Yorke, Peter Christopher (1864–1925), priest, journalist, and controversialist, was born 13 August 1864 in Galway city, son of Gregory Yorke, sea captain, and Bridget Yorke (née Kelly). His father died when he was six months old; his mother subsequently remarried. Educated at St Ignatius College, Galway, and St Jarlath's College, Tuam, he studied for the catholic priesthood at St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1882–6). Adopted by the archdiocese of San Francisco, USA, where his family had emigrated by way of British Columbia, he completed clerical studies at St Mary's seminary, Baltimore (1886–7), where he was ordained on 17 December 1887. Assistant on St Mary's cathedral staff, San Francisco (1888–9), he was one of the first students at the newly opened Catholic University of America, Washington, DC (1889–91), obtaining both a bachelor's degree and a licentiate in theology. Rejoining the San Francisco cathedral staff he was rapidly promoted, serving as both secretary to Archbishop Patrick Riordan and chancellor of the archdiocese (1894–9). Bright and talented, he seemed destined for the hierarchy. His fiery career as impassioned catholic apologist and pugnacious controversialist began when, as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Monitor (1894–9), he battled against the rising influence of the anti-catholic, anti-immigrant American Protective Association. He was skilled in journalistic polemic, public oratory, and debate; the humour and acerbic invective of his rhetoric attracted a large, enthusiastic, and highly entertained audience, but aroused concerns amongst the more cautious of his fellow clergy. Dismayed by his free-wheeling diatribes and attacks upon leading Irish-American politicians, Riordan in 1899 removed Yorke from his editorial and administrative offices. For the remainder of his career he was assigned to parish work, serving successively as curate at St Peter's, San Francisco (1899–1903), pastor of St Anthony's, Oakland (1903–13), and pastor of St Peter's (1913–25).
A fervent propagandist for local labour unions during a bitter eleven-week strike-lockout of teamsters and dock workers (1901), amid allegations of police brutality Yorke dubbed the anti-union mayor ‘Clubber Phelan’ and secured a decisive intervention by the California state governor. Continuing to champion organised labour, his clerical sanction of collective bargaining rights stimulated trade-union organisation amongst catholic workers. He launched a weekly newspaper, the Leader, as a platform for his myriad opinions and agitations (1902); withdrawing as editor in 1909 under orders from Riordan, he continued to write prolifically for the organ. He exposed the class-biased bourgeois basis of the mainstream progressive reform movement as effectively denying local representation to working-class ethnic communities, under the mantle of disinterested ‘good government’. He campaigned against anti-catholic bias in public school textbooks, accused both Stanford University and the University of California of sectarianism in faculty and management appointments, and warned against the influence wielded by state university admissions policies on curriculum throughout the lower school system. Named to the state university board of regents (1903–12), after helping to establish a department of Celtic languages and philology, he had a largely inactive tenure. A national leader in catholic education, he co-founded the National Catholic Educational Association (1904), serving as its president (1918, 1921–3). He wrote a series of Textbooks of religion for parochial and Sunday schools, adapting the Baltimore catechism to appropriate grade levels, which became widely used throughout the San Francisco archdiocese and nationally. He was awarded a doctorate in sacred theology by special decree of the Roman Congregation of Studies (1906). An enthusiast for the liturgical renewals of Pope Pius X (1903–14), he introduced to his parish such innovations as congregational singing, use of missals, and children's masses with congregational responses in English. He campaigned for total abstinence, founded a working-girls' home (‘Innesfael’) and was involved in relief work during both the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
An enthusiastic Irish cultural and political nationalist, Yorke lectured widely on Irish history and literature. Founder and president (1899) of the California branch of the Gaelic League, he was prominent in Friends of Irish Freedom and a national vice-president of the Sinn Féin organisation in the USA. He organised activities during the 1919 visit of Éamon de Valera (qv) to San Francisco, and opposed ratification by the US senate of the Versailles treaty, objecting to its failure to accommodate Irish self-determination and to membership of ‘the English-made League of Nations’ (Studia Hib., 102). California president of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (1921), he spoke against the Anglo–Irish treaty and establishment of the Irish Free State.
Colourful and combative, attracting a predominantly working-class following, Yorke's influence extended far beyond San Francisco catholicism. The scope of his countless controversies, and the divisions they aroused, reflected class tensions within Irish-America and the anxieties incumbent on integration into mainstream American life. Largely incapable of conceding sincerity to an opponent, his attacks were rife with ad hominem ridicule. Transgression over a single symbolic issue might consign an erstwhile ally to anathema, subject to the full force of his vitriol. His castigation of one foe as ‘an uneducated, fat-witted, bigotted block of beefy conceit’ (Éire-Ireland, 79) is but a taste of his celebrated bombast. While insisting on equality of opportunity and debunking academic pomposity and privilege, he contributed to a profoundly anti-intellectual bias within American catholicism and propagated a purely careerist attitude to educational attainment.
Yorke died in San Francisco on Palm Sunday, 5 April 1925. The anniversary is commemorated by local Irish-American and labour organisations with an annual Palm Sunday memorial mass at St Peter's and procession to his grave in Holy Cross cemetery, Colma. Yorke's published works include reprints of newspaper controversies, devotional tracts and posthumous selections of Sermons (1931) and Educational lectures (1933).