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A Portrait Comes Home

August 30, 2007

This article continues the story of the Archdiocese of New York, as we prepare to celebrate our 200th Anniversary.

Seven years ago, when I came to spend my first night in the residence of the Archbishop of New York, I found on the dresser in my bedroom a biography of Archbishop John J. Hughes published in 1866 by Reverend John R.G. Hassard, a convert to Catholicism who had for many years served as the Archbishop's secretary. The pages were falling out of their leather-bound cover, and it was evident that the book had been purchased in a second-hand bookstore. For in the upper corner of the title page there was written in pencil, "35¢."

I read the book within a few days and was amazed at the language and style of the Archbishop. He was clearly not one to mince words. When attacked, he returned fire immediately, and the ensuing confrontations were often fierce. Still, when I set the book down, the aggressive prelate known as "Dagger John" had gained an admirer, not an unconditional admirer, but an admirer all the same.

John Joseph Hughes was born on April 24, 1797, in Ireland in County Tyrone. At the age of 20, he came to the United States to escape the grinding poverty and religious persecution of his native land.

In Maryland, where Catholics enjoyed a measure of religious freedom, the young immigrant worked as a farmhand, road-builder, day laborer and gardener. One of his employers was a fledgling seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the rector was Reverend John Dubois, who later became Bishop John Dubois of New York, Hughes immediate predecessor in that position.

Hughes begged Dubois to accept him as a seminarian; but Dubois, concerned about Hughes rather rough exterior, repeatedly refused until Mother Elizabeth Seton, a spiritual daughter of Dubois, somehow convinced him to relent. Assiduous in his studies and uncommonly gifted as a speaker, Hughes was finally ordained a priest by Bishop Henry Conwell of Philadelphia in 1826 and assigned to work in what was even then known as the "City of Brotherly Love."

The newly ordained clergyman soon learned that this sobriquet was altogether undeserved. At the time Philadelphia was awash with anti-Catholicism of the most virulent kind. A scandalous book about a fictitious nun was being widely distributed and taken as Gospel truth; publications such as "The Protestant Vindicator Against Popery" were multiplying; and Catholics were regularly being challenged to answer bitter theological attacks from prominent ministers.

In 1832, although ordained a scant six years, Father Hughes accepted one such challenge from a Reverend John Breckinridge of Princeton University who was at the time chaplain of the United States Congress and a celebrated controversialist. Hughes had expected a face-to-face debate but had to settle for a back-and-forth in lengthy articles—no less than 35—appearing in "The Presbyterian" and "The Catholic Herald." The young priest, according to most commentators, emerged as the clear victor and, two years after the exchange of articles came to an end, was named Coadjutor Bishop of New York, to assist Bishop Dubois, the former seminary rector who had thought him to be an unpromising candidate for the priesthood.

Because of Dubois' poor health, Hughes took the Diocese in hand quickly and with incredible energy. He fought "trusteeism," whereby laymen controlled Church property and the appointment of pastors, and largely won. He fought for equal treatment of Catholic students in tax-supported schools and largely lost. The upshot of this second controversy was, in the estimate of most historians, a public school system that eschewed all reference to religion and a Catholic school system that, thanks to heroic sacrifices of women and men religious, came into being.

In addition to all of this, Hughes became the pre-eminent champion of the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who flowed into New York particularly from Ireland and Germany. In this role, he left himself open to unrelenting criticism from New York newspapers such as the Herald of James Gordon Bennett and the Tribune of Horace Greeley; and in the fray he was worn down both physically and emotionally and his stature as a spiritual leader was in no small measure compromised.

In 1850, the Diocese of New York became an Archdiocese. Three years earlier, in 1847, the Dioceses of Buffalo and Albany had been created; and three years later, in 1853, the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Newark came into existence. Thus, at the end of Archbishop Hughes' tenure in 1864, the territory of the Archdiocese of New York was one-tenth the size of the Diocese of New York that had been established in 1808. Nonetheless, at the same time, it boasted a Catholic population of over 400,000.

In his 26 years as shepherd of New York, John Joseph Hughes witnessed extraordinary growth in virtually all sectors of Church life. Over 100 parishes were founded. A parochial school system was put into place. A major seminary was built. A Catholic college, which is now Fordham University, was created. St. Vincent's Hospital was inaugurated. Ten congregations of religious came to serve in educational and charitable undertakings. And, of course, the foundation was laid for St. Patrick's Cathedral, the edifice that the newspaper editors of the day characterized as "Hughes' Folly" because, as they observed, "No one would go that far North to attend church."

The final years of Archbishop Hughes were difficult, to say the least. He suffered from a most unfortunate controversy with the religious sisters of Mother Seton. He got caught up in an embarrassing visit to the United States by a Vatican official that forced him into a 3,000-mile tour of the Northeast and Midwest despite failing health. He misread the abolitionist movement before the Civil War and became unwisely involved in international diplomacy regarding the war while it raged. And saddest of all, he was drawn into the incendiary issue of compulsory military service that begot riots in the City of New York for which he was by some at least partially blamed. This particular episode, which signaled the end of his life, is described by all of his biographers, even his loyal secretary, Father Hassard, as tragic in its every aspect.

Curiously, just a few weeks ago, by merest chance, I happened upon a document that somewhat softened the tale of Archbishop Hughes and the draft riots of 1864. Painters were redecorating one of the two guestrooms in my residence. To be sure that it was not damaged, they carefully removed from one of the walls a bas-relief of Archbishop Hughes and gave it to me for safekeeping. It was a head of the Archbishop in profile, fashioned in pewter, and fitted into a kind of shadow box frame, oval in shape. On the back of the bas-relief was attached a typed page entitled, "An Archbishop Who Finally Got Home." The author was Edna Mary Houghton.

The page recounted that in his travail with the draft riots, Archbishop Hughes was assisted by a Protestant businessman by the name of William Boardman, who was sympathetic to his plight and anxious to help him out of it in any way he could. In gratitude, Hughes gave Boardman the bas-relief; and down through three generations of the Boardman family, it was a treasured possession.

One day, Boardman's great grandson-in-law, Edwin, and his wife, Edna Mary, had the Chief Fire Marshal of the City of New York, Thomas P. Brophy, to dinner and showed him, a devout Catholic, the bas-relief. He admired it so enthusiastically that they gave it to him "as a gesture of friendship." In 1962, Brophy passed away; and his sister, Kathryn, had it presented to Francis Cardinal Spellman, after having added to the bottom of the frame a little metal plaque that read, "Thomas P. Brophy, N.Y.F.D."

I finished writing this article in the early afternoon of August 24th, after having presided in St. Patrick's Cathedral at the Funeral Mass of firefighter Robert Beddia, who had lost his life in the tragic fire that engulfed the Deutsche Bank Building at "Ground Zero" on August 18th. After the Funeral I took the occasion to put the bas-relief back up on the guestroom wall. As I did, images of the old Archbishop, the Protestant businessman, his generous descendents, the deceased Chief Fire Marshal, his thoughtful sister, and the gallant firefighter who went to the Lord amid prayers in "Hughes' Folly," all came together in my mind and seemed somehow to have a message to deliver that warranted careful and prayerful consideration.

In any case, I put my article in an envelope to be sent over to Catholic New York, promising to offer Mass the next day for the gifted, dynamic and devoted first Archbishop of New York, whose saga still needs to be told with all its victories, defeats, courage, faith and holiness set forth for the instruction and inspiration of the People of God of this great Archdiocese, who owe him so much.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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