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John Hughes

Fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of New York, b. June 24, 1797; d. in New York, January 3, 1864

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Hughes, JOHN, fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of New York, b. at Annaloghan, Co. Tyrone, Ireland, June 24, 1797, of Patrick Hughes and Margaret McKenna; d. in New York, January 3, 1864. His father, a farmer of limited means, immigrated to the United States in 1816, and settled at Chambersburg, Pa. John’s early education was received at a school in Augher, and later in Auchnacloy, near his native village. Though he felt called to the priesthood, circumstances did not permit him to continue his studies; being disinclined to farm life, he was placed with a friend of his father to study horticulture. He followed his father to America in 1817, landed at Baltimore, and soon after went to Chambersburg, where he aided his family for a year or more. His ardent desire to become a priest brought him in 1819 to Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md—which he entered as an employee, being received a year later as a student. Ordained to the priesthood October 15, 1826, by Bishop Conwell, in St. Joseph‘s Church, Philadelphia, he labored first at St. Augustine’s, Philadelphia, later at Bedford, Pa—finally returning to Philadelphia to become pastor of St. Joseph‘s, and afterwards of St. Mary’s, whose trustees were in open revolt against the bishop, and were subdued by Father Hughes only when he built St. Joseph‘s church, 1832, then considered one of the finest in the country. Previous to this, in 1829, he founded St. John’s Orphan Asylum. About this period he was engaged in a religious controversy with Rev. John A. Breckenridge, a distinguished Presbyterian clergyman, with the result that Father Hughes’s remarkable ability attracted widespread attention and admiration. His name was mentioned for the vacant See of Cincinnati and for the Coadjutorship of Philadelphia. On January 7, 1838, however, Father Hughes was consecrated Bishop of Basileopolis and Coadjutor of New York, by Bishop Dubois, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Mott Street, New York. In 1839 he became administrator Apostolic of New York, and on the death of Bishop Dubois succeeded to the vacant see, December 20, 1842. He was raised to the dignity of first Archbishop of New York, July 19, 1850, receiving the pallium personally from Pius IX at Rome, April 3, 1851.

The abolition of trusteeism in New York marked the beginning of his episcopate. He confronted a critical diocesan condition arising from differences between Bishop Dubois (q.v.) and the lay trustees whose control of church revenues was working injury to religion, and had encumbered the ten churches then in the city with a debt of $300,000, a crushing burden in those days. Bishop Hughes’s experience in Philadelphia with trusteeism served him well in taking up the defense of Bishop Dubois. He appealed directly to the people, before whom he forcefully defended the Divine authority to govern granted by Christ to the hierarchy, and clearly exposed the viciousness of lay domination in the administration of church matters. The people readily passed a resolution condemning the cathedral trustees who gave way to a new board well disposed to obey ecclesiastical authority. The bishop convoked in 1841 the first Diocesan Synod of New York, which enacted timely legislation affecting spiritual matters, and devised for the tenure and administration of church property wise regulations which placed the rector of the church in control of temporals as well as spirituals. His triumph over the trustee system would have been complete and final at the very outset had the trustees of St. Louis’s church, Buffalo, been as prompt to submit as all others. Their attitude brought the archbishop, as late as 1855, into a controversy with Erastus Brooks, editor and state senator, who assailed in the Legislature the archbishop’s plan of holding church property. Unfavorable legislation followed, but was soon repealed, and prepared the way for the present satisfactory religious corporation law of the State of New York.

Returning from Europe, whither he had gone in 1839 to seek aid for his diocese, Bishop Hughes found his flock involved in a movement to modify the existing common school system, which, professing to be non-sectarian, was undermining, in fact, the religious belief of Catholic children. The bishop immediately placed himself at the head of the movement, and deemed it incumbent on him to oppose the Public School Society, a private corporation controlling the management of the schools and the distribution of the school fund provided by the municipality. He based his objection to this society on the ground that it violated a fundamental American principle, namely, freedom of conscience. Catholics could not accept any system of education which ignored, undermined, or opposed the religious faith their conscience dictated to be true. After a two years’ unceasing contest, he finally brought about the overthrow of the Public School Society. He had hoped, and Governor Seward was kindly disposed, that the Legislature might be so truly American as to sanction and support separate Catholic schools. Religious animosity proved too bitter. The bishop’s hopes were not realized. The establishment of the present public schools followed, which, likewise failing to satisfy Catholic conscience, led the bishop to lay the foundation, on a firm basis, of the existing Catholic school system in New York. An anti-Catholic outbreak of the “Native American” political party occurred in 1844, in Philadelphia, where churches and convents were destroyed. A meeting of this party was announced to take place in New York City. Apprehensive that the result would be riot and bloodshed, the bishop called personally on the mayor of the city to prevent the meeting, warning him of the consequences if any anti-Catholic outrage were attempted. He at the same time solemnly cautioned his flock against violence, but took measures to resist any possible attacks against church property. His fearless and determined attitude prevented the holding of the meeting and averted disturbance of the peace. Ten years later the “Know-nothing” faction became active. He again advised his people to keep aloof from centers of trouble. He was deeply convinced that all such movements, being as anti-American as they were anti-Catholic, could not possibly thrive in the United States.

Few public men of his day possessed a more statesmanlike grasp of the genius of the American Republic. He had unbounded confidence in its institutions, when their very existence was precarious. He looked upon America as a land of promise opened by a beneficent Providence to the oppressed of the nations. No one could question his own abiding love of his native soil; but he would not permit this love to make him lament as an exile of Erin when he might rejoice as an American citizen. Thus he taught his people. So far-seeing was he in this respect that he looked with disfavor on national churches, lest they might perpetuate racial differences and foreign customs. All must be formed into a common people; and no influence could do this better for the American people, he contended, than the Catholic Church sent by Christ to teach all nations. Archbishop Hughes will ever rank among America‘s foremost citizens. His towering character, genius for government, and intense patriotism won for him the respect and often the admiration of his opponents, the esteem and even the life-long friendship of distinguished statesmen. President Polk, through Secretary Buchanan, in 1846, proffered him a diplomatic mission to Mexico, which he was unable to accept. On invitation of John Quincy Adams, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Calhoun, he lectured in 1847 before Congress in the Capitol, Washington, his topic being “Christianity the only Source of Moral, Social, and Political Regeneration“. At the outbreak of the Civil War, although not an abolitionist, he boldly sustained the Union cause, and was in frequent communication with William H. Seward, Secretary of State, to whom he offered useful suggestions on the conduct of the war. President Lincoln, in an auto-graph letter, expressed his appreciation of the counsel given. Secretary Seward, desiring to hold France in a friendly attitude towards the Federal Government, entrusted the archbishop with an important mission to the Court of Napoleon III, who received him most graciously, and was dissuaded by him from recognizing the Confederacy. On this visit to Europe, wherever he went, he left nothing undone to create sympathy for the Union side. During the Draft Riots of 1863 in New York City, Governor Seymour invoked the aid of the archbishop to suppress disorder, to which invitation, though he was fatally broken in health, he willingly responded, addressing a large assemblage from the balcony of his residence.

His loyalty to his adopted country was well balanced and finely adjusted to the duties and responsibilities of his sacred office. He exercised the strictest vigilance lest American liberty might engender liberal influences tending to minimize the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church. He unsparingly condemned those who, through fear of anti-Catholic feeling, were disposed to conciliate their opponents by seemingly harm-less concessions. He was intolerant of the slightest modification or innovation in religion unless sanctioned by the Supreme Head of the Church. He believed that adherence to Catholic faith should be bold, fearless, out-spoken, and uncompromising in the extreme, and especially so in the face of opposition. Pius IX, exiled in 1848, and again threatened in 1860, found the archbishop one of the stanchest defenders of the Holy See. Strong agencies of power and influence were conspiring against the temporal sovereignty of the pope, and this alarming condition intimidated not a few Catholics into a policy of silent and ineffective sympathy; others somewhat less timid favored action, but of a conservative character. The archbishop approved of no such methods, and boldly proclaimed himself an uncompromising supporter of the Vicar of Christ and his lawful patrimony. By appeal, sermon, lecture, and pastoral letter he aroused his flock at home to unbounded enthusiasm, and stirred Christendom abroad in a masterly vindication of the temporal independence of the sovereign pontiff. He raised in 1860 the princely sum of $53,000, as an offering from his diocese to the Holy Father; and his pastoral letter, circulated throughout Europe and translated into Italian, afforded solace to the afflicted soul of Pius IX.

