A leader of ‘needed strength’: Archbishop John Hughes

A sculpture of Archbishop John Hughes at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York (Youtube/Current News).

Immigration. The numbers are astounding:

The ‘Irish hemorrhage’ started in earnest in the first months of 1847. The resulting stigmatization would quickly make ‘Irish Catholic,’ more than ever before, bywords for dirty, dangerous and socially destructive.

In 1847, the number of Irish immigrants arriving at the port of New York doubled from its yearly average in the earlier part of the decade, climbing to almost 53,000. The next year just over 90,000 desperate travelers poured off ships. (The number nationwide was 151,000.) Almost 113,000 people landed in New York in 1849. These numbers were unfathomable (184-185).

Dagger Johnby John Loughery

Cornell University Press. 420p, $32.95

These men and women were fleeing starvation in their homeland. When they arrived in New York, they were “wasted, ill-clothed, and dazed with grief” (185). They had nothing, the conditions they lived in were hellish, and they were despised by the rest of the populations of New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.

Thirty years prior to the potato blight that depopulated much of Ireland, John Hughes, an emigré from Northern Ireland, landed in Baltimore. He was 20 years old. He was literate but unschooled because he had been forced to labor in support of his family. He became a day laborer in his new country, worked alongside slaves on farms, cut stone in a quarry and later became a gardener on the grounds of a Maryland seminary that was just getting its legs. Though the rector refused this gardener’s desire to enter the seminary for years, John Hughes persevered, was admitted and eventually succeeded that same seminary rector as the fourth bishop of New York.

John Hughes was an immigrant to the United States. He spent his ecclesial career caring for the Irish immigrants that swarmed New York and defending the Roman Catholic Church against violence, arson and bigotry. Perhaps even more astounding than this immigrant’s rise to ecclesial and political power was Hughes’s fierce love for the United States. In fact, in the last years of his life, Hughes, departing dramatically from the political sensibilities of the same immigrants that he intended to serve, supported President Lincoln and the Union forces in the Civil War at a time when New York City itself was contemplating secession. Hughes was not anti-slavery, but he was beholden to the notion of the United States as a cohesive Union bound by law. The Confederacy had fractured this Union by violence and defiance of law. Like the revolutionary insurgencies of Europe—Italian, French, Hungarian, Spanish—such violence threatened to dissolve a nation and imperil Catholicism, so Dagger John stuck with Lincoln until his death.

John Hughes spent his ecclesial career caring for the Irish immigrants that swarmed New York and defending the Roman Catholic Church against violence, arson and bigotry.

John Hughes fought all his life. Beyond pugnacious, he was truculent. John Loughery’s portrait of John Hughes is fascinating because of his depictions of the ferocity of Hughes and the wildness of New York from the 1840s through the 1860s. This biography is anything but parochial. It documents the life of a man trying to raise money for, build, staff and defend fledging Catholic institutions in a political context that violently dismissed Catholicism as anti-American. It offers a window into antebellum politics in the United States and John Hughes’s dealings with Presidents Polk, Buchanan and Lincoln. It describes Hughes’s interactions with European monarchs and men like Daniel O’Connell of Ireland. It details how the Catholic Church itself broke apart at the start of the Civil War.

Dagger John is the story, as Loughery writes, of a man who “wanted to be a cardinal, not a saint” (344). Thoughtfully, Loughery applies a quote from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s work on Orestes Brownson—one of Hughes’s adversaries in print and in various public events—to Hughes himself: “Schlesinger Jr. wrote, ‘Brownson may have indeed brought rudeness to Boston, but he also brought strength, and strength was badly needed.’ Exactly the same could be said of John Hughes and New York. Rudeness and strength were the future; drift and patience were the past” (91).

Hughes confronted anyone who denigrated Catholicism or—internally—any Catholic who challenged his authority. Where parish councils seemed to impinge on Hughes’s command, Hughes placed their churches under interdict. Any priest who did not work, defied the bishop or was not above scandal, Hughes relieved of his duties—even as he needed priests desperately. When a religious order felt the bishop had overstepped his own canonical authority, Hughes fought for further control, even causing a schism within Elizabeth Ann Seton’s order of nuns. Any Irishman who coupled the Catholic Church as an oppressor along with England, Hughes denounced as a rebel harmful to the well-being of Ireland. Hughes picked fights, responded to bullies and bigots and always held his ground. One might argue that Hughes helped hatch the Catholic Church in the United States through perseverance and truculence.

Dagger John is the story, as author John Loughery writes, of a man who “wanted to be a cardinal, not a saint.”

Hughes’s strength resided in the sheer numbers of the Catholic men and women in and around New York City. His concrete power came from the rabble that poured into the city during the famine. He was an unelected leader of a huge constituency of Catholics whose brute numbers translated into political power. In the 1840s, he was able, through his influence over electoral politics, to dismantle the private guild of Protestants who administered public schools in New York City. Hughes wanted Catholic immigrants to attend school in order to break the cycle of poverty. After all, it was education that elevated him from a vegetable patch to an archdiocese.

Loughery acknowledges that John Hughes was racist, paternalistic and imperious, but at the same time, Hughes was far more complicated a human being than these labels. Furthermore, Hughes’s historical context was far more complicated than we can now imagine. Such a life, such insights into the history of our own church in the United States will surely provoke conversation. Here are some questions to get started:

  1. Context: Were you amazed at any aspects of American political or civic life in the 1840s, 50s and 60s? Is the violence of the era in the lead up to the Civil War particularly unnerving?
  2. Hughes addressed Congress on Dec. 12, 1847, for two hours (191-193). He spoke about immigration, the nature of the United States and the common good. How do you think such a speech would be received in Congress today?
  3. Are there parallels between Irish immigration of the 1840s and immigration from Mexico and Central America today?
  4. Were you at all unsettled by the situation of New York City in 1862-63? Had Hughes become, at the end of his life, wholly disconnected from the Irish population he sought to serve?
  5. Did the Nativist violence of 1844 in Philadelphia (156-159), the constant threats of violence toward Catholic institutions throughout the Northeast at this time and the treatment of Irish immigrants make necessary Hughes’s truculence—both within the church and toward those outside who threatened the church?
  6. Why was Hughes loyal to Lincoln and the Union until the end?
  7. Did you come away with any sense of John Hughes’s interior life—did he have one? How did he pray?
  8. Do you agree with Loughery that Hughes should not be dismissed simply as a racist and an ecclesial reactionary?
  9. Do you agree with Loughery that Hughes’s leadership did not directly transform the U.S. episcopacy from subsidiarity to autocracy?
  10. What 19th-century Catholics piqued your interest? Orestes Brownson? Simon Bruté? Gaetano Bedini?
  11. What about the work of religious sisters in Hughes’s diocese? Did not the work of these sisters contribute to Hughes’s credibility as a moral leader in New York?
  12. Lastly, though I intend to offer some more questions as the conversation continues, what do you think of this sentence found on the last page of the biography: “It was John Hughes’s fate, in any case, to pass from the scene before the fruition of his dreams or their diminishment took place” (348). Much is implied by the sentence. What exactly do you think Loughery means by these words—particularly “diminishment”?


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