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Chiniquy was born in 1809 in the village of Kamouraska, Quebec. He lost his father at an early age and was adopted by his uncle. As a young man, Chiniquy studied to become a Catholic priest at the Petit Seminaire (Little Seminary) in Nicolet, Quebec. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1833. After his ordination, he served his church in Quebec and later emigrated to Illinois. During the 1840s, he led a very successful campaign throughout Quebec against alcohol and drunkenness.
In 1855, he was sued by a prominent Catholic layman named Peter Spink in Kankakee, Illinois. After the fall court term, Spink applied for a change of venue to the court in Urbana. Abraham Lincoln was then hired by Chiniquy to defend him. The spring court action in Urbana was the highest profile libel suit in Lincoln’s career. The case was ended in the fall court session by agreement.
Chiniquy clashed with the Bishop of Chicago, Anthony O'Regan, over the bishop’s treatment of Catholics in Chicago, particularly French Canadians. He declared that O’Regan was secretly backing Spink's suit against him. Chiniquy stated that in 1856 O’Regan threatened him with excommunication if he did not go to a new location where the bishop wanted him. Several months later the New York Times published a pastoral letter from Bishop O’Regan in which O’Regan stated that he had suspended Chiniquy and, since the priest had continued in his normal duties as a priest, the bishop excommunicated him by his letter. Chiniquy vigorously disputed that he had been excommunicated, saying publicly that the bishop was mistaken. Chiniquy left the Roman Catholic Church in 1858. He claimed that the church was pagan, that Roman Catholics worship the Virgin Mary, that its theology spoils the Gospel and that its theology is anti-Christian. He also claimed that the Vatican had planned to take over the United States by importing Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany and France.
Chiniquy claimed that he was falsely accused by his superiors (and that Abraham Lincoln had come to his rescue), that the American Civil War was a plot against the United States of America by the Vatican, and that the Vatican was behind the Confederate cause, the death of President Lincoln and that Lincoln's assassins were faithful Roman Catholics ultimately serving Pope Pius IX.
After leaving the Catholic Church, Chiniquy dedicated his life to trying to win his fellow French Canadians, as well as others, from Catholicism to the Protestant faith. He wrote a number of books and tracts pointing out his views on the alleged errors in the faith and practises of the Roman Catholic Church. His two most influential works are Fifty Years in The Church of Rome and The Priest, The Woman and The Confessional. These books raised concerns in the United States about the Catholic Church. According to one Canadian biographer, Chiniquy is Canada’s best-selling author of all time. These books were written at a time when Americans were suspicious of foreign influence, as typified by the Know-Nothing movement.
He died in Montreal, Canada on January 16, 1899.
To this day, some of Chiniquy's works are still promoted among Protestants and "Bible-Only" believers. One of his most best known modern day followers is Jack Chick, who created a comic-form adaptation of 50 Years In The Church of Rome called "The Big Betrayal" and who draws heavily on Chiniquy's claims in his own anti-Catholic tracts.
Chiniquy, then a Roman Catholic priest, left Canada in the wake of a series of scandals. He was offered a fresh start by James Oliver Van de Velde, Bishop of Chicago, after Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, asked him to leave in 1851. Chiniquy settled in St. Anne in Kankakee County, Illinois.
Chiniquy was suspended, on August 19, 1856, for public insubordination by Van de Velde's successor, Bishop Anthony O'Regan. He continued to celebrate Mass and administer the other sacraments and was excommunicated on September 3, 1856. About two years later, on August 3, 1858, O'Regan's successor, Bishop James Duggan, formally reconfirmed his excommunication in St. Anne. Chiniquy then left the RCC and, with many followers, joined the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). He was admitted as a Presbyterian minister on February 1, 1860. Within two years, Chiniquy, in trouble with the Presbytery of Chicago over his administration of charity funds and a college, according to Elizabeth Ann Kerr McDougall in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, sought a new connection in order to avoid an expensive presbytery trial. The college is identified in the Seventh Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Illinois as Saviour's College, founded in 1860; it is listed neither in Universities and Colleges nor Academies and Seminaries of various grades and courses but in the Theological Seminaries and Church Schools class of institutions. The report states it "is designed to supply the educational wants of the colony brought by Father Chiniquy from Canada to this State, and to prepare men who will be fitted to preach the gospel in the regions whence he came." The report also quotes a description of the school, attributed to correspondence from a Montreal newspaper, unnamed in the report, that people, also unnamed in the report, "examined the day school or college, as the people there delight to call it" and wrote it had five classes ranging from students learning the alphabet to students learning the "intricacies of French and English grammar, composition, and the other studies of the school, besides the elements of Algebra, Latin and Greek." Alexander F. Kemp was chairman of the Synod of the Canada Presbyterian Church committee which examined Chiniquy's admission application. According to Kemp, Chiniquy was involved in both presbytery and civil court proceedings connected with the administration of charitable funds and with what Kemp described as an educational institute. This led to the Presbytery of Chicago charging him with unministerial and unchristian conduct. Chiniquy was to answer these charges before the presbytery; at that stage of the proceedings he and his congregation resolved to separate from the Presbytery of Chicago, and the Old School PCUSA, and to request recognition from the Canada Presbyterian Church. The Presbytery of Chicago charged Chiniquy with misrepresenting that a real college was in operation in St. Anne.(pp8–9) After conducting an inquiry, Kemp suggested that Chiniquy and his congregation be admitted into the Canada Presbyterian Church.
The French Canadians founded the first of what was to be called the "Christian Catholic Church" There was in St. Anne, an incorporation of a religious society, by the name of the "Christian Catholic Church at St. Anne", incorporated in the State of Illinois; that society was a Protestant religious association. Two years later, when it joined the PCUSA in 1860, it assumed the name "First Presbyterian church of St. Anne". "You can exclude us from the Catholic Church of Rome", they said to the Bishop of Chicago, "but not from the Catholic Church of Christ", hence the name Christian Catholic Church.