignation against his sacrilegious trade, he had published that he was selling only the sand which was outside of the fence, on the very border of the lake.

It is true that, to make his case good, he had ordered the old fence to be taken away, in order to make a new one, many feet inside the old one. But this miserable and shameful subterfuge rendered his crime still greater than it had at first appeared. What added to the gravity of that public iniquity, is that the Bishop of Chicago had received that piece of land from the city, for a burial ground, only after he had taken a solemn oath to use it only for buying the dead. Every load of that ground sold then, was not only an act of simony, but the breaking of a solemn oath! No words can express the shame I felt, after convincing myself of the correctness of what the press of Chicago, and of the whole State of Illinois had published against our bishop, about this sacrilegious traffic.

Slowly retracing my steps to the city from the cemetery, I went directly to the bishop, to fulfill the promise I had made to the French Canadians, to try to obtain the restoration of their fine vestments. But I was not long with him without seeing that I would gain nothing but his implacable enmity in pleading the cause of my poor countrymen. However, I thought my duty was to do all in my power to open the eyes of my bishop to the pit he was digging for himself and for all us Catholics, by his conduct. "My lord," I said, "I shall not surprise your lordship, when I tell you that all the true Catholics of Illinois are filled with sorrow by the articles they find, every day, in the press, against their bishop."

"Yes! yes!" he abruptly replied, "the good Catholics must be sad indeed to read such disgusting diatribes against their superior; and I presume that you are one of those that are sorry. But, then, why do you not prevent your insolent and infidel countrymen from writing those things! I see that a great part of those libels are signed by the French Canadians."

I answered, "It is to try, as much as it is in my power, to put an end to those scandals that I am in Chicago, today, my lord."

"Very well, very well," he replied, "as you have the reputation of having a great influence over your countrymen, make use of it to stop them in their rebellious conduct against me, and I will, then, believe that you are a good priest."

I answered, "I hope that I will succeed in what your lordship wants me to do. But there are two things to be done, in order to secure my success."

"What are they?" quickly asked the bishop.

"The first is, that your lordship give back the fine church vestments which you have taken from the French Canadian congregation of Chicago.

"The second is, that your lordship abstain, absolutely, from this day, to sell the sand of the burying ground, which covers the tombs of the dead."

Without answering a word, the bishop struck his fist violently upon the table, and crossed the room at a quick step, two or three times; then turning towards me, and pointing his finger to my face, he exclaimed in an indescribable accent of rage:

"Now, I see the truth of what Mr. Spink told me! you are not only my bitterest enemy, but you are the head of my enemies. You take sides with them against me. You approve of their libelous writings against me! I will never give back those church vestments. They are mine, as the French Canadian church is mine! Do you not know that the ground on which the churches are built, as well as the churches themselves, and all that belongs to the church, belongs to the bishop? Was it not a burning shame to use those fine vestments in a poor miserable church of Chicago, when the bishop of that important city was covered with rags! It was in the interest of the episcopal dignity, that I ordered those rich and splendid vestments, which were mine by law, to be transferred from that small and insignificant congregation, to my cathedral of St. Mary, and if you had an ounce of respect for your bishop, Mr. Chiniquy, you would immediately go to your countrymen and put a stop to their murmurs and slanders against me, by simply telling them that I have taken what was mine from that church, which is mine also, to the cathedral, which is altogether mine. Tell your countrymen to hold their tongues, and respect their bishop, when he is in the right, as I am today."

I had, many times, considered the infamy and injustice of the law which the bishops have had passed all over the United States, making every one of them a corporation, with the right of possessing personally all the church properties of the Roman Catholics. But I had never understood the infamy and tyranny of that law so clearly as in that hour. It is impossible to describe with ink and paper the air of pride and contempt with which the bishop really in substance, if not in words, told me: "All those things are mine. I do what I please with them, you must be mute and silent when I take them away from you. It is against God Himself that you rebel when you refuse me the right of dispossessing you of all those properties which you have purchased with your own money, and which have not cost me a cent!" In that moment I felt that the law which makes every bishop the only master and proprietor of all the religious goods, houses, churches, lands and money of their people as Catholics, is simply diabolical: and that the church which sanctions such a law, is antichristian. Though it was at the risk and peril of everything dear to me, that I should openly protest against that unjust law, there was no help; I felt constrained to do so with all the energy I possessed.

