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Archbishop John Hughes Led the New York Irish In the 19th Century

An Immigrant Priest Wielded Power in America


Archbishop John Hughes

Archbishop John Hughes

Library of Congress

Archbishop John Hughes, the leader of the Catholic Church in New York, was one of the most influential Americans of his time. He organized the defense of churches from nativist mobs who sought to burn them, expanded the role and influence of the Catholic church in America, and was dispatched by Abraham Lincoln as an envoy to Europe at a critical juncture of the Civil War.

Born in Ireland on June 24, 1797, Hughes followed his father and a brother to America in 1817, settling in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Hughes had received some education in Ireland, but was thwarted in his ambition to become a priest. In America he met an Irish schoolmaster who encouraged him to attend Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. At first, Hughes worked as the college's gardener to pay for his education.

A Defender of the Faith

Hughes was ordained a priest in late 1826, and was posted to a parish in Pennsylvania. While in Philadelphia, he became known for defending the Catholic faith against nativists, anti-Catholic activists who viciously opposed the religion and especially its Irish practitioners.

It was not uncommon at the time for virulent attacks against Catholicism to appear in American newspapers. The pugnacious Father Hughes would respond with forcefully written essays. Fiery theological debates played out in print became a trademark of his later career.

In 1838 Hughes was appointed to the Archdiocese of New York, and he soon began consolidating his power, becoming bishop in 1842 and archbishop in 1850. The Catholic Church in New York City was growing, thanks to immigrants arriving from Ireland. The Irish-born Hughes seemed an instinctive leader and organizer. Under his direction, many churches were built in New York and the Catholic school system began.

A Raucous Period in New York City

In 1844, anti-Catholic mobs marched through Irish neighborhoods in Manhattan. Hughes cautioned his followers not to respond to the provocation. A biography of Hughes published in 1892 by Rev. Henry Brann, a priest who had known Hughes, recounted a legendary incident set at the original St. Patrick's Cathedral in lower Manhattan in the mid-1840s:

Although the Bishop was patient, he was not a coward. He would not permit his Church or his person to be attacked with impunity. His armor was always on, and his lance always couched for a foe. He was a natural born soldier.

When, therefore, he heard that a threat had been made to burn down his cathedral, he caused three or four thousand of the most intelligent and prominent Catholics to arm themselves, and to take possession of the churchyard in Mott Street, and defend the building. When the “Natives” heard of these preparations, they were afraid to attack, and no more was heard of the threat.

Archbishop Hughes Attains Power and Attracts Controversy

As the Catholic population of New York increased, the need for a new cathedral arose. Hughes laid the cornerstone for the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in 1858. The building wouldn't be completed until years after Hughes died, but in a sense the enormous church is a symbol of his stewardship of the New York diocese.

Archbishop Hughes had many enemies, who often characterized him as a ruthless political operator and referred to him as "Dagger John." And while he was considered a powerbroker in New York, the clergyman steadfastly maintained that he never took partisan positions. Some of his views were controversial at the time, such as his refusal to support the abolitionist movement. Hughes was opposed to slavery, but considered abolition to be a radical social change he couldn’t support.

President Lincoln Enlists the Help of Archbishop Hughes

A friendship and correspondence with William Seward, the New York governor and senator who became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, brought Hughes into close contact with the federal government at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Lincoln invited Hughes to Washington to meet with him and his cabinet in October, 1861. Asked to help the Union cause, Hughes refused an official appointment, but he agreed to visit Europe on behalf of the Lincoln administration.

Archbishop Hughes sailed to Europe and visited Paris, where he met the emperor of France, Napoleon III. He also visited Rome and Dublin. His mission was to generate or bolster support for the Union cause at a time when Lincoln and Seward were worried that Europeans nations could recognize the Confederacy.

There was a fear that Great Britain would eventually side with the Confederacy, or might even enter the American Civil War on the Confederate side. Writing from Paris, Hughes assured Secretary of State Seward that Great Britain would not be able to raise an army in Ireland to fight in America. "In Ireland," Hughes wrote, "a war against the United States will be very unpopular among the classes that furnished troops for the Crimea, India, and China."

Return to New York City

Hughes returned to the New York City, to a large welcome, in August 1862. He preached a sermon supporting the Union cause at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The text was printed in a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, which headlined it, “War Sermon by Archbishop Hughes.”

The archbishop’s health began to fail, and by early 1863 he was barely able to leave his residence. When the notorious New York Draft Riots broke out in July 1863, city leaders implored Hughes to make a statement. Hughes gave a speech from the balcony of his residence on Madison Avenue, blessing the crowd while urging compliance with the conscription acts. It's believed his words helped defuse a horrible situation that could have gotten even worse.

By late 1863 all of New York followed stories of his failing health in the newspapers. He struggled on until January 3, 1864.

The next day the New York Times published an obituary of Archbishop Hughes, and in subsequent days the newspaper published stories about the immense crowds that viewed his body in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

He was buried in a crypt at the cathedral. After the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was completed, his body was transported to the new cathedral in 1883 and interred beneath its altar.

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