Anthony Dominic Fahy, Irish Chaplain of Argentina

As you enter the main gate of the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, continue walking straight in and on the right side perhaps within 100 yards, you will find a monument, the burial place of Almirante Guillermo (Admiral William) Brown, the Irishman who is considered to be the Father of the Argentine navy. On the left side, a bit further in, you will find an ornate monument with an angel facing forward and holding a plaque in his hands that simply says “Father Fahy”. This is the burial place of Father Anthony Dominic Fahy, OP, the most famous Irishman in nineteenth century Argentina.

Anthony Fahy (or Fahey as he himself preferred, but it never stuck) was born in Louchrea, Co. Galway on January 11, 1805. His parents, Patrick Fahy and Belinda Cloran were proprietors of a brewery in the town. They had seven children before Patrick passed away. Belinda subsequently married a cousin of her first husband also surnamed Fahy in 1816 and they had 3 children. Of Belinda's ten children, five went into the priesthood or religious life. At age 22 Anthony entered the Dominican Order and did his novitiate year in Athenry, pronouncing his first vows in August 1829. Then he went on to Rome for his philosophy and theology studies. He was ordained a priest in Rome at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on March 19, 1831. For the next three years he remained in Rome advancing his studies.

In 1834 he was missioned to St. Joseph's in Somerset, Ohio, which was then a backwoods kind of place where the priests had to travel long distances on horseback to reach their flocks. Father Anthony lasted only two years in Ohio, when in 1836, because of “broken health” he returned to Ireland to recuperate. After a two year hiatus, he requested to be sent back to Ohio but his request was denied. Instead he ministered in a parish in Galway for the next three years. In 1839 he was appointed Prior of the Dominican community of Black Abbey in Kilkenny.

Beginning in the 1820's the Archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray, was responsible for sending a priest to minister to the spiritual needs of the growing Irish immigrant community in Argentina. In 1843 this chaplaincy had been vacated but the archbishop didn't have a priest to spare so he requested the bishop of Ossory, William Kinsela, to look for a replacement. Kinsela knew Anthony Fahy and remembering his desire to return to the missions in America, offered him the opportunity in Argentina and he readily accepted. Father Anthony Fahy sailed into Buenos Aires harbor on January 11,1844, his 39th birthday.

At the time of Fahy's arrival in Argentina there were an estimated 3500 Irish people living in Buenos Aires. He took up residence at the Santo Domingo convent and started celebrating Mass at the church of San Ignacio where his predecessor, Father Patrick O' Gorman had made arrangements to have the Irish community gather weekly. Later he relocated the community to the Franciscan chapel of San Roque where there were benches, pulpit, confessional and organ. He also moved into another home given to him rent-free through the generosity of Thomas Armstrong, a wealthy Westmeath-born Protestant who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1817.

Father Fahy's activities on behalf of the Irish community quickly became all encompassing. He made himself available to assist his people in every human capacity, as financial adviser, marriage counselor, judge, interpreter, employment agent and especially as matchmaker. When he saw that there were not enough marriageable women in the Irish community, he wrote back to Ireland and arranged for a large number of young ladies from his own Loughrea area to emigrate to Argentina.

As time progressed Father Fahy achieved numerous accomplishments. In 1847 he launched the Irish Relief Fund to aid famine victims in Ireland which was then in the throes of the great famine. He collected and sent 411 Irish punts to the Archbishop of Dublin. In 1848 he opened the Irish Immigrant Infirmary to assist sick newcomers. So many new arrivals were coming off the transatlantic ships overwhelmed by fatigue, malnourishment, and other ailments from the long journey that he saw this as a necessary response.

In the same letter that Fahy wrote to the Archbishop of Dublin with the famine relief funds, he also strongly encouraged that more Irish people consider immigrating to Argentina. He wrote:

"May God bring Irish immigrants to this country instead of going to the United States. Here they will feel at home, will have plenty of work and experience the friendliness of the local people; very different from what they are experiencing in the U.S. Which forces them back to Ireland. There is no better country in the world to come especially with a poor family. The vast plains lying idle, eager for hands that want to cultivate. The government offers all kinds of protection and encourages people from abroad."

Fahy also encouraged the poorer laborers who remained living and working in the city of Buenos Aires to consider moving out into the pampas (the plains). On his trips to the countryside, he saw that the folks out there were better off than those in the city. He encouraged these city folks to save some money and invest in land and to raise sheep in the countryside. He often even accompanied them on their first visit to the bank to open savings accounts so that they might achieve their goals.

By 1848 it was evident that Fahy was achieving great success in his ministry and outreach to the Irish community of Argentina. He made it his business to know all the right people in high places so that when necessary he could use these contacts to aid the members of the Irish community. However, two matters arose which cast long shadows over his influence and his role in Irish-Argentine society.

The first had to do with a young lady, Camila O' Gorman, a twenty year old from a very well-to-do family who fell in love with a young priest, Ladislao Gutierrez, and became pregnant. The two eloped and traveled north intending to cross into Bolivia or Brazil. Because the president, Juan Manuel de Rosas, a ruthless dictator by this time, saw their actions as an affront to his campaign to uphold his code of morality and honor, he put out the alarm for their capture. They assumed new names and tried to remain hidden. After a time when things had cooled down and the alarm was called off because the authorities thought that they had escaped, they set themselves up as teachers in a remote town still in Argentine territory where they were favorably received. At a party in their honor they were recognized by another priest who turned them in. After a short imprisonment, Rosas the dictator, ordered them to be executed. They had no trial and no opportunity to present testimony. Rosas consulted Father Fahy about the matter and Fahy concurred that such actions warranted “exemplary punishment” for “the priest who had sullied his church and the wayward girl who not only lead a priest astray but also gave the industrious and well regarded Irish-Argentine community a bad name!” 

