Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America by John Loughery Read Now
I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to study history is through biographies, and in the case of “Dagger John”  we get a graduate course on American church and state through the story of Archbishop John Hughes of New York. A proud, smart, pugnacious, energetic, and critical man, Hughes did not need resort to the blade to make his points—even if the cross next to his signature bore a striking similarity to, well, a dagger. Hughes’ weapons were his personality, his pen, his policies, and his politics. As a young Irish immigrant, his eventual understanding of American social and political life is a marvel to behold, to the point that several American presidents would seek his religious/political council. [He was also probably the first, and certainly not the last, American bishop to wear a hairpiece.]
Born in 1797 in Annaloghan, in Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, John Hughes entered the world in a period of high stress in the saga of Irish-British relations complicated in no small part by the French Revolution. His family was devoutly Roman Catholic at a time when observance of the faith was hidden out of necessity. His father, a man of modest means but considerable wisdom, navigated a cautious existence in Ulster where Catholics were a distinct minority, such that young John was able to get some schooling and develop a passion for books and reading. The Hughes family emigrated piecemeal to the United States in 1816, and in doing so avoided the horrors of the potato famine a generation later. They settled along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border north of Baltimore and close to St. Mary’s, the oldest seminary in the United States and still in operation today.
Young John Hughes was not a mystic, nor would he ever become one. His religious experience throughout his life seemed to center on a strong confidence in the truth of the Catholic tradition and a healthy pride in disseminating the faith as it had been preserved and protected by his Irish forebears. Coupled with this was a thirst for justice and an innate sensitivity to the sufferings of the poor, particularly his fellow Irish. It is unclear when the future bishop surmised he had a vocation to the priesthood, but having made this decision, he set his cap for a most improbable goal—admission to St. Mary’s, then a boarding school for teenaged boys and a major seminary. His biographer John Loughery describes the odds: “A man who was too old and too poor to attend the school as a student was going to show up and ask to be admitted as a seminarian-tutor when he had only a few years’ attendance at an Irish grammar school to recommend him.” [p. 35] He suffered several rejections before he was hired by the seminary as a groundskeeper, allowed to sleep in a dilapidated cabin.
Loughery explains that in 1820 there was little glamor in becoming a priest in the United States; anti-Catholicism was quite strong in his day, and even in some respects well into the twentieth century [to the election of President John Kennedy in 1960, one might argue.] The appeal of the priesthood to a candidate in Hughes’ time was, in the author’s words, “being called, and it was a certain kind of empowerment…a sense that one was giving oneself to a formidable cause, both temporal and eternal, potentially living a life beyond what others lived….” [p. 36] I might add here that if we look down the road at the future bishop’s social concern we see his social sympathy—later in life he labored mightily to save young boys and girls in New York from what we call today “sexual trafficking”—and his belief that the priesthood was the best vehicle for him to address these concerns.
Hughes labored on the grounds while hectoring the seminary’s rector, Father John Dubois, for admission. Several local priests took an interest in Hughes but doubted his fitness for the seminary until Elizabeth Seton, whose new community of sisters was also based in Emmitsburg, MD, put in a good word. Dubois finally accepted him on a work-tuition basis; Hughes continued to work on the grounds elbow to elbow with the seminary’s slaves, and he became the butt of jokes from seminarians who, in many cases, were younger than himself. Dubois—a refugee from the French Revolution--eventually came around to respect Hughes’ character and dedication to studies.
It is a testimony to the small number of priests in nineteenth century America that a goodly number of the friends made by Hughes in his seminary days would become bishops and administrators throughout the country into the mid-nineteenth century. It is also true that a growing number of St. Mary’s finest students were of Irish descent, a point of some concern among the seminary’s benefactors who were not prepared for an influx of Irishmen in American churches. Loughery notes that in 1820 there was no standard seminary curriculum; the local bishop determined coursework. Hughes was fortunate to develop a close relationship with the seminary’s one true scholar, Simon Brute, who introduced him to many treasures of Church writing as well as ancient and contemporary general writing. Hughes later demonstrated familiarity with Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and other Enlightenment authors.
