The Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky built by
Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget
I guess we could start with John Carroll—the first American bishop. The Carrolls were a very wealthy Maryland Planter family—though not by the Carroll connection but through John’s mother, Eleanor Darnall. John Carroll was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and allegedly the wealthiest man in the colonies. It seems that Charles and John were related not through the Carroll bloodline (and Carroll money) but through the Darnall family—John’s mother being a Darnall and Charles’ grandmother being a Darnall. John’s father, Daniel Carroll, was not part of the family of Charles Carroll, Charles the Settler, who came to Maryland in 1688 and who became one of the colony’s first families. Daniel, father of the future bishop, was an Irish immigrant while most historians claim the Charles the Settler came from England. In other words, while John Carroll’s family was wealthy, it was not the Carroll wealth that established them. Carroll entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 18 and in the course of his training took a vow of poverty. Of course Jesuit poverty has never been Franciscan poverty and Franciscan poverty has never—or rarely—reduced its men to indigence. Jesuits have always had the insight to realize that you can’t let poverty get in the way of mission, and in the Americas the Jesuits led lives of the planter class from which they came and among whom they ministered in their Maryland foundations. The Jesuits were suppressed in 1773 and Carroll and his fellow members of the Society of Jesus then became secular priests under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of the London region—the leading English Catholic prelate. Independence in 1776 left them somewhat jurisdictionally adrift. The Maryland clergy—all former Jesuits—still had strong ties to one another and indeed functioned as if they were still Jesuits. With Vatican permission they elected Carroll in 1784 as “Superior of the Mission.” There was a reluctance among the clergy to introduce bishops in the United States as the newly republican nation had a fear of monarchy and monarchial institutions; in both Anglican England and Catholic France bishops were seen as part of the royal establishment. Carroll’s rabid support for the new nation and its republican ideals however, gradually allayed that fear. Moreover the Episcopal Church introduced bishops in 1783 without much reaction. In 1789 Pius VI permitted the American clergy to elect a bishop and by a vote of 24-2 Carroll was elected. (It would be interesting to know who, other than Carroll himself, did not vote for him.) Carroll went to England for episcopal consecration the following year. He served as Bishop of Baltimore until 1810 when Baltimore was raised to an Archdiocese and Carroll an Archbishop. He died December 3, 1815.
John Carroll owned an estate in what is now the Tenleytown area of Washington DC. His mother owned a huge estate in Rock Creek reaching up into what is today Silver Spring. His brother, Daniel, owned an estate that included what is today Capitol Hill. They each maintained a chapel on their estate and several DC parishes can trace their origins back to these chapels.
While he owned an estate in what is today the District of Columbia, Carroll lived in his See city, Baltimore where he maintained a genteel but discreet household. It was not an elaborate episcopal court on the European model, but the residence of an American gentleman of modest means. He had two servants—one free, one a slave. (His will freed the slave with a generous bequest for his support.) Carroll avoided the European prelatial style, eschewing episcopal robes except for Church ceremonial and regularly appearing in lay clothing in dark colors. (This was the custom of the American and English Catholic clergy at the time). Much of his life was inconvenienced by the need for travel, especially to settle disputes with lay trustees in New York and Philadelphia. Travel was as loathsome for the well-to-do as it was for the working class with long days in crowded stage coaches and nights in horrid inns, two and three to a bed. Carroll, in true Jesuit style (though he never re-entered the Society after its reestablishment in 1814) kept focused on his mission rather than on his comfort. He died at age 80 in 1815.
In 1808 Boston was made a diocese and John-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus was named Bishop; New York was made a diocese with the Dominican Richard Luke Concanen as bishop; Philadelphia was made a diocese with the Franciscan Michael Francis Egan named bishop; and Bardstown Kentucky was named a diocese with Benedict Joseph Flaget as its first bishop.
Each of these new bishops was an interesting person, but my favorite is Lefebvre de Cheverus. A newly ordained priest, he fled France during the Revolution and was a penniless émigré in London, but when offered financial help he replied: “The little I have will suffice until I learn something of the language. Once acquainted with that, I can earn my living by manual labor, if necessary". At the urging of a former seminary professor on the behest of Bishop Carroll, Lefebvre de Cheverus came to the United States in 1796 and worked among the Native American and French-speaking Catholics of Maine. In a 1798 Yellow Fever epidemic in Boston he so distinguished himself in his work among the sick and dying, that it was largely by subscription of Boston Protestants (never known to be friendly to Catholics) that he was able to build the Church of the Holy Cross. Among the subscribers was President John Adams. Named bishop in 1808 and consecrated in 1810 by Carroll, he remained in Boston until 1823 when Louis XVIII recalled him to France and named him Bishop of Montauban. His American experience suited him well to build bridges of cooperation with the significant Protestant population in his new see and among whom he was well respected. He was named Archbishop of Bordeaux in 1826 and received the Cardinal’s hat shortly before his death in 1836. In his American years Lefebvre de Cheverus worked hard, risked his life in ministry to the victims of plague, and lived in New England austerity. Holding a French see, and especially after being named a Cardinal, required a certain amount of public display but even here Lefebvre de Cheverus kept things as plain as he could. His willingness to support himself as a young priest by manual labor marked his character and he never betrayed it.
