Feature Story


July 19 became a historic date 150 years ago when the Diocese of New York was considered by Pope Pius IX important enough to be made an archdiocese, with a broad territory and a colorful and controversial archbishop, John Hughes.

To commemorate the anniversary, Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley has written a fascinating profile of the times, the immigrant population and the first Archbishop of New York who made it the most important archdiocese in the country.


This coming July 19 is an important anniversary for New York Catholics. On that day, 150 years ago, Pope Pius IX recognized that the Diocese of New York had grown to such an extent since its founding in 1808 that it deserved to be an archdiocese. As a result, on July 19, 1850, the Holy Father formally established the Archdiocese of New York. At the same time he appointed Bishop John Hughes the first archbishop. Ever since that date the man and the archdiocese have been inseparably linked.

In 1850 John Hughes was no stranger to New York. At that point he had already been a resident of the city for 12 years. An Irish immigrant, who was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Philadelphia in 1827, John Hughes first came to New York in 1838 to serve as coadjutor bishop to the aging Bishop John Dubois. The following year, after Dubois suffered a series of debilitating strokes, Hughes was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese. Then, upon the death of Dubois in 1842, Hughes automatically succeeded him as the fourth Bishop of New York.

When the Holy See established the Archdiocese of New York on July 19, 1850, it was not only an acknowledgment that America's largest city deserved to be the site of an archdiocese, but also a vote of confidence in Bishop Hughes. By that date, Hughes was already a national figure, the first Bishop of New York to achieve such prominence. He was, in the words of one of his biographers, Henry Browne, "the best known, if not exactly the best loved Catholic bishop in the country." On the local level he had already performed wonders in bringing order and discipline to a chaotic diocese.


History From Above and Below

Today the Great Man approach to history is neither politically correct nor academically fashionable. For a long time American Catholic history was rightly criticized because it was written almost exclusively from that narrow perspective. In the case of New York Catholic history, Professor Jay P. Dolan of the University of Notre Dame provided a needed corrective a quarter of a century ago with his pioneering work, "The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865." It was a refreshingly different kind of Church history. As the subtitle of the book indicates, it is history written from below rather than from above.

More specifically, it is Church history from the perspective of the people in the pews rather than that of the bishops. Dolan's book has since become something of a minor classic in the field of American Church history. It is still in print as an inexpensive paperback from the University of Notre Dame Press and is an invaluable guide to the history of antebellum Catholic New York.

However, one need only look in the index of "The Immigrant Church" to see how John Hughes dominates the story for the last 25 years covered by Dolan's book. Even in a work that was deliberately designed as social history rather than episcopal biography, John Hughes emerges as a bigger than life figure. "In New York no one had to ask who ruled the Church," Dolan explained. "John Hughes was boss....He ruled like an Irish chieftain." That meant that his style was not dialogic. When two Irish-born priests complained to him that he had violated their rights in canon law, Hughes shot back that "he would teach them County Monaghan canon law and send them back to the bogs whence they came." Father Ambrose Manahan, an eccentric New York priest who occasionally felt Hughes' wrath, once described him as "a tyrant, but with feeling."

John Hughes did not single-handedly make New York the largest and most important archdiocese in the United States. Historians like Jay Dolan have filled in the picture for us by identifying many of the less prominent men and women--lay, religious and clerical--who made vital contributions to the shaping of New York Catholicism. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that the story would have unfolded as it did without the raw energy, determination and courage of John Hughes. For better or worse, he put his stamp on the Church in New York as no one else has done before or since. To be sure, there is more to the story of New York Catholicism than John Hughes, but it is not a bad idea to begin the story with him.


