Our First Cardinal

I the mid 1800s, news photography was unknown. Hence, important events were pictured to the public by means of drawings that were lithographed and in some cases colored by hand. None were more highly esteemed than the works of two Americans, Nathaniel Currier of Boston and James Merrit Ives of New York. They were sold for as little as 25 cents when first issued but are now collectors’ items available in art galleries across the nation.

Shortly after I was named to the College of Cardinals in 2001, a dear friend gave me a colored Currier and Ives lithograph beautifully framed. It was entitled in large letters, “Imposing the Cardinal’s Berretta,” and in small ones, “Upon His Grace Archbishop McCloskey of New York, by His Grace, Archbishop Bayley of Baltimore, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, N.Y., April 27th, 1875.” Under the image in even smaller letters one could read, “Published by Currier and Ives, 115 Nassau St., New York.”

The lithograph depicted a clergyman in a black cassock and a black shoulder cape with eyes cast down, over whose bowed head an imposing prelate in a bishop’s cope and miter held a “birettum,” the classic head covering of the Catholic clergy until the early 1960s.

I studied the lithograph and wondered if John Cardinal McCloskey, about whom I knew virtually nothing, was as humble and unprepossessing a fellow as the artist’s representation suggested. In due course, I discovered that he was.

The future Cardinal was born on March 12, 1810, two years after his newly wed parents arrived in New York from Northern Ireland. He was a studious youngster who received his elementary education in a highly esteemed “classical school,” thanks to the generosity of a friend of the family who became his guardian after his father’s death. From there he went on to complete his college and seminary studies at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. On Jan. 12, 1834, he was ordained in the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first native-born New Yorker to be ordained for the diocesan priesthood.

Father McCloskey’s first assignment was as a professor of philosophy in the seminary of New York in Nyack-on-the-Hudson, which at the end of his first year on the faculty burned to the ground. Because of chronic health problems, it was decided that he should go to live for a couple of years in Rome, where the climate would be less rigorous and he might pursue further studies in both philosophy and theology. This too was made possible by his generous guardian.

I Rome, Father McCloskey lived in a monastery attached to the Church of Sant”Andrea della Valle and took courses at the “Roman College” of the Jesuit Fathers, which is now called the Gregorian University. There he became a close friend of the famous Dominican preacher, Lacordaire, and well-known to a number of the most celebrated clergymen of his time, such as the future Cardinal Wiseman of England, the future Cardinal Cullen of Ireland, and several of the key advisers of Pope Gregory XVI, many of whom he came to admire greatly.

After traveling throughout Europe for almost a year, he returned to New York to be named pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Greenwich Village. The assignment was his first real test as a member of the clergy, and he passed it with flying colors.

At the time, “trusteeism” was in full sway throughout the nation. Prominent laity, known as “trustees,” controlled the finances of their parishes, paid the clergy if they wanted to, and dismissed any who said or did anything to displease them. Father McCloskey’s appointment was made without consultation with the trustees of St. Joseph’s, and they accordingly ordered the parishioners to boycott him.

Without uttering a word of complaint in public or even showing disappointment, the young priest offered Mass and delivered a long sermon every Sunday to an empty church. This went on for nine months until the parishioners finally began to file back into their pews and the trustees resigned themselves to allowing the pastor to do his work. None of this was out of character. As one priest put it many years later, “John McCloskey never fought a battle, or lost a war.”

While remaining pastor of St. Joseph’s, Father McCloskey served as the first president of St. John’s College, which is now Fordham University, a post he held until 1844, when he was appointed Coadjutor to Archbishop John Hughes “with the right of succession.” Some expressed surprise that the exuberant, controversial Hughes would have chosen the quiet, self-effacing McCloskey to succeed him. Others count Hughes” choice to be among the best he ever made.

Whatever of this, three years later Bishop McCloskey was named the first Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Albany, where without fanfare he increased the number of parishes from 25 to 113, increased the number of priests from 34 to 84, built the splendid Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and founded a host of extraordinary schools and charitable institutions.

With the passing of Archbishop Hughes in January of 1864, McCloskey was appointed Archbishop of New York with the unanimous support of the the bishops of New York and New Jersey, despite his having begged his friends in the Roman Curia to impede the nomination. “I possess neither the learning, nor prudence, nor energy, nor firmness, nor bodily health or strength,” he wrote to Carl Cardinal von Reisach, who was a member of a number of key offices in the Holy See. Happily, von Reisach knew better. Thus, after 17 years in Albany, the Archbishop-elect left for New York, having declined “any public demonstration” in his honor.

I 1864, the Archdiocese of New York was beset with accusations regarding draft riots in the City, criticism of its stand on abolition, tensions with the Italian and German communities, an unfortunate diplomatic involvement concerning the Civil War, long-term antagonisms over public schools, spiraling deficits and ongoing conflicts with the media, both Catholic and secular. The new Archbishop dealt with all of it gracefully and effectively. As calm was slowly restored, the number of churches and chapels rose from 85 to 229, the number of priests rose from 150 to 400, and extraordinary institutions of charity such as the Protectory for neglected youth, the New York Foundling for mothers and children, and the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin on State Island came into being.

In addition, the new Archbishop assumed the debt of numerous failing parishes, raised the funds to pay for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and by a deft intervention with President Chester Alan Arthur saved the Pontifical North American College in Rome from being confiscated by the Italian government. It was not therefore surprising that in March of 1875, he became the first citizen of the United States to be named to the College of Cardinals, receiving his “birettum” a month later in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, inasmuch as the new one was still under construction.

Cardinal McCloskey participated in the First Vatican Council from beginning to end, voting in favor of the declaration on papal infallibility when it came to the floor even though he had made it known that he felt it “untimely.” He was a leading voice in the Second and Third Plenary Councils of Baltimore, especially in the area of Catholic education. He managed to keep the Irish Fenians from wreaking havoc when they threatened an uprising in New York. He even avoided controversy with the troublesome Father Edward McGlynn, who caused his successor, Archbishop Corrigan, years of grief.

There are many more achievements of the first American Cardinal that could be listed here. However, in the interest of understanding the kind of person he was, perhaps it is best to recall just two anecdotes about him. The first comes from the pen of the second American Cardinal, James Cardinal Gibbons, who wrote of McCloskey: “A few minutes before he was to ascend the pulpit to deliver the opening address at the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, a telegram was handed to him announcing the destruction of his Cathedral by fire. His Eminence preached in his usual tranquil and unruffled manner. When I expressed to him the next morning my surprise at his composure, he replied: ŒThe damage was done, and I could not undo it.” “

The second anecdote is perhaps even more revealing.

William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who led the bloody “March to the Sea,” had a son who wanted to study to be a Jesuit. Sherman wrote a letter to McCloskey telling him to dissuade his son from such an unthinkable course of action. The Cardinal met with young Sherman, listened to his story and encouraged him in his vocation. The General contacted the editor of a St. Louis newspaper, condemned the Cardinal in the most offensive terms and accused him of robbing him of a son. The editor telegrammed the Cardinal for a comment. The reply was classic McCloskey: “General Sherman’s letter was marked ‘personal and confidential.” ” And he never mentioned the matter again.

I looked once more at the little figure in the Currier and Ives lithograph with his eyes cast down and his head bowed, and concluded that the artist had understood his subject very well indeed. Quiet, thoughtful, humble and priestly that is what John Cardinal McCloskey was; and that is quite a lot.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York