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John McCloskey

First American Cardinal, born in Brooklyn, N. Y., March 20, 1810; died in New York, October 10, 1885

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McCloskey , JOHN, fourth Bishop and second Archbishop of New York, and first American Cardinal, born in Brooklyn, N. Y., March 20, 1810; died in New York, October 10, 1885. His parents, Patrick McCloskey and Elizabeth (Hassen), natives of Dungiven, Co. Derry, Ireland, came to America, in 1808, soon after their marriage. John McCloskey was sent to the leading classical school in New York kept by Thomas Brady, father of James T. and Judge John R. Brady. In 1822 he entered Mt. St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md. Here under the care of two French priests, Dubois and Brute, he passed the next twelve years. He was ordained priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, January 12, 1834, the first native of New York State to enter the secular priesthood. His studious temperament, his thorough and elegant culture, and gentle bearing destined him for the professor’s chair. In February, 1834, he was named professor of philosophy in the new college just opened at Nyack-on-the-Hudson. At this early period he gave promise, afterwards so fully realized, of being an eloquent and graceful pulpit orator. The college was destroyed by fire in its first year.

This accident and the desire of Father McCloskey to build up by travel a much impaired constitution, as well as an ambition to pursue a higher course of reading in Rome, determined him to visit Europe. He sailed from New York November 3, 1834, for Havre, and reached Rome, February 8, 1835. A carefully kept diary of the incidents of the journey tells of a man of keen observation and calm practical judgment of men and institutions. He was fortunate in bearing with him letters of introduction to some of the leading ecclesiastics of the Eternal City, which brought him into personal relations with men who were making history. Amongst his lifelong friends were Cardinals Fesch and Weld, and others who were raised to the purple later, as Monsignori Reisach, Angelo Mai, Mezzofanti, Wiseman, and Dr. Cullen. He saw much of the young Pere Lacordaire during this time, for whom he formed a warm friendship. His delicate health would not permit him to enter any of the colleges, but he took rooms in the Convent of the Theatines at S. Andrea della Valle and entered as a student of the Gregorian University under the Jesuits. Here he had as professors men like Perrone and Manera and others worthy to sit in the chairs of Bellarmine and Suarez. His health did not prevent hard study, as he has left reams of written notes and comments on class lectures and the monuments of Rome during the two years of his stay in the center of the Christian world. From these manuscripts one sees that no influence of that “city of the soul” failed to leave its impression on him; its Christian monuments and pagan ruins, its city and country life, the influence of foreigners on the people of Italy—not always for good—he has left judiciously noted in letters and diaries. “Each day”, he writes in a letter to a friend, “affords new sources of pleasure and an intellectual banquet, of which one can never partake to satiety.. Oh, what cannot one enjoy who comes to this great classic and holy city with a mind prepared to appreciate its historic and religious charms!” The balance of three years of absence he passed in travel through Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, England, and Ireland.

In Rome his love for and devotion to the Holy See was deepened and became a cult of his after years. As an American he was naturally broad and capable of taking a wide view of peoples and institutions. This was balanced by the events of the time and made him the conservative force he proved to be later on. A spirit of renewed loyalty to the Church was strongly moving European centers of thought. Lacordaire had in 1835 begun his Notre Dame “Conferences”, which commanded the attention of all France and drew around his pulpit the skeptical youth of Paris; Dr. Wiseman, as rector of the English College in Rome, was giving his “Lectures on the connection between Science and Revealed Religion“, which gained him the ear of all England; Dollinger by the first and second parts of his “History of the Church“, Gorres by his “Christian Mysticism“, and Mohler by his “Symbolism” had begun to fix the attention of Germany on the power of the Church to hold men of ability. The Catholic Movement under Newman had begun at Oxford; Montalembert had succeeded in forming a Catholic party in France with himself as president. Father McCloskey’s intimate knowledge of all these forces, focused as they were in the Eternal City, gave him ever after a broader and more intelligent interest in the affairs of the Church, especially in Europe, and made his forecast of things singularly accurate in after life. These advantages were enjoyed by few other American clergymen of his time, so that, on his return to his native diocese in the autumn of 1837, his position was determined. Although only twenty-seven and without any experience in administration, he was placed in charge, as pastor, of one of the most important parishes of the diocese, St. Joseph‘s, Sixth Avenue, New York. Here was one of the strongholds of what was known as “Trusteeism”, a form of church government which made bishop and pastor subordinate in all matters not purely spiritual to the laity. Father McCloskey now found a field for the exercise of a marked feature of the man—self-control, the key to the successful control of others with the minimum of friction which distinguished him all through his life. The trustees of St. Joseph‘s refused to receive him, demanding a pastor of their choice. The pews were “given up.” Sunday after Sunday for nine months did I preach when there were not a dozen persons between pulpit and porch in the center aisle”, said the cardinal in telling of those early days. The trustees refused to pay him any salary, and, unwilling to believe that he was the writer of his forcible and eloquent sermons, said they were composed by an older and abler priest. To all this he paid no heed, never even making a passing allusion to it from the pulpit. “Father McCloskey will not fight, but he will conquer”, said an old college companion at the time. He did overcome by that “charity which seeketh not its own”; his opponents became his best supporters, and he was wont to say in his old age that the years that followed in St. Joseph‘s were the happiest of his life.

