Bishop Hughes

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (9) start of chapter

When, in consequence of the increasing age and infirmities of the sainted Bishop Dubois, one of those holy men whom France had given to the American Church, Dr. Hughes, recently one of the most popular and influential of the working clergy of Philadelphia, assumed, as coadjutor Bishop, the practical administration of the diocese of New York, the state of things was not very hopeful. For this diocese, of 55,000 square miles in extent, there were then but twenty churches and forty priests; with lay trusteeship rampart in its insolence, and disastrous in its mismanagement; the fruits of which were to be witnessed in the condition of the city churches, all of which were in debt, and half at least in a state of bankruptcy. The venerable Bishop Dubois was past the age of dealing successfully with the increasing difficulties of the position. But the man who had been providentially selected for, if not the most important, certainly the most responsible diocese in the United States, soon proved himself to be in every way equal to the emergency.

Bishop Hughes was one of those Irishmen who, loving America as the asylum of their race, rapidly become American citizens in feeling, in spirit, and in thought. Bold, fearless, and independent, he determined to assert his rights of citizenship; and no idea of inferiority to the longest-descended descendant of those who, at one time, were either colonists or exiles, ever crossed the mind of that stout-hearted prelate. As a minister of God, he was ever for peace, and by preference would never have quitted the precincts of the sanctuary; but there were occasions when forbearance would have been criminal, and quiescence or meekness would have been mere abject baseness; and when, for the interests of religion and the safety of his flock, it was his first duty to come forth as a citizen. And when these occasions occurred, his active interference was crowned with success, and productive of the happiest results. Bishop Hughes held the Irish of New York in his hands and under his control by the spell of his eloquence and the genuine ring of his national convictions; and by their aid, and with their fullest sanction—backed by the congregations—he crushed the baneful abuses of the system of trusteeship, and terminated a struggle which had been long a source of interior weakness and external scandal.

To such lengths had the evils of this system arisen under the mild administration of the predecessor of Bishop Hughes, that a committee of the trustees waited upon Bishop Dubois, and with expressions of respect somewhat inconsistent with the object of their mission, informed him that they could not conscientiously vote him his salary, unless he complied with their wishes, and gave them such clergymen as were acceptable to them! The reply given to this cool insolence was characteristic of the holy man. 'Well, gentlemen, you may vote the salary or not, just as seems good to you. I do not need much—I can live in the basement, or in the garret; but whether I come up from the basement, or down from the garret, I will still be your Bishop.'

Bishop Hughes did not destroy the system of lay trusteeship; he purged it of its vicious abuses and defects, such as were opposed to the principles of the Church. There was much in it that was useful, if not absolutely necessary, in the circumstances of the country; but it was essential that it should be regulated according to Catholic principles, and be placed under proper ecclesiastical control. Bishop Bayley, a thoroughly competent authority, thus refers to the services rendered to the Church by Dr. Hughes, whose courage and determination put an end to the scandal, at least in the city of New York:—

Those only who have carefully studied the history of the Church can form any idea of the amount of undeveloped evil that lay hid within that system of uncontrolled lay-administration of ecclesiastical property, and which partially exhibited itself at Charleston, South Carolina, at Richmond, Virginia, in Philadelphia, and more slightly, but still bad enough, here in New York. The whole future of the Church in this country would have been paralysed, if it had been allowed fully to establish itself; and, to my mind, the most important act of Bishop Hughes' life—the one most beneficial to religion—was his thus bringing the whole Catholic community to correct ideas and right principles on this subject.' (35)

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America