The Controversial Young Bishop

John Hughes was only 41 years old, and only 11 years a priest, when he was made a bishop. Within six years he was nationally famous because of three well-publicized battles that he fought in New York. The first battle was an internal church matter over lay trusteeism, the system which gave elected lay trustees considerable authority in the administration of parishes. The system was not as democratic as it seems because the trustees were not elected by all the parishioners, but only by the wealthier pewholders. In some dioceses the system worked well, but in New York it did not, not even in the cathedral parish. There the unpopular French-born bishop, John Dubois, was often at loggerheads with the Irish-born trustees. The situation came to a head when the trustees summoned the police to remove a Sunday school teacher hired by Dubois. At that point Hughes decided to act.

The young bishop called a public meeting to test whether the action of the trustees really represented the wishes of the parishioners. More than 600 people showed up at the meeting on Feb. 24, 1839. Hughes was not only a born fighter, but also a born orator, who knew how to sway a crowd, especially a crowd of fellow Irishmen. Hughes accused the trustees of treating old Bishop Dubois in the same condescending way the British had treated the Catholic clergy in Ireland. Hughes pulled out all the stops. He warned them that the "sainted spirits" of their forebears would "disavow and disown them, if...they allowed pygmies among themselves to filch away rights of the Church which their glorious ancestors would not yield but with their lives to the persecuting giant of the British Empire."

It was sheer demagoguery, but it worked. Hughes said that, by the time he had finished speaking, many in the audience were weeping like children. And he added, that (after listening to his own oratory), "I was not far from it myself." Hughes' performance on that occasion was the beginning of the end of lay trusteeism in New York. "It is a revolution," he said, "and, I trust, a happy one in its consequences for religion."

John Hughes walked into an even bigger battle in June 1840 when he took on the Public School Society, a private organization, funded by the state, which ran all of the city's public schools. Catholics complained that the schools had become nondenominational Protestant schools where their religion was mocked and vilified. At the suggestion of Gov. William Seward, the Catholics of New York asked for a share of state funds for their own schools. Hughes took up the cudgels on their behalf and waged a battle with the Public School Society that lasted almost two years.

Hughes expected opposition from the heavily Protestant Whig Party, but he was angry when the Democrats, who depended on the immigrants' votes, failed to give him support. In retaliation he engineered the formation of an ad hoc Catholic political party to teach the Democrats a lesson. In the state elections of 1841, the Catholic party got only 2,200 votes, but the Democrats lost New York City by a mere 290 votes. Hughes won the battle, but he lost the war. In April 1842 the state Legislature abolished the Public School Society in favor of elected school boards, but it also forbade all religious instruction in the public schools, an outcome that Hughes neither intended nor desired. As a consequence he decided to build his own Catholic school system.

"The time has almost come," he said in 1850, "when we shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward."

Hot on the heels of the school controversy came Hughes' third battle, which showed him at his feisty best or worst, depending on one's point of view. In May 1844 anti-Catholic Nativist rioters in Philadelphia burned down two Catholic churches in several days of violence that cost a dozen lives. The Nativist leaders then announced their intention of coming to New York City to stage a large public demonstration that almost certainly would have precipitated anti-Catholic riots. Bishop Hughes placed armed guards around his churches and warned the mayor that "if a single Catholic church were burned in New York, the city would become a second Moscow." John Hughes' tough talk paid off. Under pressure from him and other civic leaders, the Nativists canceled their rally.

Writing anonymously afterward in the diocesan newspaper, Hughes gloated with satisfaction. "There is not a [Catholic] church in the city," he wrote, "which was not protected with an average force of one to two thousand men--cool, collected, armed to the teeth--and with a firm determination, after taking as many lives as they could in defense of their property, to give up, if necessary, their own lives for the same cause." Hughes' statement did not exactly breathe the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, and he wildly exaggerated the number of guards he placed around his churches. Nonetheless, it was his very belligerence that preserved the peace. Ray Allen Billington, the pre-eminent historian of American Nativism, gave the embattled bishop high marks for his tactics and credited him with "saving New York from a period of mob rule such as that which had racked Philadelphia."


