As we travel around the nations’s Catholic college campuses this week, we come to Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Founded in 1856 by Newark’s first Bishop, James Roosevelt Bayley, it was named for Bayley’s cousin, the future Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821). It is the oldest diocesan-run Catholic university in the United States.
From 1868 to 1873, Father Michael Augustine Corrigan served as President of what was then known as Seton Hall College. (It became a university in 1937.) Born in Newark to an affluent family, Corrigan was a member of the first graduating class of the North American College in Rome. After his ordination in 1863, he returned to America to teach at Seton Hall and serve as President until 1873, when he was consecrated Bishop of Newark. A successful administrator, in 1885 he was named Archbishop New York, a post he held until his death in 1902.
During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the American Bishops split into two groups. One, often called the “Americanists,” took a progressive approach to social issues, particularly the rights of the American worker. They were led by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. The more conservative group was led by Corrigan and his close friend Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester. The issues involved were myriad: where to build a national Catholic university (now The Catholic University of America), clerical involvement in politics, and the need for a papal ambassador to America.
Ultimately, though, the real debate was over how much Catholicism should assimilate to American life, and how much it should stand apart from it. Corrigan and McQuaid favored the latter approach, along with German American bishops in the Midwest and, surprisingly, the Jesuits. In 1899, Pope Leo issued an encyclical titled Testem Benevolentiae, which warned against assimilating too much to American life. No one was condemned in the encyclical by name, but it was clear that the Americanist position was in trouble. Corrigan and McQuaid considered it a victory for their side.
Ultimately, though, Corrigan was the only Archbishop from 1875 on not to be named a Cardinal. (Some speculate that it was because of his participation in these public ecclesiastical squabbles.) He died in an accident in 1902, and besides the building at Seton Hall, he is also commemorated in the Corrigan Memorial at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, which he founded in 1896.
(*The above drawing of Archbishop Corrigan is by Pat McNamara.)