Raff Ellis had heard the stories about the scandal while serving as an altar boy in Carthage at St. James Church in the 1940s.
The St. James-related tales included those of a power struggle, a fight and a lingering curse.
I heard all the priests talking about it and it always stuck in my mind, Mr. Ellis, a 1948 graduate of Augustinian Academy, Carthage, said. I kept wondering: Whats the true story?
His book of historical fiction, The Bishops Curse, tells that story.
The books subtitle, A battle of wills between a layman, his priest and his bishop in the early American catholic church summarizes tensions in the late 1850s, which culminated in a brawl at the church on the last Sunday of 1860. The Catholic church then imposed an interdict on the church, which closed St. James until 1862.
Mr. Ellis, who was born in Watertown and grew up in Carthage, spent his business career in the computer industry, rising from the ranks of computer programmer to CEO of an information technology research and development firm in his last assignment. He took up his writing career after early retirement.
After writing two other books (Kisses From a Distance and Dam Foolishness), he tackled the story behind The Bishops Curse, published by Prolix Press, an authors cooperative, which includes Mr. Ellis.
It seemed that everybody who knew about the story had a different version, Mr. Ellis said from his home in Orlando, Fla.
Mr. Ellis said many religious historians harshly judged the Carthage congregation for its disobedience to the church.
At the base of the conflict was the makeup of the parish. Its members, Mr. Ellis explains in his books preface, had come to America to escape the persecution, poverty and political impotence endured under their English masters. They were thus loath to relinquish any of their newfound freedoms.
Entering this arena, in 1855, was a young priest, sent by the bishop of the Albany diocese, the Most Rev. John McCloskey. Bishop McCloskey would later become the first American cardinal. In 1847, dioceses in the state expanded from the sole one in New York City to Albany and Buffalo. Jefferson County churches are now overseen by the diocese of Ogdensburg.
With the great influx of Irish immigrants starting after the Revolutionary War, we had an overwhelming number of Irish Catholics coming to America and they didnt have enough priests to service them, Mr. Ellis said. In Carthage, they would see a priest maybe every four months or so. They had circuit riders.
Parishioners at St. James, founded in 1818 and one of the few parishes in the state established by lay people, petitioned the bishop for a priest.
The main petitioner in the book is its protagonist, Richard Gallagher, who became a wealthy citizen of Carthage but who died penniless in 1890.
The bishop is upset that hes being pestered, Mr. Ellis said. He doesnt have a lot of priests to go around, so they start butting heads.
The priest the diocese gets in 1855, the Rev. Michael E. Clarke, was a former resident of Carthage and a former shoemaker.
He decided he wanted to become a priest, Mr. Ellis said. He went off and got ordained and so forth and when the opening came in Carthage, locals wrote the bishop requesting him.
But Father Clarke didnt sit well with the locals.
It turns out he was very doctrinaire, mimicking his bishop. Hes an enemy of Gallagher right off, Mr. Ellis said.
That heavy-handed doctrine pushed by Bishop McCloskey, Mr. Ellis said, was something St. James parishioners wanted no connections to.
He threatened people who disobeyed the church with serious consequences, Mr. Ellis said. He said calamities will befall you. He did that to the people of Carthage.
Mr. Ellis said that when some untoward events began happening in Carthage, people began to whisper, Its the bishops curse.
Mr. Ellis said that eventually Father Clarke tried to usurp the churchs board of trustees. Tensions boiled over on the last Sunday of 1860.
They had a big fist fight in the church, Mr. Ellis said. It was a melee with broken furniture and with them clubbing each other.
Mr. Ellis said that after the fight, three parishioners were excommunicated and the church was closed until 1862. A new church was built on the same West Street site in 1864. The church received its first resident pastor in 1874.
Mr. Ellis said he studied the lives of the people in The Bishops Curse and the period they lived in intensely, including studying several letters preserved in the archives of the Albany diocese. He also spent a week at the New York State Library in Albany poring over microfilm.
I had a good feeling for what they were thinking, how they were behaving and their language, Mr. Ellis said. I immersed myself into the period. I lived the characters.
He visited St. James Cemetery, where many characters in the book are buried. He read many histories of the Albany diocese in which the Carthage scandal was mentioned. He felt the accounts were one-sided.
They were all written by clergymen, Mr. Ellis said. Those that mentioned the scandal all came down on the side of the church. Those apologia didnt ring true for me.
He added, What became clear was that the Roman Catholic Church of that time was still hung-over from the centuries-old Protestant Reformation.
Mr. Ellis said Protestant-run legislatures insisted that separation of church and state be enshrined in state laws. Such laws, Mr. Ellis said, mandated laymen-run trustee systems for all church denominations, but specifically targeted the Catholic church because of its allegiance to the pope in Rome.
They didnt believe that the Catholics were independent of a foreign power, Mr. Ellis said.
The Irish immigrants embraced the trustee system, Mr. Ellis said.
When they came here and saw the notion of freedom and all that goes with it, they became (attracted) to the idea of having a say so in matters they hadnt any before, Mr. Ellis said.
But as he explains in The Bishops Curse, it also led to conflicts.
The author has two brothers who are priests and two sisters serving in convents. He described himself as the black sheep of the family.
He said two priests and a religious historian read The Bishops Curse.
They all loved it, he said.
But he said his tale reminds him of recent church scandals, complete with the circling of the wagons to protect the hierarchy and its cherished authority over the laity.