New York's Immigrant Church

When John Hughes came to New York in 1838, the diocese was 10 times the size of the present-day Archdiocese of New York. It included all of New York state and the northern half of New Jersey, an area of 55,000 square miles, with about 200,000 Catholics. In that extensive diocese there were only 38 churches and 50 priests, two Catholic schools and a few orphan asylums. There was not a single Catholic college, seminary, rectory, hospital or other institution. "The churches were too few," said Hughes, "and these [were] in debt to an amount greater than they would have brought at public auction." Moreover, Hughes added: "The people were too poor and for a long time the increase of their numbers only added to their poverty as emigrants arrived in our port from Europe penniless and destitute." The plight of the Irish famine victims was especially pitiable. "The utter destitution in which they reached these shores," said Hughes, "is almost inconceivable."

New York City underwent a major transformation during the quarter-century that John Hughes headed the Church in New York. In 1838, 14th Street was the northern boundary of the city. During the next 25 years a whole "new city" grew up between 14th Street and 42nd Street with almost 200,000 additional people. The total population of the city approached 800,000. At the time of Hughes' death in 1864, one out of every four New Yorkers was born in Ireland, and one out of every six New Yorkers was born in Germany. Thanks to this massive immigration, Catholics probably constituted half of the population of the city. By that date, new dioceses had been created in Buffalo, Albany, Newark and Brooklyn, reducing the size of the Archdiocese of New York to its present boundaries. Nonetheless, even within the limited confines of the archdiocese, John Hughes faced the daunting challenge of caring for a Catholic population that numbered 400,000.

Most New York City Catholics of that era were poor immigrants. The Irish were concentrated in lower Manhattan, especially in the Sixth Ward, the "Bloody Auld Sixth," as it was called, where it was alleged that there was one grog shop for every six inhabitants. It is a matter of dispute among historians whether these Irish Catholic immigrants were regular churchgoers, but there can be no doubt about their generosity to the Church despite their extreme poverty. Many lived in rickety tenements without adequate light or sanitation that stood next to slaughter houses, stables and breweries. The men found work as day laborers, stage-coach drivers, construction workers or longshoremen, while the women often were employed as domestics. Most of the clergy who ministered to them were also Irish-born, like Father John Power, the pastor of St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street. A notable exception was Father Felix Varela, the Cuban-born pastor of Transfiguration Church on Mott Street, who was enormously popular with his Irish congregation.

The only other large Catholic ethnic group, the Germans, lived mainly in the four wards of the lower East Side. They tended to keep their distance from the Irish and desired to have their own parochial schools, hospital, orphanage and even a separate German Catholic cemetery. As early as 1833 they got their own German national parish, St. Nicholas on East Second Street, founded by Father John Raffeiner, the pioneer German priest in New York. Father John Neumann, who was canonized in 1977, celebrated his first Mass in the church on June 26, 1836. However, St. Nicholas Church was soon overshadowed by a second German church, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on East Third Street. In 1851 the Redemptorist Fathers, who administered the parish, replaced the original wooden church with the present stone building which could accommodate 3,500 worshipers. For many years it was the unofficial German Catholic cathedral in New York.

Ethnic rivalry sometimes flared between New York's Irish and German Catholics. In 1847 the Redemptorists established a German church on the lower West Side, St. Alphonsus on Thompson Street. The Irish began to attend Mass there in large numbers, and the pastor noticed that they were contributing more in the collection than the Germans. When he made plans for a new and larger church, he made provision for a basement church as well. Some German parishioners objected to the inclusion of a basement church for fear that they would be relegated there. "We will not go downstairs and have the Irish over our heads," they announced.

Neither Italians nor Hispanics nor Slavs nor Asian Catholics were present in New York in any appreciable numbers in John Hughes' day. However, in addition to the Irish and German Catholics, there was also a small French Catholic community that was sufficiently numerous to form its own Church of St. Vincent de Paul in 1841. The most famous member of this French-speaking community was not a Frenchman at all, but a black slave from Haiti, Pierre Toussaint, who came to New York in 1797, was emancipated in 1807, and became a prosperous hairdresser. A pewholder in St. Peter's Church as well as a benefactor of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul until his death in 1853, Pierre Toussaint was well known for his generosity to the poor, especially to the children in the Catholic orphan asylum. Cardinal O'Connor introduced the cause for his canonization in 1990, and in 1997 he was declared Venerable.

