Brooklyn’s First Monsignor

When the Brooklyn Diocese was founded in 1853, the bulk of its people were German and Irish. For much of the next 75 years, the diocese had two Vicars General, one Irish and one German. (A Vicar General is in charge of a diocese during the bishop’s absence.) Today marks the death of Monsignor Michael May (1826-1895), the second German priest to serve as Vicar General and the first Brooklyn priest to be named a Monsignor. Born in Bavaria, he was ordained in 1851 and came directly to the United States. For forty-four years he served at Most Holy Trinity, the mother Church for Brooklyn’s German Catholics. He began as an assistant to Father Johann Raffeiner, the parish’s founder and Brooklyn’s first Vicar General. When Raffeiner died in 1861, May succeeded him in both positions. When Brooklyn’s first Bishop died in December 1891, Father May served as interim diocesan administrator until Bishop Charles E. McDonnell arrived in the spring of 1892. On August 2, 1893, Bishop McDonnell announced that Pope Leo XIII had named Father May a Domestic Prelate with the title of Monsignor, the first priest in the Brooklyn Diocese to be so honored. Until the pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), such honors were confined to Italy, but Pius extended the title to priests worldwide (at the recommendation of the local bishop) to strengthen worldwide devotion to the Pope. (The first American Monsignor was named in the late 1860’s: Robert Seton, grandson of St. Elizabeth Seton.)

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