Bishop Concanen never took up residence in his See, New York. Living in Rome at the time of his nomination and consecration, the Napoleonic Wars made travel to America impossible. Concanen had been very interested in the Dominican foundation in Kentucky and was anxious to see the faith spread in the new Republic, but died only two years after his nomination and before travel to the United States was possible. (He actually had been picked up by a French blockade and detained in French-controlled Naples as a British subject—a horrid but true indignity for an Irishman.) His successor, also an Irish Dominican, John Connolly arrived in New York in 1815. His diocese—the entire State of New York and large sections of New Jersey had four priests, 3 churches, and 15,000 Catholics. It was a mission challenge to a bishop who himself had to get into the saddle or onto the stage-coach to go out and minister to a far flung flock.
Egan of Philadelphia was also an Irishman, but a Franciscan. Like Concanen and Connolly he had lived and worked in Rome but came to Pennsylvania in 1802. He deeply impressed Carroll by his hard work and competence. Philadelphia was made a diocese in 1808 and Egan named bishop, but the same blockades that had prevented Concanen from reaching New York prevented the papal bulls authorizing the episcopal consecration of Lefebvre de Cheverus, Egan and Flaget from reaching American until 1810. His diocese was Pennsylvania, Delaware, and southern New Jersey. There was a (relatively) strong Catholic presence in Philadelphia but the settling of western Pennsylvania was a real challenge to the Church. Many European clergy—especially Irish and German—who were not happy at home simply came to America without authorization and set up shop without consulting the local bishop. Among the rogue priests doing his own thing in Appalachia was the famous Russian Prince Augustine Demetrius Gallitzin. Many of these men, especially Gallitzin, were good men and good priests, but resentful of episcopal authority. Egan had a particular headache with battles with trustees, ethnic squabbles (mostly Irish/German), and free-lancing priests. Egan was constantly travelling through his diocese trying to bring order to it. He died at 53, only four years after his consecration as bishop.
Benedict Joseph Flaget, a French Sulpician, fled the Revolution and came to America in 1792. Bishop Carroll sent him out to what is today Vincennes Indiana. He established the first school and first library in the territory as well as building a church. He was particularly successful in his work among the Native Americans for whom he provided medical help as well as Christian catechesis. Recalled to Baltimore, he was a professor at Georgetown. After an unsuccessful mission to Cuba, he returned to Georgetown. In 1808 the Diocese of Bardstown was formed comprising what is today ten states west of the Alleghenies and east of the Mississippi. His diocese has subsequently been divided—and subdivided—into what are today 35 dioceses. Flaget was named bishop, but went to Europe to try to have the appointment reversed. Unsuccessful, he was consecrated by John Carroll on November 4, 1810 along with Lefebvre de Chevrus and Egan. For his immense diocese he had seven priests. He served until his death in 1850—long after Carroll, Concannen, Egan, and Lefebvre de Chevrus had died. He introduced three congregations of religious sisters to his diocese along with four congregations of priests and brothers. He brought the Trappists from France to establish the abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane and he built the lovely—and very American—Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Bardstown. He resigned the See in 1833, only to be reappointed at the insistence of the clergy and laity. Like Cheverus in Boston, Flaget risked his life and health in the 1833 cholera epidemic which won him great respect among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
None of these were men who provided for themselves but all had a passion for the mission of the Church. Even though each of them—Flaget, Lefebvre de Cheverus, Concannen, Connolly, Egan, and Carroll—would have had experience of the European model of prince-bishops who lived in palaces and were surrounded by liveried servants and purple-belly-banded clerics, and associated only with la crème de la crème of society, they rejected the European model and embraced an evangelical episcopacy shaped by the pastoral needs of those entrusted to them. Bishops they were, but priests first and priests shaped by the apostolic model of mission-driven evangelists. Those were the good old days—not the years before the Council when prelates like Spellman and MacIntyre and Curley and Dougherty and O’Connell “ruled the roost” in their silk frocks and from their splendid homes.