This rapidly growing Catholic population created an insatiable demand for more churches, schools and charitable institutions. In 1859 Archbishop Hughes boasted that he had dedicated 97 churches in the previous 20 years, an average of one new church every 10 weeks. In the area that remained part of the archdiocese, he established no fewer than 61 new parishes. Some of the city parishes served huge numbers of people. At St. Stephen's Church on East 28th Street, 10,000 people attended Mass every Sunday. In addition to the parish, the pastor, Father Jeremiah Cummings, and his single curate were responsible for the care of 1,000 Catholic patients in Bellevue Hospital.

Education was a major priority for Hughes, "the subject of all others that he had nearest his heart," according to his secretary and biographer, John Hassard. By 1864 three-quarters of the parishes had parochial schools, 12 of them "select" schools that charged tuition and the other 31 "free" schools. Both these schools and the growing number of Catholic charitable institutions depended for their existence on the religious communities of men and women who staffed them. In 1838 there was only one religious community in the diocese, the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, who had come to New York City in 1817 to open the first Catholic orphan asylum. By 1864 there were 10 additional religious communities of men and women at work in New York. Most of them came at Hughes' invitation, and their presence soon made an incalculable difference in the quality of Catholic life throughout the archdiocese.


The Role of Religious Communities

New York's first religious community, the Sisters of Charity, became embroiled in a dispute with Hughes that led to a split in the community in 1846. Of the 62 sisters in New York, 29 returned to Emmitsburg while the other 33 sisters formed their own diocesan community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Their first superior, Mother Elizabeth Boyle, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton herself, was a convert to Catholicism. The Sisters of Charity grew rapidly in the late 19th century and became the largest community of women religious in the archdiocese. They numbered 930 by 1885 and provided an army of teachers for the parochial schools. During the cholera epidemic of 1849 they established New York's first Catholic hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital, under the direction of Sister Angela Hughes, the archbishop's sister. They also staffed the girls division of the Catholic Protectory, a large child-caring institution established by John Hughes in 1863. Shortly after Hughes' death, Sister Irene Fitzgibbon founded one of New York City's most famous charitable institutions, the New York Foundling Hospital. At Sister Irene's death in 1896, The New York Times called her "the most remarkable woman of her age in her field of philanthropy."

John Hughes was especially fond of the Sisters of Mercy, whom he personally invited to the diocese on a trip to Dublin. The first seven sisters arrived in New York in 1846. As was their custom in the major port cities of the United States, three years later they opened a House of Mercy on Houston Street, which was both a residence and a vocational school for single immigrant girls. The House of Mercy proved so successful that it placed 8,000 girls in jobs during its first five years of operation. Other Sisters of Mercy volunteered as nurses in military hospitals during the Civil War and served as unofficial chaplains at the notorious Tombs Prison.

The Religious of the Sacred Heart came to the diocese in 1841 and opened an academy of "young ladies of the higher class." Tuition was a steep $250 per year, an indication of a developing Catholic middle class with social aspirations for its daughters. The sisters also used the tuition from their academy to operate a free school for the poor. The other new women religious were the Ursulines who began an academy in Morrisania in 1855; the School Sisters of Notre Dame who came from Germany in 1857 to staff the parochial school of Most Holy Redeemer parish and to open a German orphan asylum in Yorkville; and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who established a home for delinquent girls on East 14th Street in 1857.

The first male religious community to make a permanent foundation in New York was the Redemptorists in 1842. Hughes was happy to have them for two reasons. They staffed several of the big German parishes, and they also specialized in conducting parish missions in both German and English. These parish missions were the Catholic equivalent of Protestant revivals, and the Redemptorists' preaching was very much of the fire-and-brimstone variety. One of them gave such a vivid description of hell from the pulpit one summer day when the windows of the church were open that firemen from a nearby firehouse rushed to the church to put out the blaze.

