Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: The death of Archbishop Carroll

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

When he began his tenure as America’s first Catholic bishop in 1790, the church was marked by small numbers of congregants and clergy and was regarded with deep suspicion by non-Catholic Americans. By the time of his death, however, Carroll had overseen the slow but steady growth of the church and its acceptance (albeit begrudgingly) by many Americans as a faith compatible with republican principles.
John Carroll was born in 1735 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. His father, Daniel, had migrated to America from Ireland in the face of increased restrictions on Irish Catholics in the form of the Penal Laws. Carroll’s mother, Eleanor Darnell, belonged to a wealthy Maryland family of English ancestry. As they had once been in Ireland, the Carroll family in America enjoyed wealth and substantial landholdings.
John was groomed for the priesthood from an early age and in 1748, at the age of thirteen, was sent to study at the Jesuit college St. Omer, in French Flanders. His cousin, the future signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, was a fellow student.
Carroll joined the Jesuits in 1753 and was ordained a priest eight years later. For the next thirteen years he remained in Europe, teaching at St. Omer and other Jesuit colleges. He might never have returned to America, but in 1773 a power struggle in the Vatican led to the dissolution of the Jesuit order (later restored in 1814).
Carroll returned to his native Maryland in 1774, just as the American struggle for independence was beginning. Maryland, once a haven for Catholics in the 17th century, had long since joined other colonies in enacting strict laws suppressing Catholicism.
Undaunted, Carroll began the quiet work of a missionary to Catholics in Maryland and Virginia. He also built a small chapel on his family estate where said Mass regularly.
In early 1776, as relations between America and England deteriorated, Carroll was appointed by the Continental Congress to a special diplomatic mission to Canada. Joining Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase, he traveled to Quebec to persuade the Canadian government to gain a pledge of neutrality in the coming Anglo-American conflict. It was hoped that Carroll’s status as a priest and his fluency in French would win over the French Canadians. After months of discussions, however, the mission failed and Carroll returned to Maryland where for the duration of the war he continued in his missionary work.
Soon after the Revolutionary War officially ended in late 1783, church officials in Rome named Carroll the Prefect Apostolic for the fledgling church in America. Up to this point, the tiny American church had been under the direction of the Vicar Apostolic in London, an arrangement that, had it been maintained, would have reflected badly on the church in the aftermath of American independence.
The selection of Carroll for the position proved very wise, for he was a highly educated man who understood the essential challenges that faced the church in America. One of the most pressing was the lack of priests to serve the estimated 30,000 Catholics in the U.S.
Carroll was also troubled by the fact that many of the priests operating in America were European-born and often lacked an adequate command of English and understanding of American society. Furthermore, as the records of the early church show all too plainly, many of these priests were low-grade flunkies who drank too much, absconded with parish funds, and exhibited a casual adherence to clerical celibacy.
To remedy this situation, Carroll founded Georgetown University in 1789. As the first Catholic college in America, Georgetown was intended to mint the first of many generations of American-born priests and provide an education to Catholic men bound for the professions.
Carroll encouraged the building of Catholic churches and, when possible, presided over cornerstone laying and dedication ceremonies. For example, he was present in New York for the dedication of city’s first Catholic church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, in 1785.
Carroll also intervened in Philadelphia to quell a growing rift between German and Irish Catholics. Whenever possible, Carroll went out his way to form friendships with powerful and influential non-Catholics so as to demonstrate the compatibility of Catholicism with republican government. For example, Carroll organized a group of prominent Catholic laymen (all of them Irish — his brother Daniel, cousin Charles, and merchants Dominick Lynch of New York and Thomas FitzSimons of Phliadelphia) to send a congratulatory address to George Washington upon his inauguration as the nation’s first president. Washington responded with a gracious letter praising the Catholic contribution to the struggle for independence.
By the late 1780s, Carroll began urging the Vatican to appoint a bishop for the American church. Keenly aware of anti-Catholic sentiments in America, however, he impressed upon the Vatican the need for the process to be democratic. Otherwise, he warned, a bishop imposed by Rome would stoke anti-Catholic fears of foreign meddling and conspiracy.
Remarkably, the Vatican agreed, but stipulated that such a process was “for the first time only” and that all subsequent bishops would be named by Rome. In 1788 a meeting of 26 priests nominated Fr. John Carroll and selected Baltimore as the first see. The pope concurred and on Aug. 15, 1790 Carroll was consecrated the first American bishop.
In keeping with his concern for the reputation of the church in America, he succeeded in getting the Vatican to delete from his bishop’s oath a pledge to “seek out and oppose schismatics, heretics, and the enemies of our Sovereign Lord,” for fear that such language would smack of intolerance.
For the next 25 years, Bishop Carroll continued his efforts to develop a distinct American Catholic church, led by American-born priest and bishops. He spoke eloquently and often on the importance of separation of church and state (not a popular view at the Vatican or in most Catholic countries) and on the independence of Catholics in secular affairs.
In 1806, at his urging, the Vatican partitioned the diocese of Baltimore, creating four new sees in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Kentucky. That same year he commenced construction of the first Catholic cathedral in America, the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (completed 1821). Two years later Carroll was elevated to Archbishop.
Carroll died in 1815 and was hailed by Catholic and non-Catholic alike as a great religious leader and patriotic American. The church he guided was far larger (90,000 members) and stronger than when he became its first bishop, yet it was still a small, minority sect in an overwhelmingly Protestant society. That fact was soon to change, for the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 touched off a massive European migration to America, especially of Catholics from Ireland and Germany. By 1860, there were three million Catholics in America, making them the nation’s largest Christian denomination.

Sources: Annabelle M. Melville, John Carroll of Baltimore: Founder of the American Catholic Hierarchy and Peter Guilday, The Life and Times of John Carroll: Archbishop of Baltimore, 1735-1815. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm.

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