Bishop Hughes and the School Question

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (10) start of chapter

Each year strengthened the influence of Bishop Hughes over his flock; and on two remarkable occasions this influence was usefully exerted,—the first, in extinguishing a pestilent danger to faith and morals; the second, in protecting the peace of the city by the firmness of the Catholic attitude.

For nearly two years the School Question, fiercely agitated in New York, attracted the attention of the country at large. The system of education against which the Catholics protested was more than insidiously dangerous—it was actively aggressive; and not merely were the books replete with sneer and libel against that Church which all sects usually delight in assailing, but the teachers, by their explanations, imparted new force to the lie and additional authority to the calumny. Respectful remonstrances were met either with calm disregard or insolent rebuff. Politicians were so confident of having the Irish vote, no matter how they themselves acted, that they supposed they might continue with impunity to go in the very teeth of their supporters, and systematically resist their just claims for redress. But Bishop Hughes read them a salutary lesson, the moral of which it was difficult to forget. With matchless ability he fought the Catholic side in the Municipal Council against all comers, representing every hostile interest; and when justice was denied there and in the Legislature, he resorted to a course of policy which greatly disturbed the minds of the timid, and the sticklers for peace at any price, but which was followed by instantaneous success. Holding his flock well in hand, addressing them constantly in language that, while it convinced their judgment, roused their religious enthusiasm, he advised them to disregard all political ties, and vote only for those who were the friends of the new School system,—which, it may be remarked, was 'Godless' at best,—and the opponents of the old system, which, as we have said, was actively aggressive. The Bishop thus put the case to his flock:—

The question to be decided is not the strength of party, or the emolument and patronage of office, but a question between the helpless and ill-used children and the Public School Society. .... An issue is made up between you and a large portion of the community on the one side, and the monopoly which instils the dangerous principles to which I have before alluded, on the other. The question lies between the two parties, and you are the judges; if you desert the cause, what can you expect from strangers? . . . I have been given to understand that three out of four candidates presented to your suffrages are pledged to oppose your claims. They may perhaps triumph; but all I ask is, that they shall not triumph by the sinful aid of any individual who cherishes a feeling in common with those children. I wish you, therefore, to look well to your candidates; and if they are disposed to make Infidels or Protestants of your children, let them receive no vote of yours.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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