January 18, 2007

A Bishop for New York Arrives

The Parish of Notre Dame on West 114th Street in Manhattan is served by four dedicated Dominican priests who also direct the campus ministry program at Columbia University and provide spiritual care for a hospital and a nursing home in the neighborhood. On Sunday, Jan. 14, I visited the parish, celebrated the 11:30 a.m. Mass, and joined the parishioners and priests for a reception after the Mass in the parish hall. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay as long at the reception as I would have wished because of my participation in a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral early in the afternoon for 2,000 New Yorkers of Guatemalan background, a Mass in honor of "Cristo de Esquipulas," the patron of Guatemala.

In the evening I picked up my pen to write this article, the fourth in a series on the history of the archdiocese in preparation for our 200th anniversary in 2008. It has to do with another Son of St. Dominic, who was our second Bishop and is one of the authentic heroes of our community of faith.

As my readers may recall, in the earliest years of Catholic life in New York, we were part of the Diocese of Baltimore under the gifted leadership of Bishop John Carroll. In April of 1808, after Pope Pius VII was released from prison in Paris and thus free to name bishops and establish dioceses, we became a Diocese of our own. Our first Bishop was an Irish Dominican from Rome, Bishop Luke Concanen, who never set foot in New York because the ports of Italy were closed by French and British embargoes. His successor was another Irish Dominican also from Rome, Bishop John Connolly.

Msgr. Peter Guilday, who for years held the chair of Church History at The Catholic University of America, had this to say about Bishop Connolly: "It may well be doubted if, in the entire history of the Catholic Church in the United States, any other bishop began his episcopal life under such disheartening conditions." Bishop Connolly was 68 years of age when he was appointed the second Bishop of New York. He had lived his entire priestly life in Rome and had three times heroically refused to swear allegiance to Napoleon. His experience, however, was almost entirely academic; and his knowledge of the United States was woefully limited. Nonetheless, in November of 1815, he sailed to New York on an Irish ship. The voyage lasted so long-67 days-that many were surprised when the vessel finally arrived in port. For it was widely assumed it had sunk.

I his new Diocese, which covered all of the State of New York and half of the State of New Jersey, Bishop Connolly had only three churches (two in New York City and one in Albany) and just four priests to work with him in serving a Catholic community that was growing by leaps and bounds. His people were frightfully poor. Indeed, in his first winter in New York, literally thousands were being fed daily in soup kitchens, while more thousands were pouring into the City with only the clothes on their backs.

Bishop Connolly did not allow himself to become discouraged. Thus, despite religious bigotry, financial crises and even a yellow fever epidemic toward the end of his tenure, his accomplishments were incredible. He attracted vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He established parishes throughout the Diocese in such places as Brooklyn, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Auburn, Carthage and Paterson, New Jersey. He founded a Free School in his Cathedral parish. He convinced the Sisters of Charity from Maryland to come to New York to open the first charitable institutions in the Diocese. He traveled, according to one account, over 1,000 miles on horseback, preaching the Gospel and bringing the sacraments to half-starved immigrants, largely from Ireland, who were building the Erie Canal. And all of this he did while facing unrelenting opposition from parish trustees who insisted on making financial decisions on their own and engaging pastors without a word to the Bishop.

I my article about the first Bishop of New York, Bishop Concanen, I mentioned that he was buried with little, if any, ceremony in a church in the City of Naples, where he had died while waiting to board a ship bound for the United States. About the disposition of the body of his successor, Bishop Connolly, after he passed away, there is another unusual story to be told.

Bishop Connolly was interred in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in February of 1825 after a wake in St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street attended, according to newspapers of the day, by 30,000 mourners. Some years later, his body was removed from its tomb to make room for a deceased layman whose family had influence with the trustees of the Cathedral parish. The bishop’s body was therefore placed in a vault and forgotten until 1976 when it was discovered during a major renovation of the building. It was reinterred in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral at the direction of Terence Cardinal Cooke, who-it might be observed-was the first New York clergyman to celebrate Mass at the tomb of Bishop Concanen. The unseemly treatment of Bishop Connolly will perhaps give some insight into the abuses attendant upon the institution of trusteeism during the era in which the Church struggled with this troublesome matter.

The visit to Notre Dame Parish was a delight. I chatted with the priests. I met with the parish catechists and the children whom they are forming in the faith. I admired the splendid church, which, curiously, was designed to remind visitors of an edifice in Paris in which Napoleon is buried, "L’Eglise des Invalides." I was introduced to choir members, lectors, servers and leaders of various parish programs, including the chairman of the parish bicentennial celebration. And to conclude a most enjoyable morning, I shared in "coffee and" with a host of men, women and children who truly love their parish community.

In the evening, as I wrote about our first two New York Bishops, I could not help but hope that from their places in heaven they might have observed and enjoyed my visit to Notre Dame Parish. Distinguished members of the Order of Preachers, they would have had every reason to be proud of what the Dominican Fathers and Dominican Sisters are achieving in our Archdiocese-in parishes like Notre Dame, in schools, in charitable agencies, in health care institutions and, indeed, in virtually every facet of the life and work in this sector of the Lord’s vineyard.

It is my prayer that during the year in which we celebrate our bicentennial, from April of 2007 to April of 2008, the stories of our great bishops, priests, deacons, religious men, religious women and laity will be told in every corner of the Archdiocese as a reminder of what we have been and what we need to be over the years that lie ahead. We were blessed with a Bishop whose name was Connolly, who resisted a tyrant, traveled to labor in an unknown land, faced the most daunting of challenges, and contributed mightily to laying a firm foundation for the Archdiocese that is our spiritual home. It will be good for our souls to look back and come to know the heroes who went before us; and one whom we will certainly want to study with particular attention is the humble, dedicated Dominican who was our second Bishop and the first to arrive in New York.


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York