Hughes was slow to master public speaking, but once overcoming his hesitancy, he was eager to enter the pulpit. Ordained a deacon, he was assigned to a Philadelphia parish where his preaching caught the attention of the bishop. Ordained a priest for the Philadelphia diocese on October 25, 1826, his first brief assignment in a “ramshackle chapel” was quickly followed by a transfer to a more upscale Philly parish. The Philadelphia diocese included all of Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as western New Jersey, in 1826. This broad expanse was populated by 100,000 Catholics in twenty-two parishes served by, give or take, forty priests. The rugged demands of pastoring broke many priests, and replacements from Europe, mostly, were hard to come by. Some years ago, I read a biography of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia [r. 1852-1860], the first male canonized saint in the United States and a later colleague of Hughes. Neumann, during his priestly and episcopal duties, employed a horse-drawn buckboard to visit his churches in Scranton and Harrisburg, no easy task. Physical stamina was a necessary charism for pastoral duties. Hughes, who favored the new rail system as well as transatlantic passenger ships down the road, was well served by his arduous youthful physical labors and was a dynamo of energy until Bright’s Disease [kidneys] and rheumatism crippled him to his death in 1864.
Much of his Irish energy was employed in the service of “apologetics,” or spirited defense of the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Early in his priesthood, while boarding at a rural inn, he was accosted by three “anti-papists.” A dagger might have brought matters to an unruly end, at least for the three antipapists, but Hughes discovered that “the word is indeed mightier than the blade.” Moreover, the verbal confrontation was exhilarating. On that night at the inn, he powerfully resisted the slurs against the Church in a way that subdued his attackers without a blow being struck. To the future good of the Church, Hughes discovered he enjoyed the repartee with the Church’s enemies, and his written and published wars with other religious antagonists, politicians, and even Catholic critics became the stuff of legend, published prominently in Catholic and secular publications. Later, as bishop, he was overwhelmed with invitations to speaking engagements. Self-assertion would never be found wanting in Hughes’ ministry.
It did not hurt Hughes’ career advancement that his Philadelphia bishop, Henry Conwell was in decline. The Vatican was displeased that Conwell had failed to win over the Catholics at the cathedral, failed to bring order to the diocese, and was too soft with lay trustees who sought to run the local diocese. [See “Trusteeism,” eventually condemned by Rome.] Hughes watched the Vatican-Conwell conflict closely as an important lesson for his own future. Another future giant of the American Church eventually replaced Conwell, Francis Patrick Kenrick, who quashed the Trustee revolt and called for the establishment of a Catholic school system. Kenrick appointed Hughes his vicar general, though he had reservations that his vicar was “so busy, so restless, so political, so opinionated.” [p. 67]
But Kenrick realized that Hughes had an unusual knack of getting things done, and in 1830-Philadelphia there was a lot to do. The vicar was charged with the planning and construction of a new cathedral, to be owned exclusively by the diocese, without trustee involvement. His first two hires—of the architect and the financier—were brilliant, though his extravagant vision of the new cathedral was estimated to cost $60,000. But a greater challenge diverted his pastoral attention—the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. sparked by the new wave of Irish immigrants arriving in ever larger numbers, and the tenuous Catholicism of the immigrants themselves. For much of his clerical life, Hughes was immersed in the trifold ministries of protecting his people from violence and prejudice, proselytizing them to regular practice of the faith, and providing for their education and assimilation into American society.
I will assume that most of you, from your study of American history, are familiar with our nation’s persistent pestilence of xenophobia, which from time to time rises to dangerous and violent episodes. The “Know Nothings” of the 1850’s would be a problem for Hughes down the road, but in the 1830’s an influx of Irish and German immigrants stirred violence in many cities including Boston, where a convent was burned to the ground. This decade was the age of the lurid novels which portrayed Catholic life and institutions as depraved, devious, and anti-Christian. Hughes engaged in a lengthy war of letters with the anti-Catholic John Breckinridge, a Presbyterian minister who later ran for president of the United States in 1860.