In 1841 Father McCloskey was appointed by Bishop Hughes first president of St. John’s College, Fordham, still retaining charge of St. Joseph‘s, to which he returned in 1842 after organizing the new college. At the petition of Bishop Hughes for an assistant in his advancing years, Gregory XVI appointed Father McCloskey, and on March 10, 1844, he was consecrated titular Bishop of Axiere and Coadjutor of New York with the right of succession. During the three years that followed, the young bishop lent efficient aid to the head of the diocese in making the visitations of the vast territory then comprising the whole State of New York and most of New Jersey. The steady growth of the Church in this territory called for a division of the diocese, and the two new sees of Albany and Buffalo were erected, to the former of which Bishop McCloskey was transferred May 21, 1847. Here his great life-work began, for which he was well prepared by his priestly zeal and scholarship, his eloquence and successful experience in administration. It was no small work to organize a diocese of 30,000 square miles in extent, containing less than 25 churches and 34 priests, 2 orphan asylums and 2 free schools (Shea, vol. 4, p. 126; and “Cath. Alman.”, 1848). The Catholics, scattered and poor, numbered 60,000. After seventeen years of his administration of Albany he left behind as a result a noble cathedral, eighty-four priests, one hundred and thirteen churches, eight chapels, forty-four minor stations, eighty-five missionaries, three academies for boys, one for girls, six orphan asylums, fifteen parochial schools, and St. Joseph‘s Provincial Semi-nary, Troy, which he, with Archbishop Hughes, was largely instrumental in securing and equipping. He also introduced into the diocese several religious communities, amongst others, the Augustinians, the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Capuchins, and Oblates. For the care of the young girls under his charge, he provided by inviting the Religious of the Sacred Heart to Kenwood-on-the-Hudson; the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St. Joseph; and for the boys the Christian Brothers were also introduced.

In January, 1864, the Metropolitan See of New York became vacant by the death of its first Archbishop, John Hughes, and all looked to the Bishop of Albany as the successor. His name was placed first on the terna sent to Rome by the bishops of the province. Amongst the bishops, priests and laity, there was only one dissenting voice, that of Bishop McCloskey himself. An impression obtained very generally at the time and for years afterwards as to the bishop’s attitude. It was said that, having been consecrated coadjutor with the right of succession to the see of New York, twenty years before, he claimed the right on the vacancy of the see. The injustice of such a suspicion will appear from the following extract of a letter written by him to one of the most influential members of the Congregation of the Propaganda, Cardinal Reisach, the friend of his youth: “I write to implore your Eminence”, he says, “in case there should be any danger of my appointment or of my being transferred from Albany to New York, to aid me in preventing it, and to save me from the humiliation and misery of being placed in a position for the duties and responsibilities of which I feel myself both physically and morally unequal and unfit. After having been appointed and consecrated coadjutor of the Bishop of New York, with the right of succession, I resigned both co-adjutorship and right of succession to come to Albany. I then resolved, and still hold to the resolution, that, as far as it depended on any free will or consent of my own, I should never again return to New York. Having been relieved from the prospect of succession, I never thought of afterwards aspiring or being called to it. I speak only from the deepest sincerity of heart and from the strongest conviction of conscience when I say that I possess neither the learning, nor prudence, nor energy, nor firmness, nor bodily health or strength which are requisite for such an arduous and highly responsible office as that of Archbishop of New York. I recoil from the very thought of it with shuddering, and I do most humbly trust that such a crushing load will not be placed upon my weak and unworthy shoulders.” This soul-revealing letter tells that the Church still has with-in her hierarchy men of the stamp of Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory Nazienzen, men who strained every nerve to avoid honors as much as men of the world strive for them. He was the choice of the Holy See and was promoted to New York, May 6, 1864.

