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The Missionary Priest

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the Dominican Order assigned Father Samuel Mazzuchelli as the first Catholic missionary to the newly-opened lands along the Upper Mississippi Valley in 1835, he soon learned that the first sound of civilization was not always the ring of axes deep in the woods, as some supposed. Often, that sound was preceded by the wild howls of Methodist and Baptist ministers.

Father Mazzuchelli soon adapted to the usual frontier hardships—the winters, the isolation, the slow travel by canoe, horse, and on foot, the lack of roads and dwellings, wild animals. But the loud exhortations of Methodists scouring every clearing for new settlers they could convert remained frightening to the young priest.

There they were, he said, deep in the wilderness, with scant doctrine, no theology, and no sense of church history. "Their eloquence," he complained, consists much in loud speaking, in quoting the Bible in any sense that may suit them, in pronouncing the name of Jesus innumerable times, in violently censuring sinners, then inviting them to convert."

The howling only grew more and more frightening for Father Mazzuchelli. Both Methodists and Baptists seemed to be aided by a kind of magic which allowed them to weep at will, and then move on to "loud cries, prayers, exclamations, sobs, frenzies, trembling, sweats and contortions," all of which had a remarkable effect on the young, on fanatics, on hypocrites, and especially on the weaker sex.

As far as Father Mazzuchelli was concerned, it was an uneven contest. All a minister needed was a Bible, while a frontier priest had to carry around vestments, an altar, an altar stone, and crucifixes, chalices and missals.

The protestant exhorters left Father Mazzuchelli little time to seek converts of his own. He had all he could do to hurry up and down the Mississippi Valley locating the few minority Catholic settlers, keeping them safe from Methodists and steadfast in the faith, and gathering them into small congregations for mass.

In this, he proved a good and faithful servant. By the time he died from a cold caught while visiting a dying parishioner, Father Mazzuchelli had established 21 Catholic churches along the Mississippi Valley, many of which he had designed and built himself.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.