This week we turn our attention to the first major challenge he faced after being sent to New York City to serve as coadjutor bishop in 1838.
When Hughes arrived in New York, he must have felt somewhat awed by the job that lay before him. The diocese in those days comprised all of New York State and northern New Jersey — some 55,000 square miles. A mere forty priests served 200,000 Catholics, a number that grew larger each day with surging immigration from Ireland and Germany. Most lived within the confines of modern-day New York City and belonged to a small number of poor parishes.
Although technically not in charge (a frail John Dubois retained the office of Bishop until his death in 1842), Hughes knew it was his responsibility to address a vast number of problems facing this flock, from financial difficulties and a lack of priests and nuns, to disputes over parish control to the hostility of anti-Catholic nativists.
The latter, as in his previous assignment in Philadelphia, would soon make Hughes a well-known and highly controversial figure. Within a few short years he became known to his nativist detractors as “Dagger John,” a nickname derived in part from his combative personality and also from his habit of drawing a cross (that looked to some like a dagger) under his signature.
The first significant controversy in Hughes’ tenure arose in 1840 and concerned the city’s public school system. In those days the city’s public schools were run by a private organization called the Public School Society, which derived most of its operating budget from the state legislature.
Many New Yorkers were quite proud of their public schools, which educated some 25,000 students annually by 1840. But a growing chorus of reformers pointed out that more than 20,000 children — mostly from poor, Catholic, immigrant families — received no education at all because their parents disliked the overtly Protestant character of the public schools.
With only eight parochial schools in the city in 1840, most of which charged some tuition, Catholic parents often opted to keep their children home.
Hughes, doubtless as a result of his experience growing up a Catholic in Ireland under oppressive Protestant rule, found this situation in New York intolerable. Education was essential to the social and economic uplift of his flock, the great majority of whom lived in poverty. But for Hughes the education offered by the city’s public schools came at too steep a price: the undermining of Catholic faith.
All children, including Catholics, for example, were required to read the King James Bible, a translation with footnotes and commentaries that reflected Protestant theology. The school day began and ended with the recitation of Protestant prayers and singing of Protestant hymns.
In addition, textbooks depicted the history of Europe in decidedly anti-Catholic terms. One of the most popular readers of the day, “The Irish Heart,” ridiculed Catholicism chronicling the escapades of one Phelim Maghee: “When Phelim had laid up a good stock of sins he now and then went over to Killarney of a Sabbath morning, and got relaaf by confissing them out o’ the way, as he used to express it, and sealed up his soul with a wafer, and returned quite invigorated for the perpetration of new offenses.”
As one of Hughes’ allies put it, “How can we think of sending our children to those schools in which every artifice is resorted to in order to reduce them from their religion.”
Seeking to address this problem, Governor William Seward ignited a political firestorm in early 1840 when he proposed to the state legislature that public funds be given to parochial schools.
His reasoning was simple and straightforward: since immigrants preferred schooling in their own language and religion, the state should assist such schools. The fundamental goal of the state, he asserted, was to educate, assimilate, and prepare for citizenship the maximum number of children.
To the modern reader, at least before the “voucher” movement of the last fifteen years, this proposal comes across as a clear violation of the separation of church and state. But in 1840 it was common practice for the state to provide public funds to private schools with religious affiliations. What made Seward’s proposal so controversial was that fact that he was calling for public money to be given to Catholic schools.
A modest proposal?
Anti-Catholicism ran deep in American society in the antebellum period and Seward’s proposal raised a chorus of protest. It grew louder still when the city’s Catholic schools filed formal requests for public funds. In January 1841 the city’s Common Council rejected the applications, prompting Catholic officials to appeal to the state legislature.
While debate raged in Albany for months, the Public School Society removed all the books with anti-Catholic references from the schools — but they refused to change any of the religious instruction, asserting that it reflected a non-denominational Christianity and did not favor any particular sect.
Hughes rejected this reasoning and continued to demand public funds as a matter of simple justice.
“We are a portion of this [community],” he told one audience, “and we merely ask to be placed on an equity with the rest of our fellow citizens.”
Politicians were still dithering by the fall of 1841, afraid to act one way or the other lest they infuriate the powerful nativist or Catholic vote. Frustrated with the lack of commitment by the city’s Democratic candidates for state assembly and senate, Hughes called his own political convention that promptly drew up a slate of pro-funding candidates.
Hughes’ “Carroll Hall” ticket (so named for the building where the convention took place) outraged nativists who denounced it as evidence of a Catholic plot to subvert American democracy. To their great horror, nearly all of Hughes’ candidates won and the overall impact of the Carroll Hall ticket was to ensure a victory by the Democrats over the Whigs (the latter the party favored by nativists).
Pressure for a resolution mounted after the election. Assemblyman William Maclay, son of a Baptist minister, drew up a bill that ended the Public School Society’s power and created small, ward-based, boards of education to oversee local schools.
It prohibited any sectarian religious instruction, but allowed the local boards to choose their own textbooks, thus allowing schools to reflect to some extent the values of their immediate population. After months of heated public debate, the Maclay Bill passed.
Although he failed in his quest to gain public money for parochial schools, Hughes was able to claim a victory of sorts in the ending of the Public School Society hold on the schools.
Ironically, the price of that victory was to replace Protestantism in public education with secularism, a policy Hughes found almost as threatening to the faith of Catholic schoolchildren. This result goes a long way to explaining why, in the aftermath of the school controversy, Hughes dedicated himself to building a separate Catholic school system.
Over the next twenty-five years, the number of Catholic children receiving a parochial school education in New York would jump from 5,000 (1840) to 22,215 (1870). In spite of his overall positive assessment of his adoptive country, Hughes became more convinced than ever that the Protestant underpinnings of American culture posed a threat to the faith of immigrant Catholics and that a separate, parish-based parochial school education was essential for their spiritual well-being.
More than any other cleric of his day, Hughes promoted the development of a separatist Catholic subculture that in many of the regions of the United States would endure until the 1960s. To be continued next week…
Sources: Richard Shaw, Dagger John: The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes; Jay Dolan, The Immigrant Church. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm