By Christina Fisanick
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling, Virginia, was just four years old on January 4, 1854 when Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, Papal Nuncio, arrived in town. Bedini, the Pope’s representative, had been sent to the United States on a six-month tour and was invited to visit Wheeling by the Bishop of the new Diocese of Wheeling, The Most Rev. Richard V. Whelan. Unfortunately, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments were running high throughout the country and Bedini was greeted by mixed crowds of grateful Catholics and angry, violent protesters in every city on his tour, including Wheeling.
An article in The Wheeling Intelligencer reported that on Saturday, January 7, Wheeling streets were peppered with handbills encouraging residents to speak up and fight back against Bedini and all that he represented. James Connelly included two of those handbills in his book, The Visit of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini to the United States of America (June 1853-February 1854):
Freeman, Arise! Bedini, the Butcher of Italian Patriots, the Tyrant of Italy is in our city! Aye, the guest of the Catholic Bishop. He is on a mission through our Union as a kind of Papal Ambassador and should nowhere be tolerated by American Freeman, as he is not worthy to breathe the free air of this Country, yet he is feted everywhere by the Jesuits, to the great annoyance of free American citizens.
Americans! Citizens of the greatest and most liberal Republic on earth, do not disgrace your reputation by tolerating such a monster as Bedini in your midst. Do not shelter one who has murdered the patriots of Italy! Give us your cooperation and help us to destroy the secret plans of the Roman missionary. The blood of the martyrs of freedom, the tears of widows and orphans, the poor down-trodden people of Italy call for revenge! Let them have it. Drive this monster back to his bloody master that sends him! Come one, come all and let the cry of the city be heard - Down with Bedini.
Although the events surrounding Bedini’s Wheeling visit are somewhat clouded by deliberate obfuscation and general excitement, what is known is that like in every other major city he visited, protesters were determined to make their hatred for him, the papacy, Catholics, and immigrants known.
That Saturday evening a dinner was held by women parishioners in Wheeling’s Washington Hall to raise funds to pay for the completion of St. Joseph’s Cathedral and its steeple. The Intelligencer reported that a large mob had assembled outside of the hall chanting and frightening dinner attendees with “occasional whoops and hallos.” Wheeling legend tells that Bishop Whelan, who had reached out to and was denied help from the mayor of Wheeling, urged the Irish Catholics of Wheeling and Ritchietown to take up arms and guard Bedini and protect the Cathedral. (This story is later supported by other accounts.)
The dinner was over around 11:00 PM and the diners dispersed to their homes. The protesters, unsatisfied that their threats had made any impact, moved en masse from Washington Hall to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. According to The Intelligencer, which condemned the protests, the crowd was composed mostly of boys, who threw rocks and broke cathedral windows. It is clear from other accounts, though, that the newspaper’s coverage of the incident trivialized the severity of the events that night.
Among those accounts, the original founders of Mount De Chantal Visitation Academy tells of a frightening evening spent hiding and praying for their safety and the safety of the Cathedral and Bedini. Mount de Chantal was founded in 1848 when Bishop Whelan invited Visitation Sisters from Baltimore to open a school for girls called the Wheeling Female Academy. The school’s original location was at 14th and Eoff streets, which was not far from Washington Hall and St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
On the evening of the protests, the sisters hid in the dark and prayed all night as the crowd’s threats carried up from the streets below. Their account appears in an unpublished journal simply titled, “History of Our Convent 1848,” now held in the Archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. It is unknown when it was written or by whom, but it is clear that the author had collected stories from sisters who was present that frightening evening.
In her account, the crowd (which numbers from between 200-400 people based on various reports) went to Washington Hall in search of Bedini, who was “supposed to be there.” When they did not find him, “they began to insult the people present. Many persons were alarmed and ran home fearing for their lives.” She then corroborates what had been just a blip in an Intelligencer article, “The Pope’s effigy was burned by the boys, who hollered “Down with the Pope,” “Hang him up!” and so on.” Not finished with their mission, the crowd then turned towards the Bishop’s residence and the church “and threatened to burn the house and the church if the Nuncio was not given up.”
This enthralling narrative continues and goes on to support the legend that the bishop called for community backup. When city officials failed to come to their aid, “a body of faithful Catholics, Irish and German, had entered the Cathedral basement in the back way to defend the church, their beloved pastor, and the Nuncio.” Remarkably, she adds, Bishop Whelan is present directing the assembled protectors to be quiet: “’Don’t mind the mob throwing a few stones but if they attempt to enter then you may attack the mob.’”
Meanwhile, the sisters huddled together in their convent, which was next door to the Cathedral. The writer continues: “Our fears can be easier imagined than described.” The sisters could clearly hear the protestors “wild speeches” as they shouted, “Perhaps the Nuncio is in the convent. Down with nuns and priests.” As the night wore on, their fears escalated:
The old sisters say that no one slept that night as frightened Mother Michelle ordered
all lights to be put out. Oh, how we prayed that night.
Although everyone made it through until morning unscathed, an attack on Bedini was planned as he attempted to flee town. Various accounts report just how he made it to safety. Some say that Bishop Whelan came out to speak to the mob and asked them what they wanted. They shouted for Bedini. Bishop Whelan then disappeared into the safety of the cathedral during which time the Nuncio was loaded into a carriage behind the church. Before embarking, the bishop returned to the crowd, this time accompanied by a Bedini imposter. The crowd’s thirst for the Nuncio allowed the real Bedini to escape unscathed to the train station, a pattern he would repeat in more than one city before finally leaving the United States on February 4.
It is easy to forget the extreme challenges the Sisters of the Visitation faced in building Mount De Chantal Academy. The original eight sisters traveled from Baltimore to Wheeling during a time when much of the country beyond the Ohio River was wilderness and roads were mere cow paths rutted by wagon wheels. In fact, they arrived two years before the B&O would connect Baltimore and Wheeling at Rosby’s Rock.
These brave women were called by Bishop Whelan to build a school for girls in the new diocese of Wheeling, Virginia. The night the Nuncio was chased out of town by an angry mob the founding sisters of Mount De Chantal stood their ground and prayed, a stance they would take again and again as they faced threats of school closure, changing societal views about Catholicism, and so much more. That legacy would continue for 160 years.
Christina Fisanick, PhD is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative nonfiction, and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including the memoir, The Optimist Food Addict (MSI Press, 2016) and the guide, Public History as Digital Storytelling (Routledge Press, 2020). She is also the author of dozens of articles, essays, and poems, including nearly sixty pieces about Wheeling history, which have appeared at Archiving Wheeling, Weelunk, InWheeling
magazine, and The Intelligencer. Christina lives in Wheeling with her son and two cats. She can be found online at https://christinafisanick.com/