Spread of Catholicism

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XVII.

Spread of Catholicism—Organization into Dioceses—Western Missions—Southern Missions—Bishop England—Charlestown Convent burned, A. D. 1834—The Great Controversy

THE United States constitution had swept away all disabilities on conscience, and, though prejudice remained, open persecution was seen in the land no more. New missions were formed, seminaries were opened, and many additional churches were begun. From the year 1790 onwards, the chief supply of the American mission was from France and Ireland. In 1796, Catholicism in the east gained a treasure, in the person of Mr. Cheverus, afterwards Cardinal in France. The first Catholic congregation in Boston had been collected by the Abbe la Poitre, a French chaplain, during the revolutionary war, who procured a temporary church in School street. Dr. Cheverus, not confining himself to the city, traversed New England, from the Housatonic to the Penobscot. He learned English, and even the Indian dialects, to make his mission understood. He travelled from house to house, in Boston, personally visiting his flock. Prejudice had no fortress against him, labor no terrors; the plague itself saw him harmless from its worst haunts. He is justly revered as one of the fathers of the American Church; and, truly, those who knew him,—even those deaf to his doctrine,—admit that he led the life of an apostle, worthy of the Cross.

In April, 1808, Pope Pius VII. issued his Bull, erecting Baltimore into an Archbishopric,[1] and fixing four Sees at Bardstown, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

The Rev. Messrs. Flaget, Concanen, Egan, and Cheverus, were consecrated to the several Sees. Thus, of the original five who made the Hierarchy of the Union, France contributed two and Ireland three.

About the year 1800, the Catholic missions began to be formed beyond the Ohio, and in a few years became both numerous and important. The accession of Louisiana to the Union, in Jefferson's presidency, extended the field of Catholic missions, and still further strengthened the church in the south-west. The diocese of Arkansas, and arch-diocese of St. Louis, are recent creations.

In 1791, the mission of Charleston was founded. "In that year, a number of individuals of that communion, chiefly natives of Ireland, associated together for public worship, chose a vestry, and put themselves under the care of Bishop Carroll, of Baltimore. The Rev. Dr. Keating officiated as their minister. The troubles in France and the West Indies soon brought a large accession to their number. Under the auspices of the learned and eloquent Dr. Gallagher, they have built, organized, and obtained incorporation for a respectable church in Charleston."[2]

To the government of that southern mission was ordained, in the year 1820, the most powerful intellect which had yet ministered at the altar in America. The generation of apostles had passed,—the confessors had now come; and Dr. England stands, unquestionably, the foremost of the band, whether we look for natural parts, solid learning, rigid self-denial, or unmitigated labor.

Bishop John England was born in Cork city, on the 23d of September, 1786. Educated and ordained at Carlow College, he returned to his native city in 1808. For twelve years he labored there without ceasing. He originated a circulating library, started and edited the "Religious Repository," a monthly magazine, contributed to the "Cork Chronicle," the patriotic organ, lectured three or four times a week at the Cathedral, and yet attended to all the daily personal duties of the mission. One need not wonder if, after twelve years of such labors, his departure from Cork was lamented, by all denominations, as a calamity to the city. On the last day of 1820, he arrived at Charleston, having been consecrated at Cork, the previous September, by the Rt. Rev. Dr. Murphy, assisted by the Bishops of Ossory and Richmond.

The states of North and South Carolina and Georgia, as subsequently the Vicariate of Hayti, were placed under his episcopal jurisdiction. Surveying the ground he was to govern, the indomitable spirit of the great bishop found difficulties enough for the most heroic to face. The variety and extent of his first labors are indicated by a congenial biographer in the following passages:—

"But the herald of the Cross had been 'anointed' to the holy mission 'with the oil of gladness above his fellows!' The enlightened and accomplished citizens of the south were seen crowding around his pulpit, delighted by his eloquence, abashed by his learning, astonished by his logic,—ready to exclaim with him of old, 'Almost thou persuadest!' Churches, temporary in material, and slight in structure, it is true, but suitable for the exigency, rose around him like exhalations. A constitution was formed, and the diocese incorporated by legal charter, which, while it reserved to the bishop all powers essential to discipline, and repressive to schism, guaranteed ecclesiastic property to its legitimate destination, against the possible lapse of himself or his successors; and, by introducing the principle of public and strict accountability into the management of ecclesiastical revenues, assured to him the confidence of a people proverbially jealous on all subjects connected with the purse.

"His first and greatest want was that of a popular clergy. His diocese, like most poor and thinly-peopled ones, had been a city of refuge to outcasts from others. Men of talent and merit were of eager request, where not only greater temporal advantages, but ampler opportunities to do good, invited them. His sad experience, too, with some valuable co-laborers, whom zeal of martyrdom, or attachment to his person, attracted to that insidious climate, convinced him of the necessity of educating a native clergy, or at least one composed of such as long and early acclimation might seem to ensure against being cut off in the midst of their usefulness. He attached, also, the utmost importance to what might be called the 'naturalization' of Catholicity. He desired that it should no longer be regarded as the religion of the stranger; but that its ministers should be American, in principle, feeling, and habit,—familiarized, by long experience, with all the practical workings of our political system.

