What we can learn from 'Dagger John,' New York's first archbishop
Msgr. Richard Antall Aug. 15, 2019
In the midst of the continuing controversy about family separations of undocumented people at our borders, our bishop in Cleveland sent a message reproving the practice. The wording, I thought, was mild, especially when comparing it to the statements by other persons and organizations.
A woman in my parish, however, was upset. Why was the bishop entering into legal and policy questions, she wondered, where there was partisan politics involved?
I could not help but wonder what she would have thought of Archbishop John Hughes, whose biography by John Loughery was recently published, entitled “Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America” (Three Hills, $16).
As someone who had immigrated to the United States as a young man, the archbishop was in the center of tremendous social and political conflict about his fellow Irish immigrants.
The “dagger” in his sobriquet came from his custom of signing his name with a cross symbolizing his episcopal vocation. His pugnacious character made him enemies, and they saw the cross as a dagger.
Loughery is not sure the archbishop said what he reportedly asserted to the mayor of New York when asked about whether he feared for Catholic churches in New York City because nativists had burned Catholic churches and convents in Philadelphia.
Supposedly the archbishop said he was not afraid because if nativist Protestants touched Catholic churches in New York, it would become “another Moscow.” That city had been burned down as Napoleon’s Grande Armée was at the gates in 1812. The careful biographer is not sure Hughes said it.
Hughes’ life was a parable of immigrant aspiration, determination, and achievement. He discerned his vocation while working as a gardener at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. His first rector refused him admission until St. Elizabeth Ann Seton advocated for the young laborer.
Later, Hughes succeeded that rector as bishop of New York, in one of the many twists and turns of the life of this remarkable man.
Although his most famous project, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, was not finished when he died in 1864, it is a great symbol of his contribution to Catholic American history.
He claimed a place for his immigrant community and his Church in the national consciousness, and as embattled as that position was when death came to the archbishop, “his accomplishment,” says Loughery, was “to have set in motion a process that bore remarkable fruit for the better part of a century.” He lost some battles but not the war.
The military metaphor is not amiss, given his times: the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant rioting in American cities; and the acrimony of his opponents and enemies in the conflictive political issues, domestic and international (he was bishop of New York during the Irish Famine that sent hundreds of thousands of Irish to our shores).
He had to face the question of Protestant proselytizing in the public schools of New York; the anger of the federal government about the Irish resistance to the Civil War draft and — God bless him — about certain problems he had with the IRS; and the disdain of so many intellectuals (he was fiercely criticized by famous writers like Walt Whitman and Orestes Brownson) and of not-so-intellectual hacks of the popular press and even pulp novels that characterized him as duplicitous and malicious.
If you add to his life as a public figure his struggle with finances as he founded Fordham University and St. Joseph Seminary at Dunwoodie, various orphanages, and innumerable parishes, schools, and institutions (his sister, a Charity nun, founded New York’s first Catholic hospital); his conflicts with recalcitrant parish trustees and rebellious priests; and his friction with other bishops and even with the Catholic press, you can understand why the man who preached his eulogy chose as a text St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, chapter four: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course.”
The biography of “Dagger John” is a portrait of a man living in turbulent times, but it is also a depiction of a time in Catholic American history that is well worth our study because of relevant echoes in our society.
Loughery sees special relevance in the story of Hughes on such topical themes as the nature of community in our society, the “utility of any form of identity politics” and the issues surrounding “our national embrace of — and, in some quarters now, new skepticism about — multiple cultural identities.”
Like bishops today, Hughes had to work out the pastoral care of the immigrant community; the precarious financial structure of our parishes; the crucial factor of seminary formation and Catholic education in general; the scarcity and fallibility of priests and their lack of sensibility, cultural, intellectual and moral; the problems of women religious and Catholic charitable institutions; the great political divide in our nation; and the divisions “ad intra” (“at the interior”) of our Church.
Loughery recounts the sad decline of Hughes’ last years, his frustrations with his many projects, especially with St. Patrick’s, and his anguish about the Civil War.
He had been sent by William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, to Europe to speak unofficially for the Union cause in Paris, London, and Rome, but then was critical of the management of the war and especially the draft, which allowed the rich special treatment and sent many Irish young men to their death on the battlefield.
The Irish rioted about the draft in New York in 1863 and havoc reigned for three days in the city. Herman Melville said, “The rats have taken over the city.”
Hughes was condemned for not doing enough to stop the riots and then for being too understanding of the resentments of the Irish, who burned government buildings and even an orphanage for African American children. It was the worst of times for the archbishop.
Loughery seems to have a good deal of sympathy for the archbishop. The scene of the old and infirm bishop speaking at length from a balcony of his house at a crowd of thousands of Irish immigrants about his vision of integration in American society without an assimilation that meant deracination is moving.
“Dagger John” held the audience by the intensity of his speech, but apparently it was his last important public address. He would not see his people free of the stigma the riots had caused, nor ever again engage his opponents in the rhetorical battles that made him the most famous Catholic in America.
“History is the tutor of life,” said Cicero, and the life and death of Hughes gives us much to reflect on.
An archbishop who was an immigrant, and as such, a great success story, embattled in a score of conflicts, leading a divided community in a divided society, armed with only an indomitable faith in God and his Church and a love for country but also for his homeland, with critics aplenty within and without the Catholic community trying to reform, strengthen, and unify is worthy of our meditation.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge taught something apropos of what I am trying to express: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach! But passion and party blind our eyes and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”
Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of the new book “The Wedding” (Lambing Press, $16.95).
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