The travels of Friar William Unterthiner
May 13 – July 23, 1844
175 years later, we trace the journey of a province pioneer.
He stepped off a steamship at 4 in the morning on July 23, 1844, and stepped into history.
The arrival of Tyrolese friar Wilhelm (William) Unterthiner had a seismic impact on the Catholic Church in Cincinnati and on the course of Franciscan life in the United States. Next Tuesday marks the 175th anniversary of that event, a date that friars of St. John the Baptist Province point to with pride.
“Among the founders of our province, the name of Father William Unterthiner shines like a beacon light in the church history of early Cincinnati,” according to the Provincial Chronicle.
Much of what we know about the man is culled from a six-volume set of letters translated from the German by Aldric Heidlage and Pat McCloskey and housed in the Franciscan Archives. The earliest of those letters, written as Unterthiner prepared to leave Europe for America and soon after he arrived in Cincinnati, tell the story of a journey of more than ten weeks and 4,500 miles. Up to that point, this 34-year-old friar had spent most of his life no more than 100 miles from where he was born.
His letters reveal Unterthiner was a keen observer with a talent for travelogue. “Before I leave behind our part of the world, I want to give a short account of my experiences,” he wrote home on May 23, 1844, before setting off on a 43-day crossing of the Atlantic. These are the words of a man who suspects that one chapter of his life is ending, and another has begun. “Now I will retrace my steps from the beginning in Munich.”
Here (in quotes) are excerpts from three of Unterthiner’s letters to his superiors.
We’ve added our own comments to help put his remarkable journey in the context of its time.
May 13, 1844: “We travelled by rail to Augsburg. As a city, Augsburg is very respected and dignified, like an old, experienced lady. Munich resembles a young, pleasing maiden who has fallen in love with her own passing beauty.”
According to Pat McCloskey, Unterthiner was joined by two brothers from the Bavarian province (Arsacius Wieser and Leander Streber); Fr. Johann Raffeiner, vicar general for Germans in the Diocese of New York; and Capuchin Frs. Ambrose Buchmayer and Florian of Fiecht.
May 17: “We went down the beautiful Neckar Valley on the steamship Leopold to Mainz. On the 18th we went to Cologne on the steamship. …We said Mass in the Cologne Cathedral on the 19th. It is certainly a magnificent building both inside and outside. …Although they are working feverishly, it will take at least 40 years to finish it. In places where construction has stopped temporarily, the cathedral looks like a well-preserved ruin. Weeds grow from the half-finished towers, which leaves a very strange impression.”
Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, was completed in 1880, close to Unterthiner’s prediction. Construction, which began in 1248 and was often interrupted, had resumed in 1842.
May 19: “We went to Nijmegen [Netherlands]…the home of St. Peter Canisius. From there we traveled by steamship past Gorcum and Dortrecht to Rotterdam….From there we went by steamship Hamburg to Le Havre in 36 hours….we left the River Maas [Meuse] and entered the North Sea. The swaying of the ship caused sixteen of our group, including Fr. Florian from Fiecht, terrible vomiting. I ate as before, but I always looked at the sea which came up pretty high.”
During the North Sea passage and the Atlantic crossing, seasickness was a constant and distressing fact of life for Unterthiner’s fellow passengers. He, however, seemed immune to it, writing, “The sea got the better of me neither there nor on the 43-day sea voyage.”
May 26: “On Pentecost Sunday we will depart [from Le Havre] on a North American sailing ship, a three-masted ship called Tuskina. The passage without food in the captain’s cabin costs us 200 francs [$40] apiece.”
The Tuskina, an American flagship of 421 register tons, normally sailed the New York to New Orleans trade. Unterthiner did not travel in steerage, unlike those in the lower second-class section of the ship, which he said is “certainly like purgatory.” He described his accommodations as “very beautiful and comfortable – considering we are on the sea.”
Early June: “The sea voyage coming from Europe is always longer since the winds are usually from the west; thus one naturally cannot steer in a straight line but rather must sail back and forth like the shape of a triangle….It is 3,300 sea miles from Le Havre to New York. Five miles takes two hours. It is very difficult to describe a sea voyage. It is so magnificent, at one time beautiful and then terrifying. A small piece of wood on so much water. The ships themselves are amazingly beautiful structures.”
The Tuskina was about 150 feet long and 50 feet at its widest point. In a confined space on a voyage that must have seemed interminable, Unterthiner busied himself by learning English. He was a quick study. “Already I have learned so much that I could take care of myself on the trip from New York to Cincinnati,” he wrote.
June: “The storm is grand, dreadful. It goes one way and then another so that someone can stand only with difficulty; indeed often in the cabin everything that is not tied down falls over. Lying down is very uncomfortable because of the continuous tossing back and forth. Still it is somewhat curious that one often is no longer sure whether the wall is the floor or the floor is the wall.”
Storms came up so quickly and violently there was little time to take in the sails. “I have not been greatly afraid,” Unterthiner wrote. The Tuskina emerged from the voyage with only one torn sail.
Early July, 1844: “In the fifth week we saw entire schools of small fish and a young whale. That was big. At the end of the sixth week, we had a good wind. Then we encountered seaweed in great quantity and currents in the sea….above the equator. There the fog also ceased. On Friday at 10 o’clock, we saw land, indeed the Jersey shore.”
July 6 they set down the anchor and a doctor came on board to check the health of passengers. A day after the ship was cleaned, the healthy passengers went on a small boat to New York City, where Unterthiner and his two confreres were welcomed by Redemptorists. That Sunday, he preached for the first time on American soil at the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer.