"With these views he founded a seminary. But how, in the destitution of pecuniary means, was it to be supported? His rapid observation detected the languishing state of rudimentary education. He incorporated a classical and scientific academy with his diocesan seminary, united in his own person the schoolmaster and doctor of divinity, and his embryo theologians were subsisted by the very means that consigned his father to a jail. He was emphatically the restorer of classical learning in Charleston.[3] His appeals excited direct interest in the subject among the most influential citizens. Sectarian jealousy was awakened, rival institutions were built up to preserve ingenuous youth from 'the snares of Popery;' and thus, whether 'out of envy and contention,' or 'for goodwill,' a great public want was supplied. It remains to be felt by the wealthy planters, who subscribed their thousands with unsparing hand to subvert the seminary, that would long ere now have supplied their country with priests, whether they did wisely in retarding the progress of a religion which some of them are now beginning to appreciate, as the only one to which they can entrust the fidelity and happiness of their slaves.

"But the bishop's comprehensive forecast was not limited to projects connected exclusively with his own immediate objects. He infused new life, by his energy, into the Philosophical and Literary Association, of which he continued till death an honored and useful member; applying his unrivalled powers to instruct and please, as happily to the subjects of scientific or critical contemplation, as to the more accustomed topics of his sacred calling; but ever aiming to hallow his intellectual offering, and direct the attention of his delighted auditory, from the wonders of nature or the beautiful creations of mind, to the 'Author of every good and perfect gift.'

"He witnessed with grief and horror the Moloch ravages of that misnamed spirit of honor that so often carries desolation to the bosom of southern society; quenching in the blood of its victim the hopes of an admiring country or of domestic affection. He rallied about him the chivalry of Carolina, in an Anti-Duelling Society, of which General Thomas Pinckney, of revolutionary fame, was the venerated president; and, through his own personal activity, backed by the moral influence of that association, many hostile meetings were prevented, and valuable lives most probably preserved. I have listened to him, as with merry triumph, and unsparing but playful ridicule, he has talked over, with a gallant officer, their counter manoeuvres, on one most interesting occasion, and rejoiced over his opponent's baffled love of mischief.

"He found the Catholic body in America defenceless. The secular press was in the hands of persons so utterly enslaved by the delusion of that great conspiracy against truth, the history and literature of England for the last three centuries, that writers were often unconscious of giving offence, while promulgating the most injurious misstatements or senseless absurdities. Of the journals professedly religious it is unnecessary to speak. He established the "United States Catholic Miscellany," and found time, amidst his immense and various occupations, to supply its columns with a vast amount of original matter, not always, perhaps, as perfect in literary polish, as if he had read over the blotted manuscript before it was hurried to the printer; but always resistless in reasoning, charming by its fervid eloquence, overwhelming with its accumulated erudition. Many of those essays, which the importance of the subjects discussed induced him to extend through a series of numbers, have been collected in such guise as poverty compelled them to wear,—like the hero of the Odyssey in rags at the palace-gate,—but a wider circulation will yet be given them, and future generations look with gratitude and delight on the fulfilment of the modest pledge that announced them to the world:"—

The Miscellany was announced to contain—

"'The simple explanation and temperate maintenance of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church; in exhibiting which, its conductors are led to hope that many sensible persons will be astonished at finding they have imputed to Catholics, doctrines which the Catholic Church has formally condemned, and imagining they were contradicting Catholics, when they held Catholic doctrine themselves.'"[4]

For two and twenty years, Dr. England was spared to the church in the south. In all these years he was the prime legislator of his order. He was "the author of the Provincial Councils," which assemble annually at Baltimore,[5] He was almost the first to give to Catholicity a literature and a status in the United States. His various writings on the doctrines of the church, on the institution of slavery, on historical and philosophical subjects, fill five large volumes, which must ever remain among the most precious legacies of the American Church.

On the 11th of April, 1842, the bishop expired, at Charleston. The chief journals and statesmen of the south rendered spontaneous homage to his memory. All admitted that "the mighty man, who had served the people," was fallen. Far and wide as the church has extended since his death,—distinguished as are many of its prelates at the time we write,—there has not arisen his equal. Such men are not often given to earth, and the earth should therefore be doubly careful of them, while she has them.

During the life-time of Bishop England, the most painful circumstance occurred, of the burning of the Convent, founded in 1820, by Bishop Fenwick, at Charlestown, Mass. New England, an uncongenial land for convents, had been shocked by the founding of a house of Ursulines in the near neighborhood of Bunker's Hill. On Sunday, August 10th, 1834, Rev. Dr. Beecher delivered three philippics, in three different churches, against the institution,—a course in which he had many imitators. Rumors were also artfully circulated of a young lady being immured in a dungeon of the convent. On Monday night, August 11th, tar barrels were lighted near the house, by a group of incendiaries, who were soon joined by a tumultuous crowd from Charlestown and Boston. The details of this burglary and sacrilege are set forth by a sub-committee of citizens of Boston, (who gave several weeks to the investigation,) in the following report:—

"At the time of this attack upon the convent, there were within its walls about sixty female children, and ten adults, one of whom was in the last stages of pulmonary consumption, another suffering under convulsion fits, and the unhappy female who had been the immediate cause of the excitement was, by the agitation of the night, in raving delirium.

