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People & Ideas: John Hughes

John Hughes

Born in Ireland, John Hughes immigrated to the United States as a young man. Harassed by Protestants in his native country, he looked to the Unites States as a bastion of religious freedom. But he discovered that freedom had its limits.

Ordained into the priesthood in Philadelphia, Hughes rose swiftly through the ranks, and by 1850 he was appointed archbishop of New York. In the mid-1800s, Catholic immigrants were swelling the population of the city, and Catholic children were offered the option to attend the public schools of New York. These schools were nominally nondenominational, unaffiliated with any particular faith or denomination, but Hughes and his fellow Catholics recognized that they were, in fact, highly influenced by the prevailing Protestant ethos. Textbooks reflected a widespread prejudice against Catholics, portraying the Irish immigrants as "extremely needy, and in many cases drunken and depraved ... subject for our grave and fearful reflection."

Tension between Catholics and Protestants erupted over the traditional practice of daily Bible reading. Public schools used the King James Bible; Catholics argued that this Bible was Protestant and that the daily readings undermined their beliefs. They demanded that the schools offer students the Catholic version of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims approved by the Vatican. School officials declined.

Hughes assumed leadership of the Catholic cause and took on the Protestant establishment. In speeches, sermons and writings, he demanded that public funds be used to support Catholic schools in addition to the Protestant public schools. The state Legislature refused.

Hughes then set his sights on the creation of a separate Catholic school system where Catholic children could be educated according to the tenets of their faith. Spurned by Protestants, Catholics established a series of their own institutions -- churches, hospitals and orphanages -- that paralleled those of the Protestant establishment.

In 1858, in a ceremony that fulfilled his dream of announcing the arrival of Catholicism in America, Hughes laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which upon completion years later would become the crowning symbol of Catholic determination in the country. More than 60,000 people turned out for the ceremony. The New York Herald reported, "It was the largest assemblage our reporter ever saw in this city." But construction of the cathedral came to a halt two years later, and the building remained unfinished, with walls only reaching 35 feet high, throughout the Civil War. His dream came to be known as "Hughes' Folly."

Known as "Dagger John," Hughes could be aggressive, demanding and insistent. He made enemies but was beloved by the Catholic immigrant community. He also won the respect of William Seward, New York's governor and later Lincoln's secretary of state. Fearing that European nations might come to the aid of the Confederacy, Seward sent Hughes to Europe to bolster the Union cause. Returning to the States in 1862, Hughes preached a sermon in support of the Union at St. Patrick's.

The following year, a violent riot broke out in New York protesting the institution of the draft for the Union Army. Many of the rioters were Irish laborers who worried that freed slaves would take their jobs. Rioters attacked and killed African Americans, even descending upon an orphanage for black children. The New York Times reported, "The rabble exhibit an abandonment of human feeling, that was hardly deemed possible in any portion of American society, even the foreign-born."

Ailing and weak, Hughes addressed a crowd gathered outside the balcony of his home and called for an end to the violence: "I address you as your Father. ... I am a minister of God, and a minister of peace, who in your troubles in years past as you know, never deserted you. With my tongue and my pen I have stood by you always, and so shall to the end of my life." The crowd reacted with cheers and cries of "No, never."

He continued: "I have been hurt by the reports that you are rioters. You cannot imagine that I could hear these things without being pained grievously. ... If you are Irishmen, and the papers say the rioters are all Irishmen, then I also am an Irishmen, but not a rioter, for I am a man of peace." His speech is credited with helping stem the violence.

Hughes died six months later. His body was exhumed and reburied under the altar of St. Patrick's after the cathedral was dedicated in 1879.

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Published October 11, 2010

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