Conjointly with all this prominence and activity demanded by public and vital interests of Church and nation, the archbishop followed faithfully and zealously the exacting life of a hardworking missionary bishop in the upbuilding of a rapidly growing diocese. In 1842 there were some forty priests, fifty churches, and 200,000 Catholics scattered over his jurisdiction, which embraced the State of New York and the eastern part of New Jersey. Bishop McCloskey, later the first Bishop of Albany, was Coadjutor of New York from 1844 to 1847. Albany and Buffalo were erected into episcopal sees in 1847; Brooklyn and Newark in 1853. Besides these four separate dioceses made within the original territory of the Diocese of New York, the archbishop before his death in 1864 ruled 150 priests, 85 churches, 3 colleges, 50 schools and academies, and over 400,000 people. He stated in 1858 that he had dedicated his ninety-ninth church. As metropolitan, created in 1850, he presided over New York, New Jersey, and all New England, with suffragan sees at Albany, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Newark, Boston, Burlington, Hartford, and Portland. The First Provincial Council of New York was convened in September, 1854, after which the archbishop journeyed to Rome and he was present at the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

During his administration institutions of charity and higher learning grew apace with churches and schools. The seminary was moved in 1840 from Lafargeville to Fordham, where a college also was opened a year later. The Jesuits assumed charge of it in 1846, but in 1855 the archbishop withdrew the seminary from Fordham, and in 1862 secured property at Troy, New York, for the establishment of St. Joseph‘s Provincial Seminary. He also proved to be one of the warmest supporters of the North American College, Rome, projected by Pius IX in 1855, and successfully opened in 1859. To meet diocesan needs he introduced into New York the Christian Brothers, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Sisters of Mercy, the Ursulines, the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Finding the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland, who were laboring in New York, restricted by their rule to a limited field and restrained from undertaking certain good works which the archbishop desired, he organized an independent diocesan community of the Sisters of Charity, who, today, are managing a variety of educational, charitable, protective, and industrial institutions, and form one of the most flourishing and successful sisterhoods in the United States. Foreseeing the future greatness of his diocese and cathedral city, he planned the erection of a cathedral which would be commensurate with the importance of the city and See of New York, and would express in enduring stone the faith of his flock. He laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, August 15, 1858; this lofty and inspiring pile stands a monument to his genius and prevision.

He lived and passed away amid stirring times; it was providential for Church and country that he lived when he did. His natural gifts of mind and heart, independent of his education, were of a high order and made him pre-eminent in leadership; not only was he a great ruler of an important diocese in a hierarchy remarkable for distinguished bishops, but also a master-builder of the Church in the United States and one of the most helpful and sagacious of the makers of America. Church and nation are indebted forever to the prelate and citizen whose strong personality, indomitable courage, and invaluable service constituted him the man needed in his day to meet critical conditions. He was resolute, fearless, far-sighted, and full of practical wisdom based on the sanest and soundest principles. To bring out the innate power within him required but the opportunity presented by the Church struggling for a footing in a rather hostile community, and by the nation endeavoring to cope with harassing questions at home and impending trouble abroad. His failures were few; his achievements many and lasting. He was feared and loved; misunderstood and idolized; misrepresented even to his ecclesiastical superiors in Rome, whose confidence in him, however, remained unshaken. Severe of manner, kindly of heart, he was not aggressive until assailed.

He was a forceful, impressive, and convincing speaker, an able, resourceful, and talented controversialist, a clear, logical, and direct writer. His writings were usually hastily done, as occasion required, but commanded general attention from friend and opponent. His works are published in two volumes, which contain lectures, sermons, and pamphlets on historical and doctrinal subjects; open letters to public men like Horace Greeley, General Cass, Mayor Harper, Senator Brooks; and “Kirwan Unmasked”, a series of six letters to a Presbyterian minister, writing under the assumed name of Kirwan; these letters are considered models of good English and are among the best written by the archbishop. His mortal remains were interred in old St. Patrick’s, but were transferred, January 30, 1883, to their final resting-place under the sanctuary of the cathedral in Fifth Avenue. His death elicited a general expression of sympathy and respect, and his memory was honored by tributes from President Lincoln, Secretary Seward, Governor Seymour, and the Common Council of New York.


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