Camila O' Gorman, eight months pregnant, and Ladislao Gutierrez, the priest, tied to chairs side-by-side were executed by a firing squad in August 1848. Many people were horrified and repulsed by this barbaric act so much so that the dictator never really recovered from this horrific event and four years later fled for his own life to England where he died in poverty.

The second matter also had to do with the dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas. By 1849 the world-at-large had become aware of the ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant who with his iron fist was ruling Argentina. An article in the Dublin Review accused Rosas of great cruelty and unbelievably Fahy wrote a rebuttal in La Gaceta Mercantil (Rosas' official government paper) saying:

“All that is stated in the libel inserted in the Dublin Review in regard to supposed crimes and assassinations of a Mazhorca Society in the service of the police, which are fancied in that production as proved at former periods; all that is said of the profanation of churches and sanctuaries and the other suppositions of this stamp … are but a tissue of contemptible falsehoods.”

Needless to say, Fahy's rebuttal to the Dublin Review article was very well received by Rosas. It was published in two different editions in one week. Then a few days later a special edition was published with the Fahy response and several editorial comments all in Spanish, English and French for world-wide consumption. Fahy had endeared himself to the regime but he must have left many people wondering why he chose to defend Rosas. A man of the gospel condoning the policies and actions of a tyrannical dictator left many people in this Catholic society wondering what was really in Fahy's mind.

But somehow Father Fahy escaped the recriminations of his flock. While they feared and felt only contempt for Juan Manuel de Rosas, Fahy continued to gain the admiration of his people because of his total dedication to their every human need.

In 1854 Father Fahy sent a sizeable sum of money to All Hallows college in Dublin to educate six young priests for the mission in Argentina. He was concerned about the quality of Argentine priests and wanted his priests to be trained in the classical Irish tradition. Of the non-Irish priests he said that they were “adventurers from Europe whose ambition is to make money and often give more scandal to religion than edification.”

Fahy's six new Irish priests began to arrive in 1860. At first he had them stay in his house while they were adjusting to their new environment and learning Spanish. After this orientation period Fahy sent them out to the various areas where the Irish community lived.

At Fahy's behest eight Sisters of Mercy of Baggot Street, Dublin, arrived to a great welcome in February 1856. They were to work in the Irish Immigrant Infirmary. In time the infirmary became transformed into the educational institution called St. Bridget's College. The sisters also opened a girls home, another college, Mater Misericordiae Academy and three more schools in regional towns.

Sometime around 1860, Fahy's outlook took a pessimistic turn on the conditions for the further Irish immigration to Argentina. In a letter back to Ireland he stated that “this is a most unfortunate country … The liberty, or rather unbridled license of the press has corrupted the people dreadfully, and the influx of the dregs of Spain and Italy has added considerably to the immorality of the nation.”

Writing to the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda in Rome in 1861, Fahy said “having resided in this Province for the space of seventeen years, I am able to form a sufficient idea of the wants of the Churches in this Country and the only remedy for its innumerable evils.” He said that Argentines had no real interest in the Church and blamed this on “the philosophy of the last age and all the bad books of France.”

What was happening was that Irish immigrants of the earlier era came and worked hard to save some money, and then moved out of the city to buy or rent large tracts of land to raise sheep. Once all the cheap land was bought up, the more recent newcomers who came without capital to invest, could only find work as laborers in the cities or in the countryside and so seemed to have little hope of upward mobility. More recently arrived immigrants were having a tougher time than the earlier ones. This Fahy reflected in his statements such as:

“The Irish are being elbowed out by the Italians. Our people have given themselves entirely to sheep-farming which until recently has been quite profitable as well as easy. But the best land for grazing is also the best land for tillage, and the Italian comes and offers a higher rent for the land, and so ousts the sheep farmer.”

This is the same cycle that occurred in the American West. Once all the land was claimed, there was no more to buy and to gain wealth from. And so less supply means higher re-sale and rental prices for the land. Add to that the always present difficulty for the newly arrived Irishman to have to learn a new language in this new land. The Italian could pick up the Spanish language more easily and so had less of a disadvantage. And if he came with some financial resources, he was much better off than the Irish immigrant who was coming with nothing from a country just recuperating from the Great Famine.

By 1870 - 1871 the yellow fever epidemic was rampant in Buenos Aires. More than 13,600 people died. Father Fahy was busy ministering to the sick and the dying when he himself passed away on February 20, 1871. The newspapers reported that he died of yellow fever after ministering to a sick Italian woman. However his death certificate clearly states that “ … he died from heart disease.” His remains were initially entombed in the vault of the diocesan clergy in Recoleta cemetery but later moved over to the monument built by the Earley sculptors of Dublin.

This article first appeared in my Footnotes to Irish History in the Americas blog:

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Tags: Argentina, Catholicism, Faith, South America


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