"No warning was giving of the intended assault, nor could the miscreants by whom it was made have known whether their missiles might not kill or wound the helpless inmates of this devoted dwelling. Fortunately for them, cowardice prompted what mercy and manhood denied. After the first attack, the assailants paused awhile, from the fear that some secret force was concealed in the convent, or in ambush to surprise them; and in this interval the governess was enabled to secure the retreat of her little flock and terrified sisters into the garden. But before this was fully effected, the rioters, finding they had nothing but women and children to contend against, regained their courage, and, ere all the inmates could escape, entered the building.

"It appears that, during these proceedings, the magistrate above referred to, with another of the selectmen, had arrived, and entered the convent with the rioters, for the purpose, as they state, of assisting its inmates. The mob had now full possession of the house, and loud cries were heard for torches or lights. One of the magistrates in question availed himself of this cry to deter the rioters from firing the building, by stating that if lights were brought they might be detected.

"Three or four torches, which were, or precisely resembled, engine torches were then brought up from the road; and immediately upon their arrival, the rioters proceeded into every room in the building, rifling every drawer, desk, and trunk, which they found, and breaking up and destroying all the furniture, and casting much of it from the windows; sacrificing, in their brutal fury, costly piano-fortes, and harps, and other valuable instruments, the little treasures of the children, abandoned in their hasty flight, and even the vessels and symbols of Christian worship.

"After having thus ransacked every room in the building, they proceeded, with great deliberation, about one o'clock, to make preparations for setting fire to it. For this purpose, broken furniture, books, curtains, and other combustible materials, were placed in the centre of several of the rooms; and, as if in mockery of God as well as of man, the Bible was cast, with shouts of exultation, upon the pile first kindled; and as upon this were subsequently thrown the vestments used in religious service, and the ornaments of the altar, these shouts and yells were repeated. Nor did they cease until the cross was wrenched from its place and cast into the flames, as the final triumph of this fiendlike enterprise.

"But the work of destruction did not end here. Soon after the convent was in flames, the rioters passed on to the library, or bishop's lodge, which stood near, and, after throwing the books and pictures from the windows, a prey to those without, fired that also.

"Some time afterwards, they proceeded to the farmhouse, formerly occupied as the convent, and first making a similar assault with stones and clubs upon the doors and windows, in order to ascertain whether they had anything to fear from persons within, the torches were deliberately applied to that building; and, unwilling to have one object connected with the establishment to escape their fury, although the day had broken, and three buildings were then in flames, or reduced to ashes, the extensive bam, with its contents, was in like manner devoted to destruction. And, not content with all this, they burst open the tomb of the establishment, rifled it of the sacred vessels there deposited, wrested the plates from the coffins, and exposed to view the mouldering remains of their tenants."

This report is signed by Charles G. Loring, chairman, and by a committee of thirty-seven persons, including several eminent legal and political characters.

But it was not alone with the torch and the fagot that Bishop England's contemporaries were assailed. The pulpit and the press, for several successive years, were chiefly occupied with what, for brevity, we may call the great Catholic Controversy. Drs. O'Flaherty and Beecher, at Boston; Drs. Levins and Powers against Messrs. Brownlow and others, at New York; Messrs. Hughes and Breckenridge, in Philadelphia; Messrs. Purcel and Campbell, in Cincinnati, debated very fully the great points in dispute between the Church and Protestantism. Much theological and historical learning was manifested on each side, but the defenders of Catholicity could afford to publish the arguments of their opponents and their own,—a declaration of confidence in their own success, which was not assumed on the other side.

In Philadelphia the controversy was perpetuated longest, and with least result of good. Some minor controvertists, indulging in sarcasm and calumny on the one side, called down retorts and philippics on the other. The imprudence, also, of certain naturalized citizens, and the proneness to faction in great cities, produced the scandalous riots of the year 1844, in that city,—a subject which requires a separate chapter.[6]

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[1] On the 31st of May, 1821, the Cathedral of Baltimore, the building of which had been begun in 1806, suspended during the war, and re-commenced in 1817, was consecrated. The form is that of a cross, its length, 166 feet: breadth, 77 feet, and across the transept, 115 feet. It yet wants the portico on the western front; but through the exertions of an association formed for the purpose, it has been surrounded by a handsome iron railing, and a sexton's lodge has been erected.

[2] Ramsay's South Carolina, vol. ii., p. 37. This passage was probably written about the year 1796 or 7, and consequently shows that Dr. Gallagher was the precursor of Dr. England.

[3] Southern Review, No. 1.

[4] Reid's Memoir, in Dr. England's Works, vol. i., pp. 12, 13.

[5] Ibid., p. 17

[6] See Appendix, No. VII.