I answered: "My lord, I confess that this is the law in the United States; but this is a human law, directly opposed to the Gospel. I do not find a single word in the Gospel which gives this power to the bishop. Such a power is an abusive, not a divine power, which will sooner or later destroy our holy church in the United States, as it has already mortally wounded her in Great Britain, in France and in many other places. When Christ said, in the Holy Gospel, that He has not enough of ground whereon to lay His head, He condemned, in advance, the pretensions of the bishops who lay their hands on our church properties as their own. Such a claim is an usurpation and not a right, my lord. Our Saviour Jesus Christ protested against that usurpation, when asked by a young man to meddle in his temporal affairs with his brothers; He answered that 'He had not received such power.' The Gospel is a long protest against that usurpation, in every page, it tells us that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world. I have myself given fifty dollars to help my countrymen to buy those church vestments. They belong to them and not to you!"

My words, uttered with an expression of firmness which the bishop had never yet seen in any of his priests, fell upon him, at first, as a thunderbolt. They so puzzled him, that he looked at me, a moment, as if he wanted to see if it were a dream or a reality, that one of his priests had the audacity to use such language, in his presence. But! soon, recovering from his stupor, he interrupted me by striking his fist again on the table, and saying in anger: "You are half a Protestant! Your words smell of Protestantism! The Gospel! the Gospel! that is your great tower of strength against the laws and regulations of our holy church! If you think, Mr. Chiniquy, that you will frighten me with your big words of the Gospel, you will soon see your mistake, at your own expense. I will make you remember that it is the Church you must obey, and it is through your bishop that the church rules you!"

"My lord," I answered, "I want to obey the church. Yes! but it is a church founded on the Gospel; a church that respects and follows the Gospel, that I want to obey!"

These words threw him into a fit of rage, and he answered: "I am too busy to hear your impertinent babblings any longer. Please let me alone, and remember that you will soon hear from me again if you cannot teach your people to respect and obey their superiors!" The bishop kept his promise. I heard of him very soon after, when his agent, Peter Spink, dragged me, again a prisoner, before the Criminal Court of Kankakee, accusing me falsely of crimes which his malice alone could have invented. My lord O'Regan had determined to interdict me; but, not being able to find any cause in my private or public life as a priest to found such a sentence, he had pressed that land speculator, Spink, to prosecute me again; promising to base his interdict on the condemnation which, he had been told, would be passed against me by the Criminal Court of Kankakee. But the bishop and Peter Spink were again to be disappointed; for the verdict of the court, given on the 13th of November, 1855, was again in my favour.

My heart filled with joy at this new and great victory my God had given me against my merciless persecutors. I was blessing Him, when my two lawyers, Messrs. Osgood and Paddock, came to me and said: "Our victory, though great, is not so decisive as was expected; for Mr. Spink has just taken an oath that he has no confidence in this Kankakee Court, and he has appealed, by a change of venue, to the Court of Urbana, in Champaign County. We are sorry to have to tell you that you must remain a prisoner, under bail, in the hands of the sheriff, who is bound to deliver you to the sheriff of Urbana, the 19th of May, next spring."

I nearly fainted when I heard this. The ignominy of being again in the hands of the sheriff for so long a time; the enormous expenses, far beyond my means, to bring my fifteen to twenty witnesses such a long distance of nearly one hundred miles; the new ocean of insults, false accusations, and perjuries with which my enemies were to overwhelm me again; and the new risk of being condemned, though innocent, at that distant court; all those things crowded themselves in my mind to crush me. For a few minutes I was obliged to sit down; for I would surely have fallen down had I continued to stand on my feet. A kind friend had to bring me some cold water and bathe my forehead, to prevent me from fainting. It seemed that God had forsaken me for the time being, and that He was to let me fall powerless in the hand of my foes. But I was mistaken. That merciful God was near me, in the dark hour, to give me one of the marvellous proofs of His paternal and loving care.

