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John Carroll

On this day in 1790, John Carroll, a Jesuit (albeit suppressed) was consecrated as the first bishop of the United States, the first Bishop of Baltimore.

What is extraordinary about this fact is that John Carroll was “elected” by the priests of the Maryland. There was much trouble in the American Church. Trusteeism in New York, and Nationalism in Philadelphia. The priests of Maryland, in March, 1788 petitioned Rome for a bishop for the United States. Cardinal Antonelli replied, allowing the priests on the mission to select the city and, for this case only, to name the candidate for presentation to the pope. Twenty-four of the twenty-five other priests in the meeting voted for Father Carroll. On November 6, 1789, Pope Pius VI appointed him bishop. His consecration took place in Mr. Weld’s chapel at Lulworth Castle, England, on this day. He was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Charles Walmesley, Senior Vicar Apostolic of England. Bishop Carroll returned to Baltimore in December.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has a nice article about Carroll on their website. You can read the article in full by going here

In November 1791 Carroll held the only synod of his twenty-five year episcopacy. It concerned itself mostly with the administration of the sacraments and support of the Church. Nothing was legislated in the area of education, Carroll’s principal concern. As early as 1786 he had pushed for the creation of what would come to be called Georgetown College. Its first student was finally admitted in November 1791, a little more than a month after the French Sulpicians, who had broached the possibility to Carroll in England, opened St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. In 1799 the Sulpicians would also establish St. Mary’s College in Baltimore and in 1808 Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg. Carroll would likewise give his approval to the founding of visitation nuns, who in 1799, under the direction of Leonard Neale, his successor, would begin Visitation Academy in Georgetown. In 1805 Carroll would urge English Dominicans to begin a priory and college in Kentucky for the large number of Maryland Catholics migrating there. In 1809 he would encourage Elizabeth Seton to establish the American Sisters of Charity for the education of girls. He was not successful, however, in inducing the Carmelites, who had come to Maryland in 1790, to take up the work of education.

An unfortunate rivalry in the field of education developed between the former Jesuits and the Sulpicians. Although Carroll tended to favor the Sulpicians, upon whom he had come to lean heavily for advice, he took the lead in effecting a restoration of the Society of Jesus in Maryland in 1805, without informing Rome, by an affiliation with the Russian Jesuits, who had been protected from suppression by Catherine the Great.

Carroll encouraged the building of churches by trustees in the manner of Episcopalian vestries. This he saw as the best way to secure church property and involve the laity in the governance of the Church. Trustees, however, proved unruly in the port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and even Baltimore. Despite assertions to the contrary by historians such as John Gilmary Shea and Peter Guilday, Carroll never repudiated the system, which worked well in the rural churches of Maryland. Trustees proved indispensable in the erection of the magnificent cathedral that Carroll began in 1806, engaging the noted architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. More vexing than troublesome trustees were the many problem priests with whom Carroll had to contend. One of the most notorious was Simon Felix Gallagher of Charleston, an eloquent alcoholic with a large following. Carroll’s policy towards such priests was one of forbearance, even kindness. One of his accomplishments ignored by historians was his ability to tame such troublemakers, even Gallagher. It was, however, the presence of irresponsible and contentious priests that probably convinced Carroll of the inadvisability of Episcopal election by the clergy.

Archbishop of Baltimore
Carroll’s inability to govern a diocese coterminous with the United States was apparent from the start. As early as 1793 he was told to consult his clergy on the choice of a coadjutor. The consultation took the form of an election, and the lot fell to Lawrence Graessl, a former Jesuit. He died, however, before the brief arrived. A second coadjutor, Leonard Neale, was chosen, probably also by election, in 1795 but a miscarriage of the briefs prevented his being raised to the episcopacy until 1800. Neale proved of little help. In 1804 Carroll was given administration of the Danish West Indies and other nearby islands that were under no ecclesiastical jurisdiction and in 1805 the Louisiana Territory. Finally, on April 8, 1808, Baltimore was raised to an archdiocese with four suffragan sees Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Bardstown, Kentucky.

Of course Bardstown (later Louisville) was the mother diocese for our very own Diocese of Vincennes, established in 1834, and Bishop Simon Brute, a former Sulpician was a faculty member at both Mount St. Mary’s Emmitsburg and Saint Mary’s in Baltimore.


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