Roots in the Emerald Isle

| March 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

There are many priests of Irish-American heritage who serve the archdiocese who will soon observe St. Patrick’s Day, just as the priest-sons of immigrant Irish families have for 150 years. But while Irish-born priests continue to serve in other U.S. dioceses, that’s rarely the case here, and hasn’t been for quite some time, due to the vision of an Irish archbishop

Archbishop John Ireland, shown here in an undated file photo with priests of what was then the Archdiocese of St. Paul, chose not to receive priests from his native country, and opted for homegrown priests, many who came from Irish-American families, with the establishment of the St. Paul Seminary.

Archbishop John Ireland, shown here in an undated file photo with priests of what was then the Archdiocese of St. Paul, chose not to receive priests from his native country, and opted for homegrown priests, many who came from Irish-American families, with the establishment of the St. Paul Seminary.

It was the summer of 1860. The bishop of St. Paul, Thomas Grace, needed more priests, specifically more priests from a certain island nation: Ireland.

Irish who fled starvation and economic servitude at home and the crowded cities in the eastern U.S. came to Minnesota to farm and build the railroads as the country expanded westward.

“The Irish people of his diocese were demanding Irish priests,” wrote sociology professor William L. Smith, and the second bishop of St. Paul knew where to look.

Ireland was overflowing with priests, the result of what historian Emmit Larkin dubbed “The Devotional Revolution.” Toward the middle of the 19th century, Dublin Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen instigated a renewed piety on the Emerald Isle, insisting that Catholics had an obligation to regularly attend Mass, go to confession, receive Communion and know their catechism.

After centuries of British colonial policies that had diminished the Irish Church, Cardinal Cullen promoted Catholic practices of pilgrimages, retreats, novenas and praying the rosary.

The fruit of the Devotional Revolution was just what Bishop Grace needed.

That summer of 1860, he wrote to All Hallows College in Ireland, a seminary established for the specific purpose of training priests for the “foreign missions,” and asked for priests.

History shows Bishop Grace writing again in 1867, his letter reiterating a request for three more Irish priests.

By 1900 two-thirds of the diocesan priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul were foreign-born, more than one-quarter of them Irish. But it was about that time th at the flow of priests from Ireland were diverted to U.S. dioceses other than St. Paul.

Ironically, the man responsible had the surname of Ireland.

Homegrown priests

“Four thousand Irish-born and Irish-seminary educated priests have served in the United States and nearly 1,250 are currently affiliated with American dioceses,” Smith wrote in 2004.

As the letters of Bishop Grace show, some of those Irish priests were actively recruited for the Archdiocese of St. Paul. (Minneapolis was added to the name in 1966).

But in 1894, Archbishop John Ireland built a seminary in St. Paul, and the recruiting of priests from Ireland stopped, said James Rogers, managing director of Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

“Archbishop Ireland believed in building up the American Church,” Rogers said. “He was adamant that America was to be the place free from the dead hulk of European policies and politics and where the Church would blossom. And it was essential to him to have homegrown priests.”

While Bishop James McGolrick, a St. Paul lad who was the first bishop of Duluth, continued to recruit priests from Ireland — 89 Irish priests served in the Diocese of Duluth from 1889 to 1989, with the latest recruit joining the diocese in 1987 — Archbishop Ireland focused his efforts on creating a native-born clergy from Minnesota.

Historical evidence shows that some European bishops may have sent their misfits or malcontents to the mission land in America. While that may have been why some U.S. bishops stopped requesting priests from overseas, there is no evidence that Archbishop Ireland had that issue, Rogers said.

“His approach was positive, from what we know of his writing and his speeches,” Rogers said.

Archbishop Ireland believed that the American Catholic Church would show the world how to influence the culture for good, he added.

A positive impact

Archbishop Ireland, however, while no longer recruiting priests from Ireland, did recruit Catholic families from his homeland, and, where he may have halted “Irish-born” priests serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, history shows that his creation of the St. Paul Seminary had an extremely positive impact on the number of “Irish-American” priests in the archdiocese.

Through a variety of Catholic colonization associations, the archbishop helped resettle Irish Catholics from both Ireland and the urban slums of the eastern United States.

Those Catholic families had sons, and the children of Irish immigrants went to Archbishop Ireland’s seminary and became priests.

“Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it best in ‘Beyond the Melting Pot,’ ” Rogers said. “The ‘best and the brightest’ of those sons of Irish immigrants went into the priesthood.”

For that time period, from the founding of the Diocese of St. Paul in 1851 until more than 100 years later, there was a different attitude about a religious vocation than there is today for many people, Rogers explained.

“From our present day attitudes, it is hard to look back to see how ordinary and unremarkable it was for a young Catholic man to have a vocation,” he said.

“It was a perfectly customary career path for people growing up in the Catholic faith,” something that would “bring credit” to the family and make parents proud, he added.

A “spot check” of the ethnicity of the men studying at the St. Paul Seminary through its first 80 years offers some clue to the impact of those Irish immigrants on the number of priests who went on to serve in the archdiocese.

Rogers termed his research on “clearly Irish names” unreliable methodologically, but it at least offers an impression of the number of Irish-Americans studying to become priests here.

In the seminary’s first 50 years, more than 42 percent of the seminarians could be counted on as likely Irish-American. The high was 57.8 percent — 33 of the 57 men — in 1916.

Those numbers slowed to less than 20 percent by 1976.

‘An American character’

Through all those decades, however, men of every ethnic group — not just those of Irish heritage — were formed from a vision that the first archbishop of St. Paul had for the Church in the United States.

Father Marvin O’Connell, a University of Notre Dame historian and priest of the archdiocese, laid out that vision best in his 1988 biography of Archbishop Ireland, “John Ireland and the American Catholic Church.”

“It was crucial for social peace and prosperity that these ‘devoted men’ be trained not in clerical obscurantism but along the lines of what [railroad baron James J.] Hill perceived to be Ireland’s progressive ecclesiastical views and patriotic commitment,” Father O’Connell wrote.

Archbishop Ireland wanted his priests to have “an American character,” he added.

“The Americanization of the Church was not only a goal to be pursued within the national arena; it possessed a local dimension, too. And to Ireland that meant primarily the provision for his own diocese of a native-born clergy well trained in the sacred sciences, disciplined, devoted to the best American ideals (as he conceived them), and loyal to himself and his successors. In the [St. Paul] seminary he had in his hands what he conceived to be the most suitable instrument to mold a high-minded American Catholicism for the present and future generations.”

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