John Joseph Hughes (1797-1864)
Unshakable faith, political savvy and indefatigable energy were the assets possessed by John Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York. Hughes was born in County Tyrone, Ireland. Soon after arriving in Pennsylvania, he became a priest and started his quick ascension through the ranks of the Catholic Church, becoming Archbishop of New York in 1850.
By the mid 1800s, the immigrant population in New York City swelled with poor Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine that decimated their homeland. Although the public schools were nominally non-denominational, Catholics were taught from the Protestant King James Bible, and many complained that their own religion was mocked. Catholics, and most specifically, the Irish, were frequently vilified in the curriculum of New Yorks public schools. Public schools used textbooks that portrayed the Irish immigrants as extremely needy, and in many cases drunken and depraved
subject for all our grave and fearful reflection.
After initial failed attempts at finding a conciliatory solution to the problem, Hughes took the offensive in public speeches, sermons and writings during the 1840s, demanding public funds for Catholic schools. Hughes was unsuccessful in obtaining taxpayer dollars for religious schools, but his struggles and the fiery debates between Hughes and members of New Yorks prominent Protestant establishment helped to set in motion the secularization of American public schools, a process that began in the 19th century, and continues to this day. (Note that even as late as the 1950s, American schoolchildren were still reciting the Protestant Lords Prayer daily in the classrooms of many states.)