Remembering Father Peter C. Yorke’s large and loud” defense of the faith and anti-immigrant bigotry

By Christina Gray

Nearly 100 years after his death, Irish-born Father Peter C. Yorke (1864-1925) is still remembered in the Archdiocese of San Francisco for his fierce and feisty defense of the Catholic faith, Irish nationalism and immigrant laborers.

“He was a very large and loud spokesman for the Catholic faith and the labor movement in San Francisco,” Vicar General Father Stephen Howell told Catholic San Francisco days ahead of an annual gravesite service that took place at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma on April 2, Palm Sunday.

Father Yorke died on Palm Sunday, and the service has been held at Holy Cross Cemetery on Palm Sunday every year since then.

Pictured: Father Peter Yorke

The Galway-born priest was an eloquent foe of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-labor bigotry, said Father Howell, who as a student at the University of San Francisco, did a paper on Father Yorke for a graduate seminar on California history. The priest was also a great supporter of Irish nationalism and of the Irish independence movement.

One of Father Howell’s instructors, Father Joseph Brusher, S.J., had published a book in 1973 called, “Consecrated Thunderbolt: The Life of Father Peter C. Yorke of San Francisco. The moniker is an apt description of Father Yorke’s tireless, often confrontational zeal for the faith, and his defense of local laborers oppressed for being Catholic foreigners.

 Father Howell’s family roots are in San Francisco’s immigrant-rich Mission District. His family parish, St. Anthony, a German-national parish, was located not far from St. Peter Parish, the focal point of Father Yorke’s pastoral ministry to working class Irish Catholics after the turn of the century. A block up Bernal Heights was Immaculate Conception Parish, an Italian national parish.  All three served the working-class Catholic immigrant community.

 “That was a time when there was still a fair amount of anti-Catholic sentiment in our country,” said Father Howell.

According to Father Howell, Father Yorke battled the vestiges of the “Know-Nothing Party,” an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political movement of the mid-to late-1800’s and its successor, the American Protective Association.  Though these movements eventually died out as formal organizations, their influence was still seen in early 20th century San Francisco, said Father Howell.

“One could still find help wanted signs that advised, ‘No Irish Need Apply,’” he said. “This was the same as saying No Catholics.”

 Memorial to a warrior priest

When Father Yorke died in 1925, he was pastor of St. Peter Parish, where he also started thriving boys and girls high schools. The parish rectory was also the site of union meetings led by Father Yorke during one of the longest strikes in state history.

 “It has been said that the funeral cortege for Father Yorke was arriving at the gates of Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma just as the last of the cortege was leaving St. Peter’s Church 10 miles away.  There were that many people in the procession,” said Father Howell. 

 As Father Howell succinctly put it, “He was a priest of and for the people he served.”

According to director of Catholic Cemeteries, Monica Williams, the annual service is run under the auspices of the United Irish Societies, and co-sponsored by labor organizations, Carpenters Local Union 22 and United Here Local 2.

Officiants vary from year to year, she said, but it is nearly always a priest connected to the Irish Community. Father Brendan McBride, liaison for the Irish community and head of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, led this year’s service.

A service was held April 2 to honor Father Peter Yorke.

According to Williams, in the years immediately after Father Yorke’s death, then-Irish president Eamon DeValera even traveled to Holy Cross for the memorial service.

This year, as in previous years, the Pearse and Connolly Fife and Drum Band and the San Francisco Irish Pipers Band played for a procession that included the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshall and the Irish Consul General. Occasionally, great-great-great nieces and nephews of Father Yorke are in attendance. 

At the gravesite this year, a poem called “Warrior Priest,” author unknown, was read, according to Williams, and a wreath placed on the tomb. A reception at Molloy’s, an Irish pub up the block from Holy Cross in Colma, followed.

 A short biography

 In his “Encyclopedia of California Catholic Heritage, 1769-1999,” Father Francis J. Weber describes the trajectory of Father Yorke’s 38-year priestly ministry and its lasting impact.

Father Peter Yorke served many roles in the Archdiocese of
San Francisco.

Peter Christopher Yorke was born in coastal Galway, Ireland. After completing his seminary formation in Baltimore, he was ordained for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1887. Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, soon recognized his potential and named him chancellor and editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, “The Monitor.” 

Young Father Yorke took up his pen in defense of the Church against several anti-Catholic publications. His fiery conviction and skill as a writer made “The Monitor” the best known and most-widely read Catholic weekly in America. 

His editorial voice sounded a death-knell to the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant secret society founded in 1887 as a a successor in spirit and outlook to the pre-Civil War Know-Nothing Party. 

However, said Father Howell, the Irish priest could also be passionate and outspoken. He often found himself at odds with Archbishop Riordan, and was eventually removed as editor of the newspaper. Father Yorke started his own newspaper shortly thereafter, “The Leader,” a newspaper dedicated to the cause of labor and Irish independence.

Father Brusher, the biographer who dubbed Father Yorke a “consecrated thunderbolt,” surmised that despite very different leadership styles, there seemed to have been a mutual respect, even affection, between the two churchmen. “San Francisco was just too small for two such forceful personalities,” Father Brusher wrote.

 Contributions to Catholic workers, education

Archbishop Riordan assigned Father Yorke to St. Peter Church in 1903. His catechisms on Christian doctrine were already being used in much of the nation’s Catholic school system by that time. He eventually founded the National Catholic Educational Association.

With a parishioner base made up almost entirely of working-class immigrants, Father Yorke took up the cause of the Catholic worker. He challenged the local titans of industry with the teachings in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, “Rerum Novarum: The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” written in 1891. 

The St. Peter rectory served as a gathering place for strike leaders, and the priest took out full-page advertisements quoting Pope Leo in saying unions were the “most important means” by which workers could better their conditions.

Father Yorke became an active union spokesperson and leader in one of the longest strikes in state history. Today, his portrait still hangs in the Teamster’s Union Hall in San Francisco.

Archbishop Edward J. Hanna, eulogized Father Yorke at his funeral at St. Peter Church, April 8, 1925. It read, in part:

 “He has imposed upon us a task that we must follow even unto the end. Like him, we must battle for the rights of Catholic men in this land to which we have consecrated our energy; like him, we must stand for the poor and the downtrodden; like him we must uphold the banner of Christian education, for in it, and in it alone, is our hope of salvation.”

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco archives and Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery.