I came across a true “period piece” in an online bookstore, “Catholic Bishops: A Memoir”  by Father John Tracy Ellis. This brief but captivating narrative of the American “episcopal giants” of the twentieth century reminds us that the office of bishop in the United States has evolved significantly throughout the history of this country. A U.S. Catholic bishop in the 1920’s exercised his power in different ways than his frontier predecessor of the 1820’s or than the pastoral coordinator of the 2020’s. Many of the bishops Ellis describes in this memoir are the big city bishops of the coasts and the Midwest, where immigration had fed city church rolls and made the urban bishop both a spiritual father and a metropolitan player, so to speak, in public affairs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis.
Ellis [1905-1992] knew many of America’s bishops from his years of teaching history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. In his time the bishops, as chancellors of the nation’s only pontifical university, made frequent visits to the campus as its custodians, as well as conducting their annual meetings on the campus. The author found himself in close proximity to many and developed longstanding friendships with not a few. Many bishops would have been familiar with Ellis’s epic history of James Gibbons [1834-1921], the U.S.’s second cardinal, though some bishops complained that Ellis was less deferential and more candid in his treatment of this eminent churchman than they would have liked.
Ellis is not without his agenda in this work, and it should come as no surprise to those who recall that in 1955 this priest-historian excoriated the American Catholic Church for the poor academic quality of its colleges and seminaries in his essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” published in the journal Thought, a piece that desperately needs redistribution in seminaries and, yes, parishes today. He held a special respect for the rare bishop who was himself well educated or who supported quality education, but his regard for episcopal acumen was generally pessimistic. At a Catholic University banquet to welcome a foreign church dignitary, the school’s bishop-chancellor introduced Ellis to his guest: “He writes books.” Ellis frequented chanceries around the country to seek permission and access to the papers of deceased bishops, perhaps another reason for his modest expectations.
Ellis begins his walk down memory lane with Chicago’s George W. Mundelein [r. 1915-1939], a surprise candidate from Brooklyn known for “thinking big,” including an ambitious plan to merge his archdiocesan seminary with Loyola and De Paul Universities, a menage trois never consummated beyond a chaste kiss. His installation is remembered for, among other things, the poisoning of the soup at his evening banquet by an anarchist which sickened several hundred people.
Michael Curley [r. St. Augustine, Florida 1914–1921; Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland 1921–1939; first archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington 1939–1947] was respected by the author for his tolerance of scholars and teachers with whom he disagreed. Curley, who opened the Baltimore-Washington archives to the author, made it clear he did not appreciate Ellis’s biographical treatment of Cardinal Gibbons. Yet the two men grew closer as Curley’s health deteriorated, and the last formal act of the archbishop on the last night of his life was signing Ellis’s incardination papers to join the Archdiocese of Washington.
A towering figure—in multiple senses—was William Cardinal O’Connell [r. Portland, Maine 1901-1906; Archdiocese of Boston 1906-1944], known in Massachusetts as “Number One” for his ecclesiastical and political clout in the Commonwealth. O’Connell is believed to be the inspiration for the character of the Cardinal opponent of Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O’Connor’s novel “The Last Hurrah.” In Ellis’s assessment there is no telling how far O’Connell’s career might have progressed had it not been for the demotion of his Roman patron, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val, and a more personal setback at home.
O’Connell’s nephew, James, Chancellor of the archdiocese, “left the priesthood, married, and took a substantial sum of archdiocesan funds at his departure.” O’Connell made the mistake of denying these events in a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XV, who immediately pulled out a copy of the civil marriage license from his desk. [p. 73] Coincidence or not, O’Connell was assigned the one auxiliary bishop he did not want, Francis Spellman. Of “Spelly,” O’Connell was supposed to have said, “Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read.”
Ellis writes of Spellman [r. Archbishop of New York 1939-1967] that at his death in 1967, two years after Vatican II, the end of the era of the episcopal giants was at hand, given the Council’s emphasis upon the collegiality of bishops and broader structures of participatory leadership. The author had multiple dealings with Spellman, who was pressing for a biography of New York’s Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes of the Civil War era. To treat of Spellman, of course, meant treating of Fulton Sheen, with whom Ellis had a long professional and personal relationship. The author, in his student days, had served as Sheen’s secretary, and later lived with him in Washington for a time. Ellis provides fascinating information, such as the bishop’s acquired wealth from television and other ventures. The famous feud between Spellman and Sheen, which led to the latter’s exile to Rochester, N.Y., in 1966 is noted but not elongated.
Ellis, a Catholic University graduate and professor, devotes a chapter to the bishop-rectors of the school. He notes that “the university was made to suffer from the interference and bungling of churchmen who were ill equipped to foster true university education. [p. 32] He provides insights into the lives of auxiliary bishops, of which the U.S. was awash, mostly men who had resigned themselves to careers on the “Confirmation circuit.” Many auxiliaries proved to be excellent sources for this intriguing introductory glance into the twentieth century American hierarchy by a true working historian.
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