"Dagger John": Archbishop John Hughes

A champion of the common man, Hughes could also be domineering and high-handed. When two Irish-born priests complained that he ignored canon law, he replied: "I will show you County Monaghan canon law. I will send you back to the bogs whence you came!" Undeniably charismatic, he was less gifted as an administrator. His own secretary recalled that he couldn't balance his books, his papers were always in disarray, and he "lacked all idea of order or system."

While recognized as a powerful advocate of the immigrant, he was frequently indifferent to non-Irish concerns. His relationship with the Germans, the archdiocese's second largest ethnic group, was at best polite. For years he refused the Italians a parish because of a quarrel with one of their priests. During the 1863 Draft Riots, when largely Irish mobs victimized African-Americans, his outrage was undeniably less powerful than it had been on other occasions.

John Hughes wasn't a diplomat, a scholar, or a bureaucrat. It's doubtful he had an ecumenical bone. But he did provide strong leadership for a young immigrant Church that needed it, and his aggressive style suited a violently anti-Catholic era. Although New York has changed greatly over the years, his legacy continues in the schools he created, the religious orders he welcomed, the charities he began, and the parishes he founded. Perhaps it's most visible in the cathedral he never saw completed, the symbol of Catholic arrival in America, St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue, located in what is now the center of the world.

1/18/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Pat McNamara
    About Pat McNamara
    Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.
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