A new breed of bishop for the 19th century

How typical of Archbishop John Hughes — still getting people mad at him 15 years after his death. This time the issue was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, today perhaps the best-known Catholic house of worship in the United States, but then a tempting target for anti-Catholic venom.

New York’s cathedral was dedicated in a splendid, hours-long ceremony on the morning of Sunday, May 25, 1879. Shortly before, the Atlantic Monthly, a mouthpiece of the Northeast’s non-Catholic establishment, ran an article trashing the building and Archbishop Hughes, whose great project it was. He’d been dead since 1864. The author, architectural critic Clarence Cook, wrote that the fourth bishop of New York was a “politician” as well as a priest — one of the few Catholic priests “able to win, by their own character and energy, a national reputation.”

“We are not saying it was an agreeable reputation,” Cook continued. “The archbishop belonged to the church militant … always in the saddle, never weary, and, what was more never desponding … so convincing that, when he called for money, if a widow had but one penny, yet should he have a farthing ere he went.”

Someone reading that now may wonder what lay behind this bilious outburst against a long-dead prelate. In his history of the Church in America, “American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church” (Vintage, $18.95), Charles R. Morris says Cook grasped the symbolism of St. Patrick’s just as Archbishop Hughes had done. The archbishop cherished it, but Cook, to say the least, did not.

“It enunciated a vision of Catholicism as a new power center, a major moral and political force,” Morris writes. “Cook was shouting, Beware! With a man of John Hughes’s forcefulness at the head of the Catholic Church in the United States, anything could happen.” As for the archbishop, he would probably have replied in kind to Cook’s attack. And much enjoyed the verbal tussle that followed.

John Hughes reigned — the word fits his style — as Archbishop of New York from December 1842 until his death in January 1864. In that time he established himself in the eyes of his fellow Americans as a Catholic bishop unlike any they’d seen up to then.

A ‘new breed’

Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore and his successors tended to be low-profile men who labored to accommodate the non-Catholic society in which American Catholics sought acceptance. Archbishop Hughes was something else — high-profile, combative, aggressive, never shrinking from, and actually seeming to relish, a really good fight.

While personality differences obviously had much to do with that, so did numbers. When Archbishop Carroll died in 1815, Catholics in the United States numbered a mere 120,000. But between 1820 and 1870, 2.7 million Catholic immigrants came pouring into the country, most of them from Germany, France and Ireland. From his vantage point in New York, Archbishop Hughes presided over the peak years of that influx.

Clearly, the times were changing, and so was the Catholic presence in America. The Archbishop of New York embodied the change and did his vigorous best to turn it to the advantage of the Church and the nation alike. He was, says Morris, the “archetype” of a “new breed” of bishop who “imposed order and discipline on fractious urban dioceses and started building the vast network of Catholic institutions” that has been a notable feature of American Catholicism up to this day. At the beginning, no one would have guessed all that.

John Joseph Hughes was born June 24, 1797, in the southern part of Ireland’s County Tyrone, third of seven children of a hard-working tenant farmer. The young man came to the United States in 1817. Drawn to the priesthood, he soon applied for admission to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. But he was turned down as academically unprepared and was hired as a gardener instead.

Around this time, he met Mother Elizabeth Seton, convert foundress of the Daughters of Charity in the United States, and it was through the intercession of this future saint that he was admitted to the seminary as a student by Father Jean Dubois. Ordained in 1826, he took up pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, earning a measure of fame in a public controversy with a Presbyterian minister who had attacked the Church.

In 1837, John Hughes was named Coadjutor Bishop of New York at the request of its Ordinary, his former seminary rector Jean Dubois. Consecrated in January 1838, the hard-charging coadjutor quickly took charge of the affairs of the diocese from the elderly Dubois whom he succeeded in December 1842. In 1850, New York was elevated to the status of an archdiocese, and he received the title archbishop.


The challenges facing him were many. Besides the pressing need to respond to the immigration-fueled explosion of Catholic numbers, Archbishop Hughes, along with his fellow American bishops, confronted a rising tide of anti-Catholicism that often accompanied this Catholic expansion.

In 1834, an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., was burned by a mob. It was the beginning of two decades of violence aimed at immigrants and Catholics. Two years after the burning of the convent, a mob burned most of the Irish section of Boston. Violence flared in Philadelphia, and churches, convents and Irish homes burned there, too. Through the 1840s, clashes between Catholics and non-Catholics occurred repeatedly in many American cities.

There was trouble in New York, too. “Are you afraid?” the city’s mayor asked the archbishop, apparently hoping to provoke him. “Yes,” was the answer. “Not for my churches but for yours. If a single Catholic church is burned here, New York will be turned into another Moscow.” He then ringed his parish churches with armed Irishmen. No Catholic churches or convents burned in New York.

Archbishop Hughes ran the archdiocese’s internal affairs with a similarly strong hand — so strong that his priests took to calling him “Dagger John.” The nickname referred to the cross he put before his signature on documents — and also to his pugnacious manner.

“I will suffer no man in my diocese that I cannot control,” he is said to have snapped during a run-in with the Catholic convert writer and social thinker Orestes Brownson, himself no slouch as a controversialist. Brownson took the hint and moved his base of operations across the Hudson to New Jersey.

Hughes’ legacy

But John Hughes was more than just a petty tyrant. He was a successful administrator, a builder of churches, promoter of parochial schools, champion of the Irish, skilled manipulator of the levers of politics and a man whose patriotic sentiments embraced both his old country and his new one.

“Never forget your country,” he lectured his faithful. The “country” was Ireland, and many of those faithful were Irish-born like himself. But then he went on: “Let this love of old Ireland affect you only individually. In your social and political relations you must become merged in the country of your adoption.”

As Cook’s posthumous attack suggests, Archbishop Hughes had more than his share of enemies. In fact, he may have earned them. But some of the enemies were not above fictionalizing in order to damage his reputation.

That was the case with an urban legend regarding the acquisition of the land on which St. Patrick’s was built. According to this version of events, the archbishop pulled strings to get a sweetheart deal enabling him to buy the site “for the consideration of one dollar.” It was a malicious fantasy. The city had sold the land to a private party in 1799, and the property had several owners in succession before the future cathedral’s trustees acquired the title in 1852 for $59,500 — hardly a small sum back then. Yet even some modern histories of New York repeat the tale of the sweetheart deal that never was.

In the end, of course, the city’s Irish and their archbishop were vindicated. One hundred-forty years after its dedication, St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands in the heart of midtown Manhattan as a monument to faith, vision and determination. The Catholics have arrived, the mighty church still proclaims, and Archbishop John Hughes had — still has, in fact — quite a lot to do with it.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.