May Their Memory Be a Blessing

Father Anthony Kohlmann, S.J. (1771-1836)



Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of New York in 1808, but it remained an ecclesiastical orphan for the next seven years—a diocese without a resident bishop. Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore came to the rescue by appointing Father Anthony Kohlmann, a 42-year-old Jesuit and a native of Alsace, the temporary administrator of the new diocese. Kohlmann has a good claim to be considered the real founder of the Archdiocese of New York.

Father Kohlmann gave New York Catholics their first cathedral, which is known today as the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, located on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan. Kohlmann brought with him to New York five additional Jesuits, a priest and four seminarians, who opened an academy, the New York Literary Institution, which Kohlmann hoped would develop into a full-fledged Jesuit college.

 Unfortunately the school was forced to close when the Jesuits were recalled to Maryland to assure the survival of newly founded Georgetown College. Generations of New York Jesuits have gleefully quoted Kohlmann’s protest to his superior that the future of the Society of Jesus was to be in New York and that Washington would always remain “a poor beggarly place.”

Perhaps Father Kohlmann’s greatest claim to fame was his

role as a defendant in a trial in June 1813 that was to have to have national repercussions. He had been indicted for refusing to reveal the identity of a person who had returned stolen property to him in the course of a sacramental confession. Father Kohlmann’s defense was that he was obliged to remain silent because of the “seal of confession,” the requirement of his Catholic faith that he must never disclose information obtained in the course of hearing a sacramental confession.

The presence of Kohlmann as a defendant in the trial is apt to be misunderstood. He was not the victim of religious persecution or anti-Catholic prejudice. 

Both of his defense attorneys were Protestants. William Sampson was an Anglican and native of Derry, who was extremely popular among both Catholics and Protestants in the New York Irish community because of his role in the revolt of 1798 in Ireland. He published a verbatim account of the trial shortly after its conclusion in 1815, “The Catholic Question in America.He has been described as “America’s first civil rights lawyer, preceding Clarence Darrow by almost a century.”

 Kohlmann’s other attorney, Richard Riker, the city recorder and a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, cleverly argued that, if the state constitution assured Catholics of religious freedom, this assurance must include the protection of the secrecy of confession. Otherwise, he claimed, “this important branch of the Roman Catholic religion would be thus annihilated.”

The attorney general, Barent Gardinier (another member of the Dutch Reformed Church) began the trial by apologizing to the court for prosecuting the case. He was loath to do so, Gardinier said, because “it was not of so much public importance that the offence [sic] charged against the accused of receiving stolen goods should be punished, as that the repose of a respectable religious sect should be threatened with imprisonment or even a token fine.” 

Gardinier explained that he would never have prosecuted the case, “if he had not received a very earnest request from the Roman Catholic Church, urging him to bring the point now before the court to a decision.”  Kohlmann’s trial was a collusive affair concocted beforehand by co-operative Catholic and Protestant New Yorkers.

 The civil authorities were eager to drop all charges against Kohlmann, but the lay leaders of the small Catholic community, the trustees of St. Peter’s Church, where Kohlmann was pastor, refused to accept this generous offer. Instead, they called for a trial in order to establish a precedent that would protect the seal of confession from future legal challenges.

They were confident that any New York court would return a verdict favorable to Kohlmann. They were not mistaken. On June 14, 1813, when Mayor DeWitt Clinton, the presiding judge, delivered the unanimous verdict of the court acquitting Father Kohlmann, he summed up the decision in a lapidary phrase: “If [Father Kohlmann] tells the truth, he violates his ecclesiastical oath—If he prevaricates he violates his judicial oath...The only course is for the court to declare that he shall not testify or act at all.”

      A further guarantee of the inviolability of the seal of confession in civil law was added by the New York state legislature on Dec. 10, 1828, when it passed a statute that declared that “no minister of the gospel or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall be allowed to disclose any confession made to him in his professional character in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination.”

The governor who signed this bill into law was DeWitt Clinton. The New York statute of 1828 was widely imitated elsewhere in the United States. As a result, Father Kohlmann’s trial in New York City in June 1813 left a long and beneficent legacy in American religious history especially for Catholics.

Msgr. Shelley, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is emeritus professor of Church history at Fordham University.

ABOUT THIS SERIES The articles in this series on priests who have served in the Archdiocese of New York are planned to run monthly throughout 2021. Father Michael Morris, pastor of Regina Coeli parish in Hyde Park, and Msgr. Shelley will write the profiles.