On leaving Albany, a public dinner was tendered to him by the high officials, and the letter was signed by the most noted citizens, amongst whom were Governor Seymour, Erastus Corning, Rufus King, Thurlow Weed, Philip Ten Eyck, and different members of the Van Rensselaer and Townsend families. The bishop declined the honor; he loved the city where he was the most distinguished citizen, but with his usual modesty shrank from any public demonstration. He was installed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Mott St., New York, August 27, 1864. The text of his first sermon to his new charge was the key to his whole after administration: “Peace be to you.” He was not given to controversy; in fact the time for this had passed away. He was evidently a man of Providence, destined to garner and give increase to the fruits of his valiant predecessor’s conquests. The first of these fruits was the unfinished new cathedral, begun in 1858, but suspended on account of the breaking out of the Civil War. After fifteen years of collecting funds, looking after the construction, visiting Europe to procure windows and altars, and after giving everything he possessed to hasten its completion, he had the consolation on May 25, 1879, of dedicating it to the service of God.

Distinguished for his eloquence in the pulpit and wisdom in the council-chamber, Archbishop McCloskey was much sought after on great occasions as a preacher and heard in consultation with deep reverence by his brethren. He was present at the Second and Third Plenary Councils of Baltimore, at the latter of which he preached the opening sermon. On entering the pulpit he received a telegram announcing the destruction of his cathedral by fire. During the sermon he gave no evidence of the shock it must have been to him. In the council-chamber, says Cardinal Gibbons, his colleagues always listened with marked attention and respect to his words, and rarely, if ever, did any of them dissent from the views that he expressed. He attended the Vatican Council during its entire length and was a member of one of the most important commissions—that on Discipline. Cardinal Capalti, who presided over this commission, spoke of the wisdom of the Archbishop of New York in terms of the highest admiration. It has been erroneously stated that Archbishop McCloskey was opposed to Infallibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cardinal Gibbons, who attended the Vatican Council, writes: “I have a most distinct recollection of the attitude of the different prelates in regard to the question of Infallibility, and I recall most distinctly that Archbishop McCloskey was not opposed to the Infallibility itself, but declared himself against the expediency of declaring it an article of faith at that time, an opinion held by many at the Council.” The Archbishop was present at the closing session and voted for the definition with the hundreds of other bishops. His attitude on this question is clearly set forth in the following extract from a letter to Pius IX: “Through the grace of God, the Catholics of the United States of North America are one and undivided in an orthodox faith, in an unwavering fidelity to all Catholic doctrines and principles, in an unreserved loyalty and allegiance to the infallible and sovereign authority of the Roman Church, and in ardent filial love and devotion to your Holiness. It is our glory and our joy that we are preserved from error and directed in the sure way of temporal and eternal happiness by our subjection to the infallible teaching and supreme authority of the Mother and Mistress of Churches. “During his visit to Rome at the Vatican Council he made the final impression which resulted in his elevation to the cardinalate. Pius IX said of him: “He is a man of princely mien and bearing.” He was preconized cardinal in the Consistory of March 15, 1875.The news of the first American cardinal was receivedwith universal applause; Catholic and Protestant, allfelt that no one was more worthy as a representative of the American Church to receive the highest honor in the gift of the pope. It was the passing away forever of old-time prejudice, and pointed attention tothe proverbial wisdom of Rome. His investiture took place in the cathedral, Mott St., April 27, 1875. The biretta was imposed by the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Roosevelt Bayley, as delegate of the Apostolic See. The bearers of the insignia from Rome were Monsignor Roncetti, Dr. Ubaldi, and Count Morafoschi. It was one of the most memorable events in the history of the Church in the United States. The cardinal visited Rome that year in August, where he was received by Pius IX with great affection. He then took possession of his titular church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In 1878 he again visited Rome and assisted at the coronation of Leo XIII, from whom he received the cardinal’s hat in Consistory, March 28.

