The Man Who Would Be Cardinal

December 20 marks the birth of Bishop Thomas A. Becker (1832-1898), first Bishop of Willmington (1868-1886) and sixth Bishop of Savannah (1886-1899). Unlike most of his fellow bishops, Becker was not a “cradle Catholic.” Born Thomas Baker in Pittsburgh, he became a Catholic while studying at the University of Virginia. (His parents were so mad they made him change his name to Becker.) He decided to study for the Diocese of Richmond, and was ordained in Rome in 1859. During the Civil War, he was staunchly pro-Confederate. As a a pastor in Union-occupied territory, he was arrested for refusing to pray for President Lincoln and for passing information to the Confederate spy Belle Boyd. The Archbishop of Baltimore got him out of jail and made him his secretary. In 1868, at age 36, he became Wilmington’s first Bishop. Many assumed he would succeed Baltimore Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley (a distant relative of FDR and St. Elizabeth Seton), but the job went to James Gibbons, who became the second American Cardinal in 1887. A dozen years before Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, Becker was one of the first bishops to advocate the right of workers to organize and join labor unions. He died in Georgia on July 29, 1899.

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