The very moment I was leaving the court with a heavy heart, a gentleman, a stranger, came to me and said: "I have followed your suit from the beginning. It is more formidable than you suspect. Your prosecutor, Spink, is only an instrument in the hands of the bishop. The real prosecutor is the land shark who is at the head of the diocese, and who is destroying our holy religion by his private and public scandals. As you are the only one among his priests who dares to resist him, he is determined to get rid of you: he will spend all his treasures and use the almost irresistible influence of his position to crush you. The misfortune for you is that, when you fight a bishop, you fight all the bishops of the world. They will unite all their wealth and influence to Bishop O'Regan's to silence you, though they hate and despise him. There was no danger of any verdict against you in this part of Illinois, where you are too well known for the perjured witnesses they have brought to influence your judges. But when you are among strangers, mind what I tell you: the false oaths of your enemies may be accepted as gospel truths by the jury, and then, though innocent, you are lost. Though your two lawyers are expert men, you will want something better at Urbana. Try to secure the services of Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield. If that man defends you, you will surely come out victorious from that deadly conflict!"

I answered: "I am much obliged to you for your sympathetic words: but would you please allow me to ask your name?"

"Be kind enough to let me keep my incognito here," he answered. "The only thing I can say is, that I am a Catholic like you, and one who, like you, cannot bear any longer the tyranny of our American bishops. With many others, I took to you as our deliverer, and for that reason I advise you to engage the services of Abraham Lincoln."

"But," I replied, "who is that Abraham Lincoln? I never heard of that man before."

He replied: "Abraham Lincoln is the best lawyer and the most honest man we have in Illinois."

I went immediately, with that stranger, to my two lawyers, who were in consultation only a few steps from us, and asked them if they would have any objection that I should ask the services of Abraham Lincoln, to help them to defend me at Urbana.

They both answered: "Oh! if you can secure the services of Abraham Lincoln, by all means do it. We know him well; he is one of the best lawyers, and one of the most honest men we have in our State."

Without losing a minute, I went to the telegraph office with that stranger, and telegraphed to Abraham Lincoln to ask him if he would defend my honour and my life (though I was a stranger to him) at the next May term of the court at Urbana.

About twenty minutes later I received the answer:

"Yes, I will defend your honour and your life at the next May term at Urbana.

"Abraham Lincoln."

My unknown friend then paid the operator, pressed my hand, and said: "May God bless you and help you, Father Chiniquy. Continue to fight fearlessly for truth and righteousness against our mitred tyrants; and God will help you in the end." He then took a train for the north, and soon disappeared, as a vision from heaven. I have not seen him since, though I have not let a day pass without asking my God to bless him. A few minutes later, Spink came to the office to telegraph to Lincoln, asking his services at the next May term of the Court, at Urbana. But it was too late.

Before being dragged to Urbana, I had to renew, at Easter, 1856, the oil which is used for the sick, in the ceremony which the Church of Rome calls the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and in the Baptism of Children. I sent my little silver box to the bishop by a respectable young merchant of my colony, called Dorion. But he brought it back without a drop of oil, with a most abusive letter from the bishop, because I had not sent five dollars to pay for the oil. It was just what I expected. I knew that it was his habit to make his priests pay five dollars for that oil, which was not worth more than two or three cents.

This act of my bishop was one of the many evident cases of simony of which he was guilty every day. I took his letter, with my small silver box, to the Archbishop of St. Louis, my lord Kenrick, before whom I brought my complaints against the Bishop of Chicago, on the 9th April, 1856. That high dignitary told me that many priests of the diocese of Chicago had already brought the same complaints before him, and exposed the infamous conduct of their bishop. He agreed with me that the rapacity of Bishop O'Regan, his thefts, his lies, his acts of simony were public and intolerable, but that he hand no remedy for them, and said: "The only thing I advise you to do is to write to the Pope directly. Prove your charges against that guilty bishop as clearly as possible. I will myself write to corroborate all you have told me; for I know it is true. My hope is that your complaints will attract the attention of the Pope. He will, probably, send some one from Rome to make an enquiry, and then that wicked man will be forced to offer his resignation. If you succeed, as I hope, in your praiseworthy efforts to put an end to such scandals, you will have well deserved the gratitude of the whole church. For that unprincipled dignitary is the cause that our holy religion is not only losing her prestige in the United States, but is becoming an object of contempt wherever those public crimes are known."