The growth of the diocese and the increasing infirmities of age called for the aid of an assistant, and on October 1, 1880, Rt. Rev. Michael A. Corrigan, bishop of Newark, was named coadjutor of New York with the right of succession, with the title of Archbishop of Petra. The last notable public appearance of Cardinal McCloskey was on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, January 12, 1884. His reply to addresses on that day was very suggestive: “On this occasion I cannot but contrast the scene of today with that of fifty years ago in old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There were only one bishop and two priests and not many people in the church. Today, the fiftieth anniversary of that event, I behold this sanctuary filled with the bishops of my province and the faithful clergy of my diocese, and this great cathedral crowded to overflowing with my devoted people. For all this I have only to thank God Who has spared me in His goodness to witness the glory of this day and the wonderful fruits of the mustard seed. As to all you have said with regard to promotions that have followed one after another, I can only say that not one of them was ever sought by me.” These last words reveal the true character of America‘s first cardinal better than volumes could do. The last public act of Cardinal McCloskey is one for which the American Church will ever feel deeply grateful. The Italian Government’s act of spoliation of ecclesiastical property threatened, in March, 1884, to expropriate the American College at Rome. At once the Cardinal laid the matter before President Arthur, appealing for the protection of this institution as the property of American citizens. The Secretary of State, Mr. Frelinghuysen, through the American Minister to the Quirinal, brought the case to the notice of the Italian Government, and the college was saved.

The twenty-one years of his administration as archbishop covered all the sees of New York, New England, and most of New Jersey, his suffragans being Albany, Boston, Brooklyn, Burlington, Buffalo, Hartford, Newark, Portland, Springfield, and the territory later apportioned off for the Dioceses of Fall River, Ogdensburg, Syracuse, and Trenton. To provide for the wants of this vast territory, he held the Fourth Provincial Council of New York in September, 1883, having also held the Third and Fourth Diocesan Synods of New York. Considering his strength, he was perhaps the most hard-working man in his diocese. To minister to the rapidly growing wants of his people, which now numbered 600,000, the priests having grown from 150 to 400, the churches and chapels from 85 to 229, schools and academies from 53 to 97, the pupils in the Catholic schools from 16,000 to 37,000, was a task that called for more than ordinary energy and zeal. The New York Catholic Protectory will ever stand as a striking monument of his foresight in making provision for a class of children much neglected, besides adding to the number of hospitals, homes, and asylums as the growing wants demanded. But perhaps the work which will ever stand out as evidence of his wonderful energy and zeal, no less than of his refined and elevated taste, are the three cathedrals built by him: the Immaculate Conception, Albany; St. Patrick’s, Mott St., rebuilt after the fire, and St. Patrick’s, Fifth Avenue, New York, which last was solemnly consecrated October 5, 1910.

Cardinal McCloskey has often been compared with his predecessor by those. who knew them both. Father Hewitt wrote: “During his [Archbishop Hughes’] time of warfare, he wielded the battle-axe of Coeur de Lion, while his successor [Cardinal McCloskey], whose characteristics were in marked contrast to his own, was more like Saladin, whose light weapon cut the lace veil with sure and graceful stroke.” Cardinal Gibbons said: “These two prelates had each his predominant traits of character. The one [McCloskey] recalls the Prince of the Apostles, blending authority with paternal kindness; the other reminding us of the Apostle of the Gentiles, wielding the two-edged sword of the spirit, the tongue and the pen.” Each prelate was a man of Providence, raised up by God for his time. Stormy were the days when Archbishop Hughes took the helm, and he was equal to the emergency. Peaceful the times of Cardinal McCloskey, no great crises calling for striking evidences of power. He gave himself ‘unreservedly to the work his hands found ready to do; to conserve and build up, to increase the work of him who went before him. He was a ripe scholar, more erudite than prominent. If his proficiency in sacred science was not generally accorded the prominence it might well have commanded, we must attribute it to his modesty and humility, of which we find so many unmistakable signs in his letters. In fact, he never lost an opportunity of denying himself what, natural ambition might honestly take. As a young: priest in Rome he declined the degree of Doctor of Divinity; he strove with all his might to avoid promotion to the Metropolitan See of New York, and no one was more surprised than himself when the news flashed across the ocean of his elevation to the cardinalate. He delighted to conceal the gifts which, if allowed to display themselves, would have secured the applause of all men. His written and impromptu sermons and discourses showed his cultured mind and strong natural gifts to the best advantage The dignity and grace of manner, the quiet but persuasive style of oratory that carries conviction to every hearer were particularly his. “But all these endowments were as nothing compared to the beauty of his soul which was the seat of all those virtues that render a man acceptable before God and dear to his fellow-men. If we had to mention only one trait of character, we should select what perhaps was the most conspicuous, certainly the most edifying—the admirable blending in him of dignity which repelled none with a sweetness which attracted all, a rare blessing—”Non bene conveniunt nec in una sede morantur Majestas et amor…”—

In the soul of Cardinal McCloskey, where Christian virtue had solid roots, they coexisted in a wonderful manner. In him were coupled the majesty of a prince, which inspired no fear, but exacted the reverence of all, with the simplicity and amiableness of a child. Well may we say of him that he was “Beloved of God and men.”


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