“In New York, No One Had to Ask Who Ruled the Church”

Today marks the death of Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864), one of the most colorful figures that ever wore a mitre. Born in Northern Ireland, he came to America as a young man. His first job was working in quarries, but he got into the seminary with the help of St. Elizabeth Seton. Ordained in 1826, he soon developed a knack for controversy, whether it was debating with Protestant ministers or asserting his authority over unruly congregations. In 1838 he was ordained a bishop and sent to New York to meet the needs of a rapidly growing Catholic community. By 1850, immigration from Ireland and Germany made Catholicism the nation’s single largest religious denomination. But not everyone welcomed this change, and a wave of anti-Catholicism swept the country. Following a riot in Philadelphia where several Catholic churches were burned, Hughes told New York’s mayor that ten Protestant churches would be burned for every Catholic one. (No churches were burned at all.) Hughes launched the age of “brick and mortar Catholicism.” Many of the landmarks of New York Catholic life, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, have their roots in this era. Bishops place a cross before their signature, but Hughes’ opponents claimed that his was actually a dagger. Monsignor Thomas Shelley, a historian of the New York Archdiocese, writes: “In New York no one had to ask who ruled the Church…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.’”

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