The Powerhouse: Cardinal Francis Spellman

He wasn't, like some of his fellow bishops, an impressive figure. Nor was he an accomplished speaker, like some others. And he wasn't a scholar. But he was the undisputed leader of the American Church. And what Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman did, he did well. George Kelly, a priest who worked closely with Spellman, compared him to Eddie Stanky of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stanky wasn't the best catcher, the best fielder, or the best hitter. He was just the leader. And so it was with Spellman.

The son of a prosperous grocer, Frank Spellman attended public schools in Whitman, Massachusetts, before moving to New York in 1907 to attend Fordham University. Living in New York, he reasoned, "would be an education in itself." Active in sports and academics, by his senior year he decided on the priesthood. In 1911, he entered the prestigious North American College, a Roman seminary long known as a training ground for future bishops.

Many of his professors became bishops. Able and ambitious, young Spellman cultivated their friendship, and it served him well in years to come. In May 1916, he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Boston. Back in Boston, however, for reasons still unclear, his archbishop, Cardinal William Henry O'Connell, took an immediate disliking to him. What one historian calls "a series of insignificant assignments" followed, including proofreader for the archdiocesan newspaper and archivist for the archdiocese.

But over time, Spellman's Roman connections paid off, and in 1925 he arranged to be assigned to Rome full-time. There he became close friends with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. In 1932, without having asked for one, O'Connell was informed that he had a new auxiliary bishop, Francis Spellman. (He told Spellman: "Even if a Bishop bought a bishopric he is still a Bishop." Spellman commented in his diary: "The same might be said for Cardinals.")

The next seven years were difficult ones for Spellman, living under O'Connell's thumb. But he spent his time cultivating friendships with wealthy American Catholics such as Joseph P. Kennedy, father of a future president. Through Kennedy he got to know President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other significant political figures. When Cardinal Pacelli visited the United States in 1936, it was Spellman who served as his guide.

In September 1938, New York's Cardinal Patrick Hayes died. In February, Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope. In April Francis Spellman was appointed Archbishop of New York. Monsignor James McIntyre, with whom Spellman had butted heads during Pacelli's 1936 visit, offered his resignation as Chancellor, but Spellman refused: "Retaliation is a luxury I have never been able to afford." He recognized McIntyre's ability, and soon made him an auxiliary bishop.

A few months following his appointment to New York, Spellman was also named Military Vicar of the Armed Forces, charged with overseeing the ministry to Catholic military personnel. This role, historian Gerald Fogarty notes, "launched him into national and international prominence." With his frequent trips overseas and his annual Christmas visit to the troops, he became the face of American Catholic patriotism.

As Archbishop of New York, he proved an administrative genius. Within a short time, he cleared up a massive debt, launched school and church-building campaigns, and strengthened the city's Catholic healthcare system. Spellman has been described as "an astoundingly dedicated and prodigious worker." A political influence in New York circles, consulted by mayors, senators, and businessmen, locals called his office "the powerhouse."

Spellman was often seen, Fogarty notes, as efficient but distant and aloof, yet "he could also display great pastoral sensitivity." In his outreach to the city's growing Puerto Rican community, he was years ahead of his time. He sent priests overseas to study Spanish, and by 1960 a quarter of all the archdiocese's parishes had an outreach to Spanish-speaking Catholics.

He could also be quite compassionate. One of his first acts as archbishop was to seek out and reinstate Bonaventure Broderick, a bishop who had inadvertently gotten caught up in Vatican politics and incurred Rome's wrath. Left without an assignment for over thirty years, Spellman found him working at a gas station in upstate New York. He made Broderick an auxiliary bishop and chaplain of a nursing home until his death a few years later.

A fervent anticommunist, the Cardinal publicly supported Senator Joseph McCarthy. In a visit to American troops in Vietnam, he said (paraphrasing Stephen Decatur): "My country, may it always be right. Right or wrong, my country!" Although he supported the Second Vatican Council, he tended to be conservative, but he did support the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, whose work helped shape the council's declaration on religious freedom.

Like many other church leaders, Spellman found it hard to adjust to the '60s with its rising counterculture, sexual revolution, political activism, and dissent within the Church. It was a "difficult time," he wrote a friend in Rome, as things were getting "dizzy" in both the Church and the world. By the time of his death, he was being publicly attacked for his stance on Vietnam, as protesters disrupted Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Few Church leaders have been subject to greater misunderstanding than Francis Cardinal Spellman. As Benedict Groeschel and Terence Weber write, "No one ever said Cardinal Spellman was a saint, including Cardinal Spellman." Neither was he the power-hungry ecclesiastic some have portrayed him to be. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As Thomas Shelley notes, Spellman undeniably had ambition as well as ability, but he did try to use both in the service of the Church.

12/2/2022 9:05:40 PM
  • Catholic
  • In Ages Past
  • History
  • Christianity
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Pat McNamara
    About Pat McNamara
    Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.