The Fathers of Mercy, a small French community, arrived in 1842 to take charge of St. Vincent de Paul Church. A few years later the first Brothers of the Christian Schools also came from France. They provided teachers for the boys in many of the parochial schools, staffed the boys division of the Catholic Protectory and started an academy that developed into Manhattan College. Hughes also tried to bring the Dominican Friars to New York, but their Master General politely but firmly declined the invitation. Three years after Hughes' death, however, they arrived in New York to establish St. Vincent Ferrer Church at Lexington Avenue and 66th street. By that time both the Order of Friars Minor and the Capuchin Friars were also at work in the archdiocese, at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street and St. John's Church on West 30th Street respectively.

In 1858 Archbishop Hughes also welcomed Father Isaac Hecker to the archdiocese where he established the headquarters of his new Missionary Society of St. Paul (Paulist Fathers), the first religious community of men founded in the United States. Like Hecker himself, the other original members of this community were all converts, who devoted their energies to explaining the Catholic Church to America, and America to the Catholic Church. At their Church of St. Paul the Apostle on West 59th Street, they also established a model parish that was noted for the quality of its liturgy, music, lectures and catechetical programs.

John Hughes was also happy to have the Jesuits back in New York. They had been here twice before, briefly in the 1680s under colonial Gov. Thomas Dongan, and again from 1808 to 1815, when they literally ran the infant Diocese of New York under the capable leadership of Father Anthony Kohlmann. The "Third Coming" of the Society of Jesus to New York occurred in 1846 when Hughes invited a group of exiled French Jesuits in Kentucky to take charge of his new college and seminary at Fordham. He also assigned to them the parish of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan.

Hughes was as much interested in Catholic higher education as he was in parochial schools. In 1839 he bought 100 acres of Fordham Manor, and there he founded St. Joseph's Seminary in 1840 and St. John's College the following year. "I had not, when I purchased the site," he admitted, "so much as a penny wherewith to commence the payment for it." Although Bishop Hughes was desperate for more diocesan priests, he also was concerned about the caliber of the New York presbyterate. "Clergymen, some of doubtful character and some of whom there is no doubt have found easy admission into the diocese," he complained, "and religion suffers in consequence." Both the seminary and the college were operated by the diocesan clergy until Hughes handed them over to the Society of Jesus in 1846. The Jesuits continued to operate the seminary until 1855 when they withdrew after a series of disputes with Hughes. New York's first St. Joseph's Seminary lasted another five years under diocesan management, but Hughes was forced to close it in 1860 due to lack of money and faculty. "The pride of my early episcopacy," he called it wistfully.

St. John's College had a happier fate and developed into Fordham University. The Jesuits established a second college in New York in 1850, the College of St. Francis Xavier, a commuter college on West 16th Street. Tuition at St. John's College was $200 per year; at St. Francis Xavier, it was only $60 per year, putting it within reach of the Catholic lower middle class. During its brief 61-year history (it merged with Fordham in 1911), the College of St. Francis Xavier provided both the Society of Jesus and the archdiocese with numerous vocations. It also educated a whole corps of successful businessmen, teachers, doctors and lawyers, who formed the Catholic lay elite in New York. Membership in its alumni association, the Xavier Union, was so coveted that it was transformed into the prestigious Catholic Club of New York with a stately clubhouse on Central Park South.


The Lion in Winter

The historian E.P. Spann has pointed out that New York City in the mid-19th century was "the capital of Protestant America." It contained the headquarters of powerful interdenominational organizations like the American Bible Society whose interlocking directorates formed the so-called Benevolent Empire. Many Protestant leaders, said Spann, "made no secret of their belief that Roman Catholicism was alien and inferior." Undeterred either by the poverty of his own people or the prejudice of others, John Hughes decided to erect a monumental edifice in New York City that would serve as a statement that Catholics had indeed arrived in the capital of Protestant America.

