John Joseph Hughes was born on 24 June 1797 in Annaloghan, Co. Tyrone, to a poor farmer. As a Catholic in English-ruled Ireland, he couldn’t even receive a Catholic education. When John was 15, his younger sister, Mary, died and British law barred a Catholic priest from presiding at her burial; the best he could do was to scoop up a handful of dirt, bless it, and hand it to John to sprinkle on her grave. Hughes never forgot that and dreamed of ‘a country in which no stigma of inferiority would be impressed on my brow, simply because I professed one creed or another.’ Fleeing poverty and persecution, John’s father brought the family to America in 1817 and settled in Chambersburg, PA. John made unsuccessful applications to study at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, MD, but was hired by its rector as a gardener. Working there rekindled his childhood dream of becoming a priest; he asked again if he could enroll as a student and was turned down because of his lack of education. John befriended Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton who persuaded the college to reconsider and Hughes was admitted in September 1820.
After graduation, he served the diocese of Philadelphia as a seminarian until 5 October 1826 when he was ordained a priest by Bishop Henry Conwell. During his early years as a priest, Hughes founded St. John’s Orphan Asylum in 1829 and in 1832 was responsible for building the new church of St. John the Evangelist – one of the most impressive churches in the country at that time. His initiative was recognized and on 7 August 1837, Pope Gregory XVI made 40-year old Hughes coadjutor Bishop for the Diocese of New York, which then included all of New York State and northern New Jersey. He was consecrated in old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 7 January 1838. Between 1820 and 1830, immigration had swelled the U.S. Catholic population to 600,000 with no end in sight. The new immigrants were mostly Irish: impoverished, uneducated and unskilled, with little to prepare them for New York’s urban environs. Hughes believed that the barrage of Nativist anti-Catholic prejudice at the time was demoralizing the already disadvantaged immigrants and holding back their progress.
Recalling his own difficulties with a lack of education, he believed that the future of the Irish in America depended on secular education. At the time, the city’s schools were run by the Public School Society which received state funding. However, that society was a private Protestant group that taught that ‘emigration from Ireland of annually increasing numbers, extremely needy, and in many cases drunken and depraved, has become a subject for all our grave and fearful reflection.’ To get his flock educated, Hughes wanted an end to biased sectarian education. He contacted representative of New York’s Jewish community and allied with them to end all religious teaching in schools and through their efforts, the Maclay Bill of 1842 was enacted to bar all religious instruction from schools receiving state funds. On the night the bill was passed, a nativist mob attacked Hughes’s residence and members of the AOH were called to protect the city’s Catholic churches as they had done in 1841 and would do again in 1844.
Having reformed the public schools to help those non-protestant children who attended them, Hughes threw his energies into building a Catholic school system. ‘We have to build the schools first and the church after’ he said. In 1838 he felt that 100 acres bordering the Bronx River was the perfect spot for a new seminary and college and three years later, St. John’s College, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the northeast, was established. On 10 April 1846, the State of New York granted the College a university charter and in 1907, after adding a law school and medical school, the name was changed to Fordham University.
In 1844, James Harper, was elected Mayor of New York supported by the anti-immigrant American Republican Party consisting mainly of Nativists. A highly organized group of anti-Catholic Protestant fundamentalists, they saw the Catholic Church as incompatible with democracy and believed the United States should be a land for Anglo-Saxon Protestants only. At the time, nativist riots in Philadelphia claimed the lives of 30 Irishmen and burned Catholic churches and convents. Bishop Hughes defending the rights of Irish Catholics against such bigotry and bloodshed, sent a letter to Mayor Harper warning that if any harm came to a single Catholic church, he would turn New York into another Moscow, referring to the burning of Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. He then called on the AOH to defend the Cathedral. As a massive Nativist torchlight parade gathered in City Hall Park, ready to march up the Bowery to the Cathedral, he stationed the Hibernians on the protective walls around the Cathedral. The Nativists backed down and Hughes’ powerful message and forceful actions are credited with averting the same anti-Catholic violence in New York that had plagued Philadelphia. Hughes won the nickname of “Dagger John,” not only for the cross he penned beside his signature but also for being a man not to be trifled with!
In 1850, New York was elevated to the status of an Archdiocese by Pope Pius IX, so, too, was Hughes’ own status elevated to that of Archbishop. He continued a vigorous mission of building churches, schools, and hospitals. Future American President James Buchanan called him, ‘one of the ablest and most accomplished and energetic men I had ever known. In a far-seeing move that many ridiculed at the time as Hughes’ Folly, the Archbishop proposed the construction of a new Cathedral in an undeveloped area far uptown on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. The property was purchased in 1810 for the sum of $11,000. Archbishop Hughes laid the cornerstone for the new Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on 15 August 1858.
During the Civil War, Archbishop Hughes served as an envoy for President Lincoln on a successful overseas mission to dissuade European countries from supporting the Confederacy and in securing several officers of former Papal Army for the Union Army. In gratitude, Lincoln petitioned Pope Pius IX to name Archbishop Hughes as America’s first Cardinal. But the death took this indomitable leader in January 1864 before that honor could come to pass. His memory was honored by tributes from President Lincoln and other statesmen and his body viewed by over 200,000 people who solemnly came to worship in the old Cathedral where he was entombed in the crypts below. His body remained there until the new Cathedral was completed uptown and his remains were then removed to a crypt there in 1883. The new Cathedral holds the remains of all of the archbishops and cardinals that have served the Archdiocese since the death of Archbishop Hughes.
A statue of Archbishop Hughes stands on Fordham campus and a bust on a pedestal was erected by AOH Div 9 NY and the Friendly Sons of St Patrick at the old Cathedral with 3 bronze plaques on the fence.
Mike McCormack, National Historian (originally publish 2019)
THIS IRISH AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH PROFILE IS PRESENTED BY THE ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS (AOH.COM)