I was, however, forced to postpone my writing to the Pope. For, a few days after my return from St. Louis to my colony, I had to deliver myself again into the hands of the Sheriff of Kankakee, who was obliged by Spink to take me prisoner, and deliver me as a criminal into the hands of the Sheriff of Champaign County, on the 19th of May, 1856.

It was then that I met Mr. Abraham Lincoln for the first time. He was a giant in stature; but I found him still more a giant in the noble qualities of his mind and heart. It was impossible to converse five minutes with him without loving him. There was such an expression of kindness and honesty in that face, and such an attractive magnetism in the man, that after a few moments' conversation one felt as tied to him by all noblest affections of the heart. When pressing my hand, he told me: "You were mistaken when you telegraphed that you were unknown to me. I know you, by reputation, as the stern opponent of the tyranny of your bishop, and the fearless protector of your countrymen in Illinois; I have heard much of you from two priests; and, last night, your lawyers, Messrs. Osgood and Paddock have acquainted me with the fact that your bishop is employing some of his tools to get rid of you. I hope it will be an easy thing to defeat his projects, and protect you against his machinations." He then asked me how I had been induced to desire his services. I answered by giving him the story of that unknown friend who had advised me to have Mr. Abraham Lincoln for one of my lawyers, for the reason that "he was the best lawyer and the most honest man in Illinois." He smiled at my answer with that inimitable and unique smile, which we may call the "Lincoln smile," and replied: "That unknown friend would surely have been more correct had he told you that Abraham Lincoln was the ugliest lawyer of the country!" and he laughed outright.

I spent six long days at Urbana as a criminal, in the hands of the sheriff, at the feet of my judges. During the greatest part of that time, all that human language can express of abuse and insult was heaped on my poor head. God only knows what I suffered in those days; but I was providentially surrounded, as by a strong wall. I had Abraham Lincoln for my defense "the best lawyer and the most honest man of Illinois," and the leaned and upright David Davis for my judge. The latter became Vice-president of the United States in 1882; and the former its most honoured President from 1861 to 1865.

I never heard anything like the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln when he demolished the testimonies of the two perjured priests, Lebel and Carthuval, who, with ten or twelve other false witnesses, had sworn against me. I would have surely been declared innocent after that eloquent address and the charge of the learned Judge Davis, had not my lawyers, by a sad blunder, left a Roman Catholic on the jury. Of course, that Irish Roman Catholic wanted to condemn me, when the eleven honest and intelligent Protestants were unanimous in voting "Not guilty." The court, having at last found that it was impossible to persuade the jury to give an unanimous verdict, discharged them. But Spink again forced the sheriff to keep me prisoner, by obtaining from the court the permission to begin the prosecution de novo at the term of the fall, the 19th of October, 1856. Humanly speaking, I would have been one of the most miserable men, had I not had my dear Bible, which I was mediating and studying day and night in those dark days of trial. But tough I was then still in the desolate wilderness, far away yet from the Promised Land, my heavenly Father never forsook me. He many times let the sweet manna fall from heaven to feed my desponding soul, and cheer my fainting heart. More than once, when I was panting with spiritual thirst, He brought me near the Rock, from the side of which the living waters were gushing to refresh and renew my strength and courage.

Though the world did not suspect it, I knew from the beginning, that all my tribulations were coming from my unconquerable attachment an my unfaltering love and respect for the Bible, as the root and source of every truth given by God to man; and I felt assured that my God knew it also; -- that assurance supported my courage in the conflict. Every day my Bible was becoming dearer to me. I was then constantly trying to walk in its marvellous light and divine teaching. I wanted to learn my duties and rights. I like to acknowledge that it was the Bible which gave me the power and wisdom I then so much needed, to face fearlessly so many foes. That power and wisdom I felt were not mine. On this very account my dear Bible enabled me to remain calm in the very lions' den; and it gave me, from the very beginning of that terrible conflict, the assurance of a final victory; for every time I bathed my sould in its Divine light, I heard my merciful heavenly Father's voice, saying, "Fear not, for I am with thee" (Isaiah 43:5).