John Francis Plunkett (1798-1840)
March brings a lot of Indiana Catholic history. This month marks Bishop Simon Bruté’s American citizenship and this week, we remember one of the earliest Irish clergy who labored in the Diocese of Vincennes, which originally included the entire state of Indiana and the eastern half of Illinois.
John Francis Plunkett was born in Dublin, Ireland. It is unclear how he found his way to the United States, but he was a student at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland when Bishop Bruté ordained him, and Benjamin Petit, to the diaconate in September 1837. By that time he was apparently done with his studies since his ordination took place in Vincennes, as did his ordination to the priesthood on October 14, 1837.
He was sent, for a time, to Madison to assist Fr. Edgar Shawe, but that apparently did not work, and Bruté recalled him to Vincennes. He was then dispatched to the canals of northeastern Illinois to minister to the Irish workers in particular, but to others as well. It was there that Fr. Plunkett flourished. It was also there that he met his demise on the night of March 14, 1840. While returning from a sick call, Fr. Plunkett was thrown from his horse into a tree and killed. He was originally buried in the crypt of Saint Patrick’s Church in Joliet, but later his body was moved to the Saint Patrick Cemetery.
The following article was taken from the history pages for St. Dennis Church, Lockport Illinois. Unfortunately those web pages have been removed, but we’ve saved it here.1
During the fever days in late summer of 1838 along the Illinois and Michigan Canal, a call for mercy was sent to Bishop Bruté at Vincennes. The sick and dying were multiplying at an alarming rate with no spiritual consolation available. Concurrent with these events, Father O’Meara, the Canal pastor, was sick with fever, possibly having contracted from the same source. “The climatic conditions were not very favorable to the first settlers, the land being covered with swamps and sloughs which were hotbeds for miasms or germs, the cause of sickness, especially of the so-called auge fever, with an after effect for weeks and months. The water was unsanitary, taken from ponds and sloughs covered with yellow scum” [Rev. J. Meyer. The History of St. Peter and Paul Church, Pilot, Illinois. Kankakee, IL. 1920. P.13] Over 700 hundred people were victims of this outbreak. The bishop summoned two young priests to respond to the dilemma. One of the priests was Father John Francis Plunkett.
As cold weather set in, the epidemic subsided. Father Plunkett was assigned to remain along the canal as the resident pastor of Will County. Described as a person of charm and blessed with a joy for life, Father Plunkett was the ideal choice for the Irish canallers in light of Father O’Meara’s efforts along the path. Father Plunkett would also reflect the wishes of the Bishop and the goals of the Diocese of Vincennes.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1798, Father Plunkett answered the call of the nascent American church for missionaries. On the 25th of April 1834, he embarked upon studies at Saint Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Maryland. He arrived at the seminary with a letter of recommendation from Reverend Michael Hurley, a famous church leader and noted scholar in the eastern United States. (This Father Hurley was not the same priest who would later serve St. Dennis as pastor and become Bishop-elect of Peoria.)
As July of 1837 concluded, Father Plunkett was ready to answer his true calling. He left the seminary arriving in Vincennes in early August. He received minimum orders and subdeacon status on the 16th of August 1837. On the 23rd of September, Father Plunkett became a deacon. He was ordained at the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier in Vincennes on the 14th of October 1837.
Father Plunkett’s first priestly duties were at missions in the vicinity of Vincennes, Indiana. In November he became an assistant to Father Michael Shawe at Madison, Indiana. By spring of 1838 Father Plunkett was enlisted to travel to Baltimore, Philadelphia and points east in quest for money towards missionary work. He was back to mission work in Vernon, Indiana, during the summer of 1838. By the end of September, along with Father Julien Benoit, he was on his way to the Illinois and Michigan Canal to answer the call of the sick and dying.
As November winter weather set in Father Plunkett was informed that he should establish himself at Joliet. The Joliet location was much more central to his newly established territory than the Haytown mission. Joliet was made the county seat in 1836. In 1838 Joliet was the primary town southwest of Chicago basing its strength on hydropower and as a terminal for agricultural trade. He would have within his domain all the area south of Chicago, east to the Indiana border and as far west as Ottawa, Illinois. Joliet was developing very rapidly due to a large influx of Irish immigrants. All along the Illinois and Michigan Canal this influx affected the spiritual and physical growth of the area. The establishment of the Church in the area provided a smoother transition for the immigrant settlers who needed an anchor.
Father Plunkett was responsible for purchasing the wood frame structure used for services at Haytown in 1838. In his register entries he referred to Haytown as Emmetsburg. According to historian Nancy Thornton, Edward E. Hunter, R.J. Gavin, Lanthrop Johnson and Robert Davidson laid out Emmetsburg near the Will-Cook border on The 2nd of October 1836. The recorded date at Cook County of the plat was on the 5th of January 1837.
During his time along the canal Father Plunkett was called into duty to police disputes between rival Irish factions. These factions were gangs who represented different ends of the Emerald Isle. What had been braggadocio in the ‘old sod’ became bloodletting in America. Their sectional rivalry was transplanted all along the canal from Chicago to LaSalle. Violence and mayhem were the end results when the two groups, the ‘Corkonians’ and the ‘Far-downers’, met. The canal bosses aggravated the situation by preferentially hiring people from their old sections in Eire.
With whip and rosary in hand these hooligans were confronted by the courageous priest and steered to the right path. His integrity in these matters made his word the final word. He became lovingly known as “Supreme Court” Plunkett.
On a more restrained note, Father Plunkett would regularly enter the work camps and gather the laborers to Mass.
His sincere affection for the people and the work was evident in these acts of love. The changing of the bishopric with the passing of Simon Bruté signaled a change at the churches in Chicago and Joliet. Father Hippolyte Du Pontavice took on the position as pastor at Joliet with care for the Illinois Canal Missions on the 3rd of February 1840. Unlike the situation at Chicago, Father Plunkett graciously accepted the turn of events and put all of the affairs of the church in Will County in order for his successor. He went about doing what he always did – tramping along the towpath, touching souls in his care.
Traveling through Troy Township, just west of Joliet, back towards Joliet on a stormy 14th of March 1840, Father Plunkett was riding with two other men in escort. Blinded by the storm he hit a low hanging branch. By the time the rear escort had caught up with him he had passed into the Lord’s hands. Between May 5-7, 1844, the first diocesan Synod for the Diocese of Vincennes assembled and there honored Father Plunkett posthumously with a solemn Mass of Requiem.
- The original website was located at http://www.saint-dennis.org/history/sdh7.asp, but this page is no longer active. [↩]
Posted: 12 March, 2017 in Uncategorized.