Catholicism and Community: Mountain Missions and "New" Immigrants In Appalachia

Border States Home Page Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 10 (1995)


Margaret Ripley Wolfe
East Tennessee State University

"Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file," wrote Frederick Jackson Turner, the eminent historian of the eighteenth-century American Trans-Allegheny frontier; "the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer--and the frontier is passed."1 Even as Turner penned these very words, the region around the famous gap, in rugged mountain terrain where the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia merge, was experiencing a new frontier. "Stand at Cumberland Gap" in the late nineteenth century and again "watch the procession of civilization, marching single file"--surveyors, geologists, railroad men, coal operators, and journalists; "fotched-on" women,2 moonshiners, Catholic priests, and Protestant missionaries; southern blacks, the native mountain whites, and the foreign-born--Italians and Hungarians as well as an assortment of other ethnic groups.3 Southern Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century was not a melting pot, but it was an ethnic smorgasbord. For approximately four decades, this region, historically somewhat irreligious but nonetheless susceptible to evangelical Protestantism, witnessed a significant Catholic presence.

During the 1880s, capitalists, largely from the northeastern United States and sometimes in league with local entrepreneurs, launched systematic exploitation of mineral resources in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and parts of West Virginia.4 The marketing of coal from the newly opened mines and coke from the beehive-style ovens required a transportation system to link the Appalachian wilderness with the American Midwest and East Coast. The advent of the mining industry in the region sparked extensive railroad construction, which, without sophisticated earth-moving equipment, made brutal demands on human labor. From the perspective of the capitalists, the grueling, dangerous work of railroad construction, coke-drawing, and mining seemed ready-made for immigrants. Coincidentally and advantageously for developers operating in Southern Appalachia, southern and eastern Europe flooded the United States with millions of newcomers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5

The transformation that began around Cumberland Gap during the late 1880s was much in keeping with development throughout the region. "In 1888, the hamlet of Cumberland Gap . . . was an isolated and lonely spot in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains . . . thirteen miles from a railroad," wrote one observer, Alexander A. Arthur. A Scotch­Canadian and a distant relative of United States President Chester A. Arthur, Alexander Arthur enlisted the support of British investors and organized The American Association, Limited. This company linked the gap to the outside world by rail, built the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and established the nearby residential suburb of Harrogate, Tennessee, before suffering major financial setbacks during the depression of the 1890s.6

The gigantic undertaking required hundreds of laborers to alter the face of the land. Blacks, Italians, and native whites worked like the devil during the day and raised hell at night. Conditions resembled those of a "frontier town or gold-rush settlement in the Far West," wrote Charles Blanton Roberts, Arthur's secretary. Large numbers carried pistols; "killings were common, and not in frequently several men would fall in a single fight." On Virginia soil near the intersection of the three states lay "Hell's Half Acre," marked by drinking, gambling, carousing, and debauchery.7 Construction camps seemed even rowdier than settled mining communities where coal operators discouraged the use of alcohol and attempted to maintain order, but drinking, fights, and killings were fairly commonplace all the same. Paydays, Saturday nights, and special holidays including the ethnic observances usually produced a rash of property destruction, personal injuries, and even deaths.

From the 1880s through the 1910s, thousands of immigrants found their way into the remote mining and construction camps of Southern Appalachia. Just off the boat, unable to speak English, anxious for work, and ignorant of their destination, they often fell easy prey to labor agents--usually of their own ethnic background--who promised them steady employment and regular pay. Once in the Southern Appalachians, they were cut off from the ethnic enclaves of the large northeastern and midwestern cities that have generally been regarded by immigration historians as highly valuable in the assimilation process.8 Their numbers were relatively sparse compared to the teeming neighborhoods of large urban areas, and the sense of alienation was exacerbated by the isolation and remoteness of industrial outposts in the southern mountains. Furthermore, the single males or males without their families who comprised a significant proportion of foreign-born workers proved highly transient.9

While there were some Protestants among the "new" immigrants in the Appalachian region, for many of them the one familiar institution was the Catholic Church. Mountain missions maintained principally by German priests of the Benedictine order from St. Bernard Abbey at Cullman, Alabama,10 responded to the immigrants. Catholicism served as a refuge and as a nucleus for some semblance of ethnic community. The formalism that generally characterizes the Catholic faith could not be grafted onto the Appalachian social setting of this era, but the opportunity for these immigrants to practice their religion through infant baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funeral rites, and observances of religious holidays provided them an important remnant of their Old-World heritage. This was important in their adjustment to a new environment.

Although these remote but rapidly­developing industrial enclaves fell within the boundaries of the dioceses of Covington, Kentucky, and Wheeling, West Virginia, the bishops generally had located resident priests in only a very few of the major towns where small congregations had existed for many decades. Periodically the bishops sent priests to minister to scattered Catholics in even more remote locations. Even then, the appearance of large numbers of Catholic laborers in the 1880s placed a strain on the regular dioceses, but the bishops attempted to find the means to serve this new constituency. As early as 1882, The bishop of the Covington diocese had no priest to send to Jellico, a new town that had grown up on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, but asked a clergyman from Knoxville, Tennessee, to make occasional visits and offer Mass for Catholics there.11

The dedication of St. Boniface Catholic Church and parsonage took place during the autumn of 1886 at Jellico, and it soon became the mission center or mother church for the southwestern section of the Covington diocese. Other small sanctuaries soon appeared in eastern Kentucky, among them St. Anthony's at Pineville in 1889, St. Julian's at Middlesboro in 1892 (a new brick church which began as a frame structure in 1889), and St. Casimir at Van Lear in 1911. As industrial development proceeded, the number of Catholics rose accordingly. Consequently, the bishop of the Covington diocese enlisted the services of the Benedictine Fathers from St. Bernard Abbey at Cullman in 1899. An agreement with Benedict Menges, the abbot at St. Bernard's, gave the Benedictines responsibility for Whitley, Knox, and Bell counties. The Benedictines soon placed resident priests of their own order at Jellico and Middlesboro.12

The bishop of the Wheeling diocese, whose jurisdiction took in southwest Virginia, also called upon the Benedictines. A railroad accident in 1902, which cost a man both of his legs, brought the first Benedictine priest into Wise County, Virginia. The Reverend Ambrose Reger, having arrived in Middlesboro, Kentucky, only two days earlier, answered the sick call. Shortly thereafter, he received a request from the small mining town of Stonega to baptize several children. Because it was irregular to enter the territory of another diocese without permission, he wrote to the bishop of Wheeling to determine if there were a priest responsible for Stonega. The bishop, confronted with a shortage of personnel, promptly granted him the faculties of the diocese and asked him to look after the Catholics in southwest Virginia. From July to December 1902, the bishop of Wheeling, the abbot at St. Bernard's, priests, and coal company officials dealt with formalities; and by the end of the year, Stonega had its first resident priest, Father Vincent Haegle, perhaps the most popular priest ever to work in the southwest Virginia mining district. The Reverend Augustine Palm, an assistant missionary, joined "Father Vinz," as the Hungarians called him, and ministered to surrounding mining camps. Eventually, churches, financed partially by the coal companies and also by the offerings of the miners, appeared at Glamorgan, Dorchester, and Toms Creek. Father Joseph Stangl, another of the Benedictines, labored physically to build sanctuaries, wielding "broom or brush, ax and sledge hammer to solidify his foundations," thereby perpetuating "his name . . . in the altars, towers and walls" of the churches "and in the very stone steps leading up to the humble temples in the coal field."13

Father Vincent subsequently moved to Pocahontas, Virginia, where he and Father Anthony Hoch ministered to a large Hungarian congregation. Indeed, Father Anthony had been sent by the Benedictine Order to Hungary to study the Magyar language and the customs and character of the Hungarians to prepare for this mission station. Father Vincent, who did not initially speak the languages of the different ethnic groups around Stonega, still had "found means and ways to make himself understood," and the coal company "used his services freely as an interpreter and go between. His word was law to both sides and his decision as a rule was final in any kind of settlement." Another priest in the district, the Reverend Robert Reitmeier, a native of Bohemia, "acquired a perfect mastery of the Slavonic idiom," but his fondness for strong drink marred his ministry. He left the mountains and the Church, reportedly headed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.14

The Benedictine fathers responded to the full range of human joys and miseries, and they suffered hardships and deprivations alongside their congregations. The Reverend Clarence Meyer, who worked among first- and second-generation Italian immigrants in southeastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee from 1926 to 1932, described prevailing conditions. Although "they did not have the facilities to practice their religion formally, . . . they considered it a must to have their children baptized and to marry and be buried in the Catholic Rite," he remembered. "The church in Jellico, Tennessee, with its adjoining Catholic Cemetery was unofficially their religious center and they considered laying to rest the remains of their deceased in that cemetery an obligation." He recalled officiating "in the commitment of many who were killed in the mines" and noted that "since the people could not come to the priest by reason of lack of transportation, . . . the priest would do the best to come to them." "My practice." he added, "was to pack my bags, hitch a ride on a railroad as far as I could and then walk the railroad track or ride a mule to wherever my destination was and then have religious services in some home."15

