Bishop Anthony O'Regan was the head of the Chicago diocese from 1854 - 1858, a period when the cemeteries were busier than ever. During the summer of 1854's Cholera outbreak, the Chicago City Cemetery's potter's field alone reportedly buried nearly 500 victims of that notoriously quick-acting disease. The Chicago Tribune told of 3,827 deaths in the city in 1854, with the next three years' totals averaging 2,000 mortalities each year. The Catholic cemetery had its own potter's field, which, like the City's cemetery, was located at the eastern edge of the graveyard.
Bishop O'Regan's legacy includes the land he acquired in the name of the Catholic Church. But in addition to his real estate acquisitions during a difficult economic time for the church, and the collapse of the real estate market in 1857, he is remembered in the written record as an Irishman who discriminated against his French congregations. In a flurry of editorials and letters to the editors of the Chicago press, complaints abound from French Chicagoans. His very public problems with the French parishioners escalated to a removal from Kankakee, Illinois, then an excommunication from the Catholic Church, of a Rev. Charles Chiniquy. Leading up to his excommunication from the church, in 1856 Rev. Chiniquy was brought to court in Kankakee, in a criminal trial he would blame on Bishop O'Regan, relating to illegal land acquisitions in downstate Illinois. After Chiniquy won the case in Kankakee, the prosecutor appealed and another trial was held at a higher court in Urbana, Illinois. In 1857, Abraham Lincoln successfully defended Rev. Chiniquy in the Urbana court.
In 1886, Rev. Chiniquy published the book, 50 Years in the Church of Rome which includes details of his experiences with the Chicago Bishop. On pages 617-619, Chiniquy writes of an 1855 occurrence involving Bishop O'Regan:
From Chicago to Cairo [Illinois], it would have been difficult to go to a single town, without having, 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, or 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, 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!”
. . .
My hope, at first, was that there were many exaggerations in those reports. But they came thicker, day after day, I thought my duty was to go to Chicago, and see for myself, to what extent those rumors 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 festival; and he had transferred them to the cathedral for his own personal use. . . .
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 inferior 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 form the city, for a burial ground, only after they had taken a solemn oath to use it only for the burying of 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 the whole of State of Illinois, had published against our bishop, about this sacrilegious traffic.
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