Rev. Fr. Dennis Dunne
Father Dennis Dunne, who became vicar general of the Diocese of Chicago.
The Dunne family, led by Patrick William Dunne and Amelia Marcella Malone, came to Miramichi in 1825 from Stradbally in County Laois, Ireland. Settling in Chatham, they attended St. Patrick’s Church in Nelson.
Their first years in the area were very difficult. Daughter Bridget, aged only seventeen, died on September 26, having been overwhelmed by the rigorous sea voyage. A little more than a week later, on October 7, the Great Miramichi Fire destroyed a huge territory and claimed hundreds of lives. The Dunnes were among those who fled into the Miramichi River, in order to survive the fiery tempest.
Two years after the death of his father in 1839, Dennis Dunne, the youngest son of the family, left Miramichi to attend St. Andrew’s College outside of Charlottetown. This was the only Catholic institution for higher education in the Maritimes, at that time. While there, he met with Bishop William Quarter of Chicago, who was searching for seminarians for his new diocese.
Mr. Dunne responded to the bishop’s call and entered the Grand Seminary of Quebec in the fall of 1845, under the patronage of Bishop Quarter. Unfortunately, the bishop would pass away before Mr. Dunne’s studies were complete, and he would be ordained in Detroit on December 10, 1848.
His first assignment was as a professor in the University of St. Mary’s of the Lake — a private Roman Catholic seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He would then minister in Illinois for some years, before becoming pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago in 1854.
The church, which would become closely identified with the city’s Irish settler population and its culture, was unfinished at the time of Fr. Dunne’s arrival. A year after his arrival, he was named as vicar general of the diocese, a position he would hold for most of the rest of his life.
Generally speaking, Fr. Dunne was known for his personal popularity, and for his extensive and beneficial influence on both his congregation, and his fellow clergy. He was said to have been of possessed of great energy, and took on tasks readily, not wishing to be cowed by the seeming enormity of any project.
He would oversee the completion of St. Patrick’s Church, and would conduct its dedication service on Christmas Day in 1856. In the final days of 1857, he helped to found the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Patrick’s, which made it the first parish in the city to found a society created specifically to serve the needs of the poor.
In 1861, when the Holy Cross Fathers left the parish school at St. Patrick’s, Fr. Dunne reached out to the Christian Brothers in St. Louis, and four brothers came to Chicago in September of that year. This would begin a relationship between the Christian Brothers, and St. Patrick’s Academy, that would last for more than a century and a half.
Fr. Dunne undertook a recruitment of a different kind in 1862, when he encouraged the formation of the 90th Illinois Volunteer Infantry for service in the American Civil War. He worked towards the regiment’s formation not only for reasons of patriotism, but also as he was aware of the criticism that Irish Catholics did not support of the Union against the Southern States’ Confederacy. The regiment would be alternatively known as “The Irish Legion” or “Father Dunne’s Regiment.” The soldiers raised participated in major battles at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in General William T. Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea,” where they were instrumental in the capture of Fort McAllister at Savannah, Georgia.
In 1863, an attack of typhoid fever left Fr. Dunne very low; it was said that he never fully recovered his full health afterwards. Better news arrived in 1865, when the Sacred College of Rome conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.
Towards the end of his life, Fr. Dunne had a disagreement with Bishop James Duggan of Chicago over diocesan support for the University of St. Mary of the Lake, where Fr. Dunne had previously been a professor.
Some have attributed Fr. Dunne’s removal from St. Patrick’s in 1868 to this disagreement, adding that Bishop Duggan would be institutionalized the following year, due to concerns over his mental health. It seems clear that neither man was well, and Fr. Dunne would pass on Sunday December 23rd, 1868 at the age of 44