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Our History: Seven Years and No Bishop

June 10, 2006

In Catholic New York of April 13, 2006, I began a series of articles about the history of the Archdiocese of New York, so as to set the stage for the celebration of our 200th anniversary (our "Bicentennial," as we say) in April of 2008. The article focused on the establishment in April of 1808 of the Diocese of New York, which up to that date had been part of the Diocese of Baltimore under the spiritual leadership of Bishop John Carroll.

In the article I told the story of the first Bishop of New York, a Dominican from Rome who was never able to make his way to the United States because of embargoes on the ports of Europe. He died in Naples in 1810, I explained, and here I would add that his successor did not finally assume his duties in New York until 1815, inasmuch as Pope Pius VII, who was imprisoned in Paris, would not appoint bishops until he had gained his freedom.

What then happened to the Diocese of New York, my reader might ask, during its first seven years without a bishop? What happened, I hasten to answer, was an immense blessing for the Diocese in the person of a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Anthony Kohlmann.

Father Kohlmann is an extraordinary, but little-known hero of the Church in the United States whose life and achievements merit not a brief article like this one but a lengthy biography which I hope and trust one day will be written. He was born in a rural community in Alsace, which at the time included eastern areas of France and western areas of Germany, to the north of Switzerland. He was ordained in 1796 for the Society of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, which was largely a haven for Jesuits after the suppression of the Society of Jesus for political reasons in 1793.

As a young priest, Father Kohlmann was, above all, a pastor of souls. Indeed, he worked so diligently and selflessly during a flu epidemic in Austria in 1799 that the citizens of one Austrian town declared him "A Martyr of Charity"; and his priestly dedication over the next six years as a chaplain in a military hospital in northern Italy won him the same kind and measure of admiration and love. Nonetheless, because of his unusual academic abilities, in 1805 he was transferred to Georgetown, a village outside of Washington, D.C., to teach philosophy in a college newly established by the Jesuits, whose number he had joined earlier that year in Russia, where the suppression of the Jesuit order was not recognized by the Czar.

Three years later, the Diocese of New York came into being without a bishop, and the new Archbishop Carroll needed to put someone in charge, at least temporarily. He settled on Father Kohlmann, and the choice could not have been better. The diocese included the entire State of New York and half of the State of New Jersey. It boasted around 20,000 Catholics and had only three churches, one of which was St. Peter's on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan. Father Kohlmann became assistant pastor of St. Peter's and shortly thereafter was named also vicar general of the diocese by the bishop from Naples.

As vicar general, Father Kohlmann traveled extensively throughout the huge territory of the Diocese, baptizing, hearing Confessions, witnessing weddings, anointing the sick, and-first and foremost-offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His work at St. Peter's, where soon he effectively became the pastor, was also most impressive, as we know from his written reports to Archbishop Carroll. On Sundays and Holy Days, he celebrated three Masses, preaching in English, German and French. During the week he held three sessions of catechetics for children and adults. He heard Confessions on weekdays until 11 o'clock at night. And he made regular visits to hospitals, the local "common schools," and well-to-do citizens who might help him in his "service to the sick and embellishment of churches."

In addition to all of this, he founded a school for boys, a school for girls, and an orphanage, along with residences for the religious sisters and brothers who staffed these institutions. And wonder of wonders: he built a cathedral for the diocese, "St. Patrick's Old Cathedral" on Mott Street, in lower Manhattan. Two years ago, the Trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, who are also Trustees of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, completely renovated Father Kohlmann's splendid house of worship. It was the largest and most elegant church in New York City and State when it was constructed and is today truly magnificent both inside and out.

Most people who are somewhat familiar with the life of Father Anthony Kohlmann know principally of his heroism in connection with the seal of the Sacrament of Penance. In 1813, a merchant in New York City claimed that an unidentified thief, at the direction of Father Kohlmann in Confession, restored to the merchant goods he had stolen from him. The district attorney demanded to know the name of the thief; and Father Kohlmann respectfully, but adamantly, refused to respond, saying that he would prefer to be imprisoned or even put to death.

A long and widely publicized trial ensued in which the chief judge was DeWitt Clinton, later Governor of New York. With unexpected and enthusiastic support from the usually truculent Trustees of St. Peter's, Father Kohlmann won the day; and 15 years later, after he had left New York for assignments in Washington and then in Rome, the State of New York passed a law protecting the seal of Confession, a law signed by Governor Clinton.

With the arrival in 1815 of the second Bishop of New York, and the first to actually serve here, Father Kohlmann left the diocese he had shepherded so brilliantly, never to return. After a brief tenure at Georgetown, he was called to Rome to join the faculty of the newly re-opened Roman College of the Jesuit Fathers, which is now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University. There he published an impressive number of learned works on the Sacrament of Penance; Unitarianism, which had been a source of controversy during his second stint at Georgetown; and certain doctrinal controversies between Catholics and Protestants. He was considered one of the premier professors of the college, served in several Vatican offices, and counted among his students the first Cardinal of Ireland (Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin), the first Cardinal of the United States (Archbishop John McCloskey of New York), and Pope Leo XIII, one of his most enthusiastic admirers.

In April of 1836, Reverend Anthony Kohlmann, S.J., who was willing to give his life to protect the seal of Confession, died from a chill that overtook him while he was hearing confessions one evening during Lent in Rome's Church of the Ges. There is, to my knowledge, but one memorial in his honor here in New York. It is a four-story, stone building, three-casement-windows-wide, on the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx. It is a sturdy, unpretentious structure not unlike the sturdy, unpretentious priest from Alsace who expertly and faithfully laid a rock-solid foundation for that community of faith which is the Archdiocese of New York.


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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