Early July: “On Tuesday evening we went by steamship up the Hudson [River] to Albany. From there we went by rail to Buffalo. We made the entire trip in 50 hours. From there we travelled by steamship on Lake Erie to Cleveland in less than 22 hours. The lake is very stormy and dangerous….it is huge; sea ships travel on it.”
In 1840s America, travel by “railway”, as it was called, was a noisy, dirty affair – still something of a novelty. But at 15 to 20 miles per hour, trains were a boon to travelers, twice as fast as a horse-drawn coach, according to Old Sturbridge Inc.
Mid-July, 1844: “We needed eight days to get to Portsmouth. …Although the trip went day and night, the [Ohio Canal] boats go very slowly since they are pulled by horses alone. It is 309 miles from Cleveland to Portsmouth.”
Most canal or “packet” boats, which moved at the speed of a fast walk, were about 70 feet long and 14 feet wide. They carried mail, cargo and up to 60 passengers, according to website histories of American canals. Bridges on the canal were so low that passengers had to lie on their backs when the man at the helm cautioned them to duck, as in the “Low Bridge, Everybody Down” lyrics in the Erie Canal song.
July 23: “On the feast of Mary Magdalene, we took a steamship for the 100 miles to Cincinnati. We arrived at four o’clock in the morning. In Europe it would have been one hour after noon….Now in the name of God I will begin here whatever happens to me. I hope that God will give me the grace to seek the prayers of my confreres and other good people. I beg you especially not to forget me.”
According to Pat McCloskey, “Wilhelm Unterthiner was a remarkably zealous and talented friar. Already before he left Europe, he was instructing his provincial about the best way for future Tyrolese friars to travel to Le Havre, France, from which he left for America. In New York and in Cincinnati (immediately on his arrival), he added further instructions. If we both make it to heaven, I look forward to meeting him.”
A consequential life
A list of milestones in the life of Wilhelm “William” Unterthiner, compiled by Fr. Pat McCloskey, OFM.
1809 | Nicholas Joseph is born in Fraktion Schrambach and baptized in Feldthurns (not far from Bozen, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
1827 | Invested as a friar, he is given the name Wilhelm.
1832 | Ordained simplex (no faculties to preach or hear confessions).
1835 | After more theology studies in Trent, he is given the cura animarum (can preach and hear confessions) and is appointed lector of New Testament exegesis at the friars’ gymnasium (high school) in Hall.
1837 | Named parish preacher in Hall.
1844 | Although he had volunteered to go to Jerusalem as a confessor, he leaves on April 15 for Cincinnati at the request of Bishop John Baptist Purcell. In late May begins a 43-day voyage from Le Havre, France, arriving in New York City on July 6 with two Capuchins, two Bavarian brothers, and the vicar general for Germans in New York.
On July 23, arrives in Cincinnati by boat. He and two Bavarian brothers are assigned to Holy Trinity Church (downtown) under Francis Louis Huber. He soon begins writing for Der Wahrheitfreund (Friend of Truth, a German Catholic newspaper). Is willing to travel to German Catholic settlements near Cincinnati; rejects the suggestion that their house is under the jurisdiction of the Bavarian provincial. By December, his relationship with the imperious Huber has broken down.
1845 | Requests another friar priest from Tyrol; suggests names. Is put under the bishop’s full authority. Says the Tyrolese province could accept novices if it had a canonically established house in Cincinnati. Purcell takes Unterthiner’s side against Huber. Unterthiner is invited to a German Catholic settlement in Teutopolis, Ill. Cornerstone laid for St. John the Baptist Church at Green and Republic in Cincinnati. Fr. Alexander Martin, OSF, arrives from Tyrol but stays less than a month.
1846 | Appointed pastor at St. John the Baptist in February; requests Tyrolese friars to work under the bishop’s direction; Arsacius Wieser and Leander Streber (Bavarian brothers) move to St. John’s. Fr. Edmund Etschmann arrives from Tyrol.
1847 | Nicholas Wachter arrives from Tyrol. Friars are visiting Hamilton, Stonelick, Straitcreek, and Fayetteville. St. John the Baptist has 505 baptisms, 230 marriages and 266 funerals.
1848 | Otto Jair arrives from Tyrol. Bishop Purcell suspends Francis Louis Huber.
1849 | Four Tyrolese friars arrive; friars begin at St. Boniface Parish in Louisville; friars are invited to join a German Catholic colony in Wartburg, Tenn. Unterthiner attends seventh provincial council in Baltimore as Purcell’s theologian.
1850 | Friars choose St. Clement Parish (St. Bernard) over Wartburg; build their own friary. German Catholics have six large churches in the city of Cincinnati. Unterthiner is appointed superior of the Tyrolese foundation in the U.S.
1851 | Friars begin wearing the habit at home and in church.
1852 | Attends first plenary council of Baltimore as superior of the friars’ foundation; 34 bishops are there; requests canonical establishment of St. Clement Friary (granted by Propaganda Fide on June 8); resigns as superior and is followed by David Widmann.
1854 | Writes final letter on April 10; St. John School has 900 pupils; makes no mention of applying for U.S. citizenship, which became official on March 20, 1855.
1857 | Dies of “pulmonary consumption” (tuberculosis) on Jan.17.
(William Unterthiner is buried at St. John Cemetery in St. Bernard, Ohio.)