Bishop Timon - Table of Contents

Bishop Timon and Immigrant Catholics in Buffalo
By Mark Goldman
An Excerpt from
"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York."
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983, pp. 78-81

Bishop John Timon
Bust, The Right Rev. John Timon, Bishop of Buffalo, 1847-1867, plaster, A. Pellegrini, Buffalo, 1885
Source: On display in 2002 at Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

[In 1847] Pope Pius IX had created the diocese of Western New York and had appointed John Timon of Pennsylvania as the first bishop of Buffalo.

Proud of his Irish ancestry (he boasted that he was "born in Pennsylvania, conceived in Ireland"), he "accepted with joy," he said, his mission of "planting the flag of the faith in the very center of infidelity and Protestantism, and in spite of the opposition of the anti-Catholic bigots." It was only natural that the new bishop, boastful of his Irish ancestry, flaunting an Irish lilt in his voice, and eager to speak Gaelic to anyone who would listen, was enthusiastically received by the city's beleaguered Irish population.

Buffalo's Irish Immigrants

Here on Buffalo's south side in an area known as the Old First Ward, where the great majority of the 6,300 Irish people in the city lived -- along the docks, near the railroad terminal and the city's rapidly expanding factories -- Timon was a hero from the moment of his arrival. Isolated in the First Ward as much by choice as by prejudice, Buffalo's Irish -- very much like the Senecas earlier in the century -- were separate and, as far as the rest of the city was concerned, largely invisible. While there were Irish families scattered in other parts of Buffalo, once they settled in the First Ward, few left. Many moved around within the ward (since a large number of people rented their flats and homes there was constant movement within the ward), but hardly any ever moved out. The tightly knit, ethnocentric bonds of Irish nationality and Catholicism provided a supportive and comforting environment for this highly vulnerable immigrant community.

Who were Timon's Irish? Somewhat younger than either the Germans or the native-born Americans, the Irish of Buffalo lived in large, extended families in small one-and-a-half- and two-story frame houses in the narrow, wind-swept streets just off Lake Erie in the south side of the city. Unlike in the purely residential German East Side, land use in South Buffalo was alternatingly residential and industrial. Schools, churches, and homes shared the limited land area with breweries, grain elevators, railroad yards, and market places. Hemmed-in between the lake in the west, the small yet clearly defined central business district in the north, the railroad tracks in the east, and the Buffalo Creek in the south, Irish South Buffalo -- Timon's Buffalo -- was densely packed. Irish people (particularly the men who lived in the several large boardinghouses in the neighborhood) were everywhere: on the streets, in the taverns, working hard at unskilled jobs along the docks and in the factories.

While the Irish had been in Buffalo for over twenty years prior to the arrival of Bishop Timon in 1847, it was not until he came that the rest of the people of Buffalo became daily and seriously aware of them. Strikes by Irish workers along the canal had been regular but easy dealt with occurrences. The Irish churches and religious societies were highly ethnocentric and invisible, and the periodic Irish newspapers had no circulation beyond the confines of the First Ward. Timon's arrival changed all of this. Now, for the first time, Buffalo's Irish working-class population had a brash and bold spokesman who rallied and inspired the Irish and in the process frightened the older German and WASP community. Timon's immediate problems, however, were not with the increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-foreign native-born Protestant residents of Buffalo, but rather within the Catholic community, which was already sharply divided along ethnic lines.

German and Irish Catholics

Particularly bitter was the long-standing bickering and hostility that characterized relations between Germans and Irish Catholics. Until the formation of one bishopric in 1848, relations between these two groups were not particularly contentious. East Side German Catholic churches had their own German priests and, while prior to the arrival of Timon

Within weeks after his arrival in 1847 . . . Timon moved the bishop's see from St. Louis Church in Buffalo to a ramshackle wooden-frame Irish church on the fringes of the city's Irish working-class neighborhood in the south part of the city . . . . Thus, by the early 1850s, Bishop Timon had become completely identified with the working-class Irish neighborhood of South Buffalo.

there was no special Irish parish even in the predominantly Irish First Ward, there were several Irish priests in the First Ward who conducted services in the homes of the Irish Catholic immigrants. It was the attempt by Timon to institutionalize and centralize the Catholic community under his jurisdiction that caused serious rifts within the Catholic community, while frightening the dominant native born Protestant community, pushing it to the bigotry that characterized much of the relations between Protestants and Catholics during the 1850s.