At an elaborate ceremony on Aug. 15, 1858, John Hughes blessed the cornerstone of the new St. Patrick's Cathedral. "We propose," he announced, "to erect a cathedral in the city of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth as a religious community." Critics called it "Hughes' folly" because the location was so far from downtown, but, a few years later, the City Directory stated that "a more eligible location could not have been chosen for so vast and imposing a structure." Construction of the cathedral was halted during the Civil War, and unfortunately Hughes never lived to see the building finished. It was dedicated in 1879 by his successor, Cardinal John McCloskey, who also completed the twin steeples. Still later Archbishop Michael Corrigan added the Lady Chapel and Cardinal Francis Spellman renovated the sanctuary. Other archbishops of New York have embellished it in various ways, but it always will remain John Hughes' monument. It was his vision and daring that gave New York's Catholics "a cathedral of suitable magnificence."

It was an indication of Hughes' stature that during the Civil War, at the request of his old friend William Seward, now Secretary of State, he made a trip to France on behalf of the Union cause. Like most Catholics of the northern states, the archbishop strongly supported the war to preserve the Union, but he vigorously opposed the abolition of slavery. In July 1863 anti-draft riots broke out in the city. For three days mobs, many of them composed of Irish Catholics, roamed the city leaving 107 dead and many wounded. Innocent blacks were the special object of the rioters' fury. By this time John Hughes was a dying man. However, at the request of the mayor, he made his last public appearance when he appealed for peace from the balcony of his Madison Avenue residence after the riots had been forcibly suppressed.

It is an understatement to say that John Hughes was a complex character. He was impetuous and authoritarian, a poor administrator and worse financial manager, indifferent to the non-Irish members of his flock, and prone to invent reality when it suited the purposes of his rhetoric. One of the Jesuit superiors at Fordham with whom he quarreled said, "He has an extraordinarily overbearing character; he has to dominate." Nonetheless, through sheer strength of character, Hughes won the grudging respect of his opponents and the unconditional loyalty of the New York Irish who composed the vast majority of the local Catholic community.

The secret of his success is to be found in his ability to identify himself so thoroughly with the problems and difficulties of his fellow Irish immigrants. Born in County Tyrone in 1797, he once remarked that, for the first five days of his life, he was "on social and civil equality with the most favored subjects of the British Empire." Once he was baptized a Catholic, however, John Hughes immediately became a second-class citizen in 18th-century Ireland. As a young immigrant without education or skills, he spent his first few years in America as a common laborer. Thus he had firsthand experience of both the prejudice and poverty that were the common lot of the Irish immigrants of his day. He never forgot his roots and became a fearless and articulate spokesman for his people when they had few others to speak on their behalf. Governor Seward told him: "You have begun a great work in the elevation of the rejected immigrant, a work auspicious to the destiny of that class and still more beneficial to our common country."

Like many public figures of comparable stature, John Hughes will remain forever controversial as revisionist historians debate his merits and shortcomings. Perhaps the late Msgr. John Tracy Ellis offered the most balanced assessment to date. Ellis deplored Hughes' bluster and lack of tact, and he admitted that John Hughes was "not what one would call a likeable character." However, Ellis insisted on the necessity of judging Hughes in the context of his own time. Writing in 1966, Msgr. Ellis reminded a Catholic critic of Hughes that "the Protestantism of the 1840s, or for that matter, the Protestantism of the United States down almost to the present decade, was in no sense the ecumenical-minded, irenic Protestantism [that] has so radically altered its tone with regard to Catholicism in recent years." For that reason, said Ellis, "there were times when [Hughes'] very aggressiveness was about the only approach that would serve the end that he was seeking, viz., justice for his people."

On July 19, 2000, when New York Catholics observe the 150th anniversary of their archdiocese, it is to be hoped that they will also remember their first archbishop, warts and all.

Msgr. Shelley is a priest of the New York Archdiocese and a professor of history at Fordham University in the Bronx.