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.
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.”
When Father Yorke died in 1925, he was pastor of St. Peter Parish, where he 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.
According to director of Catholic Cemeteries, Monica 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….
Archbishop Riordan assigned Father Yorke to St. Peter Church in 1903.
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….
Original story from San Francisco Archdiocese.