Bishop Timon was brash and he acted quickly, almost by instinct. In the process he offended first the German Catholics and then the city's Protestants. Within weeks after his arrival in 1847, for example, Timon moved the bishop's see from St. Louis Church in Buffalo to a ramshackle wooden-frame Irish church on the fringes of the city's Irish working-class neighborhood in the south part of the city. This in itself was a considerable insult to Buffalo's German Catholics, who had come to dominate St. Louis and to make it the most significant and impressive Catholic congregation and edifice in the city.

Bishop Timon and St. Louis Church

St. Louis's history prior to the arrival of Bishop Timon had been stormy and rent with the incredibly divisive factionalism that already had come to characterize the city's ethnic community. It was founded in 1829 by a French Catholic who donated the land for the construction of a church meant, according to the donor, for all Catholics "without distinction of nationality." But the Germans quickly came to dominate church activities, and by 1837 the Irish, with no church of their own to retreat to, left, forming their own church two years later. While the French and German Catholics were able to bury their differences, their coexistence was also short-lived, and in 1846 a large group of the former withdrew to form yet another ethnic church. Thus, by process of elimination, St. Louis had become a completely German church. Such had been the history of the congregation at the time of Timon's arrival in 1848. The German parishioners of St. Louis, among them the prosperous and highly respected businessmen mentioned earlier, although somewhat offended by Timon's abrupt departure to St. Patrick's, were probably not sorry to see him go. Like the rest of the Irish working class, he too, they felt, belonged in the First Ward. Thus, by the early 1850s, Bishop Timon had become completely identified with the working-class Irish neighborhood of South Buffalo.

The rift between Timon, with his largely Irish following, and Buffalo's German Catholics became greater still when the brazen bishop challenged the lay leaders of St. Louis over their claim that the church's land holdings belonged not to the bishop but rather to themselves.

. . . the German trustees of St. Louis turned to the Protestant legal community . . . . the trustees of St. Louis were correct: Trustees chosen by the congregation did in fact control all church property.

Since the establishment of St. Louis in 1829, control of the church's property had belonged to a lay board of trustees. Whether motivated by contempt for the prosperous Germans who dominated the church (all of the board members were German), by his own ethnic insecurity, or by a genuine obligation to strengthen the hand of his new office, Bishop Timon wasted no time in challenging the board of St. Louis. Insisting that all church property was owned directly by the bishop, Timon ordered the board of St. Louis to turn over to him the deed to their property. When they refused, Timon in 1850 issued a ban of interdict on the church. The ban lasted for over two years, during which time the strong-willed, increasingly ethnocentric bishop refused to allow any priest to officiate at services at St. Louis. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that in defense against what they charged was Timon's "theocracy," the German trustees of St. Louis turned to the Protestant legal community and hired as their attorney one James Putnam, a scion of one of Buffalo's esteemed New England families and, with Millard Fillmore, an early member of the city's Know Nothing party.

Not only were the German Catholics alienated by the behavior and the policies of John Timon, but now even the distant, often imperious WASP establishment began to worry about the bishop. For Timon's action in the St. Louis case was a challenge not only to the German hierarchy but more importantly to the laws of New York State, according to which the trustees of St. Louis were correct: Trustees chosen by the congregation did in fact control all church property. Thus what was on the surface a strictly parochial power struggle between German Catholics and the Irish bishop was in fact a strong and strenuous challenge to the secular authority of the whole community.


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