But Hughes came to realize that at some level he would need to enter the national political conversation. This was delicate work: the fear of most Protestants was precisely that the tentacles of Rome would reach across the Atlantic and eradicate democracy in favor of the old “throne and altar” arrangement of European monarchies. In the presidential election of 1832 Hughes broke his own rule that priests should not vote; he cast a ballot for Henry Clay and told his congregation what he had done. [Andrew Jackson defeated Clay.] It is not hard to imagine why Hughes would take a liking to Clay—the latter was a master of compromise, an advocate of public works, and a gentleman with whom one could do business. Hughes was not an intuitive compromiser, but Clay’s success convinced him that he needed to keep this arrow in his quiver.
In November 1837, at the age of forty, John Hughes was appointed coadjutor bishop of New York [i.e., auxiliary with right of succession]. His bishop was none other than John Dubois, his nemesis from seminary days. Dubois was sick and demoralized by his responsibilities, leaving Hughes considerable latitude to steer his own direction in a city of 300,000, of whom about 20% were at least nominally Catholic. Of the seven churches in New York City, five were on the verge of bankruptcy, and the collective indebtedness of the diocese was $300,000. Priests rented rooms as most parishes did not have rectories. New York’s financial situation was obviously untenable, but in the face of it we see something of Hughes’ strength of vision: he was equally concerned that less than half of the Catholic children in New York were attending school at all, either public schools or the few Catholic elementary schools conducting classes in church basements. He realized that without education these children would be condemned to a life of poverty—and in many cases, prisoners of the sex industry.
The coadjutor took a full year to visit his diocese, which reached from New Jersey to Buffalo, and he realized that a certain ruthlessness would be necessary to put the diocese on a healthier trajectory. When trustees threatened to interfere at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he threatened to close the church. He dismissed disobedient or scandalous priests, despite the small size of his presbyterate, and determined that his diocese needed its own college/seminary, in what was then Westchester County, NY, a bold project for the time. The campaign for funds for the seminary project was a disappointment, however, and Hughes learned that he would need to develop a network of new major donors, and thus began his periodic ventures to Europe to solicit support for the success of the American mission, which in fact was the official designation given to our country by the Vatican at this time.
Hughes made the first of several ventures to Europe in October 1839. Future trips kept him away from New York as long as nine months at a time. As a coadjutor bishop, he was granted access to bishops in the dioceses he visited. In Rome, Pope Gregory XVI invited Hughes to assist his Christmas Day Mass. Just before the coadjutor’s arrival in Rome, Gregory issued In supremo apostolatus, condemning the international slave trade. Even today, there is some question about how far the pope’s decree extended. Hughes was painfully aware that outside of the Northeast, Catholic priests and institutions in the United States owned slaves. In fact, before Hughes returned to the States, Martin Van Buren was already crying foul that Catholics were seeking to undermine the American economy by prohibiting slave labor. [p. 114]
Hughes himself would be morally and politically ambivalent about slavery till the end of his life. Unfortunately, he left no record of whether he and Pope Gregory discussed the American situation regarding slavery. His Irish roots and his knowledge of European history certainly made him conscious of the dangers of anarchy, which he believed would result in the United States if the slaves were released quickly, and against the will of half the states of the union. In this respect he was akin to Henry Clay, and he believed the division of the Union, as would occur in 1860, was too high a price to pay for emancipation.
However, his biographer Loughery describes a crisis of conscience endured later in life by then Archbishop Hughes during the Civil War. Hughes had hoped that his close friend William Seward would be the Republican nominee for president in 1860, believing that Seward would affect a diplomatic peace between the North and the South. He suspected—correctly, as it turned out—that Lincoln would go to war to preserve the Union. Called upon to bless regiments of Union soldiers from New York, particularly Irishmen, he was drawn more deeply into the staggering loss of life from among his flock, leading him to examine the question of violence perpetrated for a higher good. Among other things, he began to rethink his attitude toward Fenian radicalism, i.e., militant Irish resistance to British oppression. In his earlier years as a priest and bishop, Hughes believed that Fenian activism was more harmful than good, a position that most of Ireland’s bishops held throughout his lifetime. He could not square this caution, however, against the violence he was blessing in the United States on behalf of national union and emancipation. He died with this conundrum unsolved.
