As an older man Jean Lamy became an iconic figure in the American west, and the subject of Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. As a young man however, he was a circuit-riding priest in the forests of Richland County.
Some people live their lives on Earth with only one foot in this world and the other in a more exemplary existence where the ideals of love and kindness are more perfectly manifest.
It is the records of their lives, the stories of their struggles and victories, that provide a continuum for hope and inspiration to those of us whose days are bound up in the vicissitudes of a coarser existence.
Such books are the Lives of the Saints, or the Little Flowers of St. Francis: with episodes and anecdotes that offer evidence of the possibility of life more intimately connected to the source of love and peace and serenity.
One of these books is a classic American novel written in 1927 by Willa Cather called Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The subject of her collection of episodes and anecdotes is a man she calls Father Latour, who is based on the real life character of Jean Baptiste Lamy.
Cather’s much-loved book about Lamy concerns the years of his life when he was the Bishop who was most instrumental in establishing the Catholic Church in New Mexico.
It is as Bishop Lamy that he is primarily recognized in American history as a pioneer in the West; but much earlier than that, when he was simply Father Lamy, he once spent significant days in Mansfield in the 1840s.
Most of the inspirational literature you can find about Father Lamy all involves his later life, but the tale of his life here, before Saint Peter’s Parish was established, is no less inspiring: only less well known.
Robes in the Forest
Jean Lamy was born in France when Richland County was only one year old, and it was across the ocean where he grew up and became a priest.
When he came to America as a missionary, much of Ohio was still covered in primal forest. As a young circuit-riding priest he often celebrated Mass in a different village every day of the week. Before there were any churches built here, he regularly traveled to serve Catholic families in Loudonville, Mt. Vernon, Newark, Zanesville, Coshocton, Massillon, and Mansfield.
His home base was in Danville, 30 miles southeast of Mansfield, and for him to visit the Richland County seat he had to cross two rivers before there were bridges.
His letters from the 1840s tell of wading across the Mohican on foot, on horseback and, once during the spring floods, in a boat with 14 other people who barely survived when the rickety craft capsized.
His letters expressed little concern over the challenge of long, lonely treks across the wilderness landscape, on foot or on horseback, for dozens of miles at a time. The challenge instead, he said, was “hearing confessions in English.”
We assume that Ohioans spoke the American tongue, but these American settlers in the 1840s came here from Germany, France, Ireland. They were all Europeans, and spoke like Europeans. Communicating in a common tongue was only a secondary necessity for them in the harsh life of taming the forests.
Father Lamy spoke the Mass and the Sacraments in Latin, but often enough for the sermon messages he “stood witness to the Majesty of the Lord in silence,” because he spoke no German.
In pioneer Ohio it was not uncommon to find villages that were openly hostile toward Catholic priests, but Father Lamy carried an air of meek conciliation that won great support and affection from ministers and congregations of Protestant faiths. Two of the four churches he built in Ohio were raised with the blessings, materials and labor of Methodists and Presbyterians.
This spirit of cooperation and amity in 1840 Ohio is far more astonishing than it may at first seem.
That decade in Ohio history saw a particularly desperate depression in the economy, when dollars were hard to come by and banks were regularly failing.
The years when there were suddenly lots of jobs in Richland County, because the Sandusky & Mansfield Rail Road was being built, happened to correspond with the great famine in Ireland, when the County saw mass immigration of poor Irish scrambling to survive.
Most of the Irish immigrants were laboring class people who were seen as a colossal threat: they took all the jobs and they didn’t even speak the language. And they were Irish Catholic.
It was during this particularly bitter period of local history when Father Lamy brought the light of compassion into our dim patch of civilization.
Traveling one day toward the Sacred Heart colony near Shelby he happened across a settlement of Irish families.
There were a couple small houses with several large families packed into them. The immigrants were extremely poor, and when Lamy found them they were critically ill.
Cholera was wiping out the immigrants by the dozen and, fearing the worst, the priest raced out to find a doctor.
Stopping at homesteads along the way to ask for help, the priest encountered stony resistance as soon as he said the word Irish. Yet he persisted long into the night knocking on doors.
He had to ride clear into Mansfield before he found a medical man willing to listen to him. It wasn’t fear of contagion that kept the practitioners at arm’s length, it was the fact that the sick people were Irish Catholic.
This documentation comes not from the annals of Catholic history, but from the memoirs of Dr. William Bushnell, who rode out to the Irish settlement with Father Lamy in the middle of the night.
The doctor recorded the priest’s name as Lama, and wrote of how impressed he was with the Frenchman’s intelligence, candor, and commitment.
Bushnell said he would liked to have gotten to know the man better, but he never saw him again. He had come like a messenger in the night and then vanished.
A Forest Legacy
If Father Lamy had done nothing else in his long career worthy of recounting, this day of courage and fortitude would have stood in legacy as a life well lived. He went on, of course, to epic accomplishments that earned him a name in American history, but none of those deeds had any more soul than what he did here in Richland County in 1846.