Although the bishops of the Covington and Wheeling dioceses had sometimes visited the mountain missions and retained an administrative interest in them, the Benedictine fathers, not the diocesan priests, served Catholic immigrants in the coal camps of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia from the 1890s until the 1930s. Native white Appalachians made them feel subject to considerable gossip and speculation about their personal conduct, some of which was justified and most of which was not. Nonetheless, for the most part, the Fathers gave a good account of themselves and fulfilled two distinctive functions. First, they operated on a very basic human level. Even in the rugged, isolated mountains of southern Appalachia, they provided some comfort and security, "a rock and a hiding place," for those who had carried their religion across an ocean and clung to it in an area basically hostile toward them and their faith. Hugh W. Clement, company doctor at Toms Creek during the 1920s, remembered that "priests, usually stationed at Dante or Norton were very attentive, and responded quickly to their people's call. The younger people rarely attended Sunday services, but in case of marriage, sickness, or death the priest was always called and he responded promptly." "Sometimes," remarked Clement, "even the Protestants would call the priest in case of impending death; the rationale being . . . any port in a storm."16 Furthermore, the priests contributed to the assimilation process. Their abilities to communicate in native dialects and their offerings of familiar rites provided a bridge from the past to the future for these Catholic immigrants as they attempted to adjust in the strange environment of a new nation.

The Southern Appalachian region is noted for its Anglo-Saxon population and rock-ribbed Protestantism,17 and the injection of this Catholic religious experience of "new" immigrants was a relatively short-lived aberration in this mountain region. During the 1920s, a Benedictine priest observed that "at occasions like First Communion, Confirmation or dedication of a new church, the outpouring of Catholics is quite a revelation and one would imagine to live for the time in a village o£ the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire."18 Two decades later, however, in the same vicinity, two Glenmarian priests estimated that not more than 150 Catholics could be found around Norton, Virginia, the heart of the southwest Virginia coal­mining region, an area that possessed an estimated total population of 175,000.19

These statements reflect the boom-bust cycle of the coal industry. During the 1920s and 1930s, the fortunes of the industry collapsed in Southern Appalachia, diminishing employment possibilities for unskilled labor. The almost insatiable demand that began in the 1880s and continued into the l910s had abated, and the great majority of "new" immigrants left the region, usually making their way to the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. During the boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, when industrialists actively recruited immigrant labor, Catholicism flowered.


1. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, with a foreword by Ray Allen Billington, reprint ed. (Huntington, New York: Robert E. Krieger, 1976), 12.

2. "Fotched-on" women was a colloquialism peculiar to eastern Kentucky. It refers to women reformers--missionaries, nurses, and teachers--who came to work among the mountain people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

3. The following sources make important contributions to the understanding of Appalachia's rediscovery and development during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia On Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978); Ronald D [sic] Eller, Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the American South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, ]982); and David E. Whisnant, All That is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

4. See, for example, John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press); Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American City (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987); and Eugene A. Conti, Jr., "The Cultural Role of Local Elites in the Kentucky Mountains: A Retrospective Analysis," Appalachian Journal 7 (Autumn-Winter 1979-1980): 51-68.

5. Numerous studies dealing with American immigration during this era exist. A useful recent source is Alan M. Kraut, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921 (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1982).

6. Charles Blanton Roberts, "The Building of Middlesborough: A Notable Epoch in Eastern Kentucky History," Filson Club Quarterly 7 (January l933): 18­33. Middlesborough was an early spelling, but it is now more common to use Middlesboro.

7. Roberts 22.

8. For an explanation of the ethnic neighborhoods of large American cities as staging grounds in the assimilation process, see Humbert S. Nelli, The Italians in Chicago, 1880-1930: A Study in Ethnic Mobility (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

9. U.S. Congress, Senate, Reports of the Immigration Commission, S. Doc. 633, 61st Cong., 2nd sess., 1909-1910, Immigrants in Industry: The Bituminous Coal Mining Industry in the South, 5: 148, 153, 155.

10. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 ed., s.v. "St. Bernard College," by R. L. Lohr.

11. Paul E. Ryan, History of the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Diocese (n.p.: The Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, 1954), 346.

12. Ibid., 347, 350, 351, and 355; and James Hayden Siler, "A History of Jellico, Tennessee," [mimeographed copy], 1938, 29, in the possession of the author.

13. From loose documents and files on the mountain missions of the Wheeling Diocese and correspondence between the Abbot at St. Bernard Abbey and the Bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, West Virginia, 1902-1932, St. Bernard Abbey, Cullman, Alabama.

14. Ibid.

15. Recollections of the Reverend Clarence Meyer O.S.B. [unpublished manuscript], 1974, in the possession of the author.

16. 29. Recollections of Dr. Hugh W. Clement [unpublished typescript], 1975, in the possession of the author.

17. Two very popular accounts that have perpetuated this interpretation are Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963); and Jack E. Weller, Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press. 1965).

18. "Sacred Heart Church of Stonega and Missions," [typescript], 4, St. Bernard Abbey, Cullman, Alabama.

19. "The Story of St. Anthony's in Norton," [typescript], 1, St. Anthony Catholic Church, Norton, Virginia.

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