Returning to the states after a so-so fundraising campaign and recruiting drive for priests and religious, Hughes threw himself into the improvement of his diocese, specifically the question of schools. He was joined in this effort by the Governor of New York, the aforementioned William Seward, who agreed in principle with Hughes that Catholic schools should be supported financially by the state. “Knowledge taught by a sect is better than ignorance,” Seward proclaimed. [p. 124] However, the idea ran afoul of continuing class hatred and ethnic bigotry. His efforts to open a Catholic college in New York got off to a very rocky start, though today it survives as Fordham University.
Hughes called a synod of the diocese in 1842. Loughery explains the reason: “There was an air of disorder about everything connected to the Church, a lack of clarity and consistency that did not inspire respect. Hughes felt the need to reverse that course.” [p.144] During this synod Hughes addressed a wide range of issues ranging from pastoral laxity to failure to adhere to Church law and liturgical procedure to prohibiting Irish parishioners from joining “secret societies” based upon tribal allegiances from home. The picture of parochial life that emerges from this synod and other disciplinary interventions underscores the enormous challenges facing American bishops of this era.
Possibly the most peculiar episode of his administrative life occurred in 1846. In Baltimore for a meeting of the American bishops, Hughes received a summons to see James Buchanan, Secretary of State, in Washington. The Mexican War had begun, and President James K. Polk harbored worries about the fallout of the Protestant United States invading Catholic Mexico. Polk was not worried about Protestant American sentiment. He was concerned that the Mexican populace might believe—wrongly, according to Polk—that American intentions included the destruction of Catholicism, and cause Mexico to fight more intensely to save its religion under the rallying cries of its priests.
Polk met with Hughes personally in the White House [no notes were kept] to ask if several Catholic priests might accompany Zachary Taylor’s invasion force, “to assuage Mexican fears about American intentions.” [p. 180] Hughes replied that he had spoken to priests at Georgetown College about serving as chaplains. In the end, two Jesuits from Georgetown—neither of whom spoke Spanish—joined the force, much to the satisfaction of Catholics in Taylor’s force who complained that they were forced to attend Protestant services. One of the priests, Father McElroy, returned to become one of the founders of Boston College.
Back home, Bishop Dubois died eight months after an angry anti-Catholic mob threatened to storm his residence and kill him. Riots of this sort—often sparked by opposition to public funding of Catholic schools—rocked large city Catholic institutions through the 1840’s, including a particularly vicious episode in Philadelphia. [Perhaps the unfortunate incidents of anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia and New York had made their way into Mexican papers.] In 1850 Hughes was consecrated archbishop of New York. He was under consideration for a red hat [i.e., naming of a cardinal] but, as far as historians can tell, other American bishops counseled the pope against it because, it would seem in the final analysis, they were not all fond of him. Now in his 50’s, the burdens of his office and the onset of disease began to take its toll. A particular burden, and one that profoundly troubled him, was the Irish Potato Famine and the influx of thousands of Irish refugees in various stages of post-traumatic stress. It is not hard to imagine the utter chaos of providing social services in New York City, already stretched to breaking with previous Irish, German, and other immigrants. Hughes was particularly alarmed about the orphaned youngsters who far outnumbered the few orphanage beds available; he recruited religious communities and sought property to house these unprotected minors, who often made their way through prostitution. The archbishop also established the first Catholic hospital in New York, St. Vincent’s, in 1849.
Soon another project captured his waning energies, the construction of a new, awe-inspiring St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ground was broken with much fanfare, but a financial depression in the late 1850’s, and then the Civil War, halted construction with about twenty feet of wall completed, leading many to refer to the unfinished structure as “the box” and “Hughes’ Folly.” The church as we know it was completed in 1879, fifteen years after the death of the archbishop.
As the Archbishop was slowly dying in 1864, his last battle was not with anti-Catholics but, strangely, with the IRS. With the costs of the Civil War spiraling in its fourth year, Lincoln imposed an income tax. When the New York collectors inquired how much Hughes received in gifts and stipends, he refused to report on the grounds of separation of church and state. The fact that the bishop who fought relentlessly for the state to pay for Catholic schools would trot out this excuse for an IRS agent is not without its humor, and it underscores the truth that Hughes could be a contradictory man, much like most of us. It is some consolation that God has promised to reward us more for feeding the hungry than charming society, a truth that bodes well for the eternal destiny of Dagger John.