Diary project provides glimpse into life, work of Chicago’s first bishop

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, February 17, 2022

Father Martin Zielinski teaches a modern church history class at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein seminary in this 2019 file photo. Zielinski has transcribed and annotated a handwritten diary of Bishop William Quarter, the first ordinary of the Diocese of Chicago, written from 1843 until his death in 1848. (Photo provided by Mundelein Seminary)

When Bishop William Quarter, the first ordinary of the Diocese of Chicago, arrived in his see for the first time on May 5, 1844, he had spent more than two weeks traveling from New York. He traveled by boat, rail and stagecoach, arriving in the city on a steamship that sailed between Chicago and St. Joseph, Michigan, regularly in the spring, summer and autumn.

Bishop Quarter, or someone who traveled with him, recorded those details in the diary he kept from 1843 until his death in 1848. The handwritten book was preserved the archdiocesan archives, and transcribing and annotating it has been a scholarly labor of love for Father Martin Zielinski, a retired faculty member at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

Zeilinski’s work is now available on seminary’s 100th anniversary website at

“I wanted it to be a kind of scholarly addition to the 100th anniversary,” Zielinski said.

After all, Bishop Quarter obtained the charter for the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1844, his first year in Chicago.

“He wanted a seminary to make sure that he was developing his own native clergy,” Zielinski said. “That’s something that a lot of bishops of the time did. He was very interested in education.”

The diary isn’t a literary recounting of Bishop Quarter’s days like readers get from writers such as John Adams or Anne Frank; it’s more bulletin-style, with notes on where the bishop went, ordinations and confirmations, and several notes on the weather. At some points, it appears that someone else — such as  Bishop Quarter’s brother and vicar general, Father Walter Quarter — has taken over the diary, and at one point, there are no entries at all for several months.

Zielinski said the diary gives the impression of a hardworking and dedicated priest, a bishop who made the effort to visit all parts of his diocese, which at that time included the entire state of Illinois.

“He had some interesting observations,” Zielinski said. “He talks about being down in the southwest part of the state and how flooded everything is. There was a huge flood of the Mississippi that year, and he was seeing the effects of it. You wish he had taken the time to expand some of his entries, maybe a little more description of the Catholic communities he visited. … That could have been just tiredness. He might have had more to say if he felt stronger.”

The diary also offers a peek at the conflicts Bishop Quarter had to manage, including one with some of the lay Catholics who were in Chicago before the diocese was formed.

“One of the issues that was very true of the American Catholic church in the 1830s and 1840s is the issue lay trusteeism,” said Zielinski, who taught modern church history at Mundelein. “The Catholic laity was often there before the priests or even the bishops. The laity would on their own get together and purchase property and establish a church, and if a priest came along, they would hire him.”

They would run the parish usually with a board of trustees. Then, when a bishop was named, the lay trustees wanted a say — maybe the final say — in matters such as the selection of the pastor.

“This was what the bishops saw as a usurpation of their authority,” Zielinski said. “But the trustees were asking, ‘Why don’t people have more of a direct say in the governance of the church?’ That was one of the reasons there were often tensions between bishops and laypeople, and this was a tension that Quarter was familiar with from New York. One of the earliest things he did was to establish a corporation sole, so all the property was in his name rather than in the name of a board of trustees.”

He also had to deal with some disappointment from German-speaking Catholics — likely the majority of Catholics in Illinois in the 1840s — who wanted German-speaking bishop.

The diary ends with an account of his death apparently written by his brother, and several additional entries made before the next bishop, James O. Van de Velde, who did speak German, arrived the following year.

Bishop Quarter’s death was sudden, and, by the description of the symptoms, may have been caused by a brain aneurysm, Zielinski said.

The diary was published at least once before, as part of an 1895 book celebrating the jubilee of Archbishop Patrick Feehan, Chicago’s first archbishop. That version was edited by Father James McGovern, and left out a few passages, including those involving disputes with contractors building the cathedral.

“There are enough examples that I think it’s notable,” Zielinski said. “I don’t know if he thought in some way it would diminish the reputation of Quarter to include those entries. You include them for the transparency and the honesty of what happened. Some of them were mundane things.”

In any case, Zielinski’s annotated version is far more accessible on the internet than McGovern’s.

“I hope it gives people a chance to kind of see, what were the early years of like for the diocese,” he said. “It’s not an in-depth view, it’s a snapshot. What are some of the issues that he had? How did he deal with them?”


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