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William Byrne

Missionary and educator, b. in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1780; d. at Bardstown, Kentucky, June 5, 1833

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Byrne, WILLIAM, missionary and educator, b. in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1780; d. at Bardstown, Kentucky, U.S.A., June 5, 1833. He was one of a large family for whom he was obliged by the death of his father to become breadwinner. He desired to be a priest, but circumstances denied him more than a common elementary education, imparted to him by a pious uncle. Many of his near relatives were among the ill-starred patriots of the Rebellion of 1798, and the cruel and bloody scenes of that year enacted near his home made a vivid impression on his youthful mind. In his twenty-fifth year came the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, where, shortly after his arrival, he went to Georgetown College and applied for admission into the Society of Jesus. His advanced age and lack of classical education, however, convinced him, after some months’ stay there, that he could not reasonably hope to attain in the Society, for many years at least, his ambition for ordination to the priesthood. He therefore left Georgetown, and by advice of Archbishop Carroll went to Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg. Here the Rev. John Dubois, the president, received him with sympathy, pointed out a course of study, and, finding him an excellent disciplinarian, made him prefect of the institution. He was nearly thirty years of age when he began to study Latin, but his zeal and perseverance conquered all obstacles.

In order to advance more rapidly in his studies, he entered St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, but the surroundings were not congenial, and he remained there only a short time. He had been ordained a sub deacon, and Bishop Flaget accepted his offer of service for the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky. He made further studies at St. Thomas’s Seminary there, and was then ordained priest by Bishop David, September 18, 1819, with his friend George A.M. Elder, whom he had met at Emmitsburg. They were the first priests ordained at Bardstown, and by Bishop David, who was consecrated 15. August, 1819. Shortly after his ordination Father Byrne was appointed to the care of St. Mary’s and St. Charles’s missions, visiting also the small congregation of Louisville, sixty miles distant, and laboring at all times with most indefatigable industry. The ignorance of the people and the necessity of establishing some institution for elementary instruction appealed to him strongly, and in the spring of 1821 he opened St. Mary’s College, near Bardstown, in an old stone building that stood on a farm he had purchased with money begged from those who sympathized with his project. He had about fifty boys to begin with, one of them being Martin John Spalding, later the famous Archbishop of Baltimore, who even then was so precocious in the display of his abilities that at the age of fifteen he was appointed to teach mathematics to his fellow students. Father Byrne, with indomitable energy, at first filled every office in the school, and attended to his missionary duties as well. His college had become very popular in Kentucky when it was destroyed by fire. This set-back seemed only to give him new energy, and he soon had the college rebuilt. A second fire ruined a large part of the new structure, but, nothing daunted, he went on and again placed the institution on a firm foundation.

It is estimated that from 1821 to 1833, during which time St. Mary’s College was under his immediate direction, at least twelve hundred students received instruction there, and carried the benefit of their education to all parts of Kentucky, some of them establishing private schools on their return to their respective neighborhoods. Father Byrne, after twelve years’ management of the college, made a gift of it to the Society of Jesus, believing that, as he had established its success, his old friends, the Jesuits, were better qualified than he was to conduct the school. He thought of founding a new school at Nashville, where one was much needed, and, in spite of his advanced years, wrote to Bishop Flaget that all he required in leaving St. Mary’s to embark on this new enterprise was his horse and ten dollars to pay his travelling expenses. Before he could carry out the plan, however, he fell a martyr to charity. An epidemic of cholera broke out in the neighborhood and, having gone to administer the last. sacraments to a poor negro woman who was dying of the disease, he became infected himself, and died on the following day among the Fathers of the Society of Jesus with whom at Georgetown he had begun his remarkable religious life.


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