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Fr. John Plunket (1798-1840)

[The following article was taken from the history pages for St. Dennis Church, Joliet Illinois. This article and other can be viewed on their website at]

During the fever days in late summer of 1838 along the Illinois
and Michigan Canal, a call for mercy was sent to Bishop Brut�
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 Brut� 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.


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