Archbishop Ireland remembered 100 years after his death

| March 7, 2018 | 0 Comments
Archbishop John Ireland


‘The Consecrated Blizzard of the Northwest’

The day after Archbishop John Ireland died, tributes filled the front pages of every daily newspaper in the Twin Cities. It was the same in The Catholic Bulletin, then a Catholic weekly, dated four days after his Sept. 25, 1918, death. An obituary called him “one of the most distinguished churchmen of this or any other country during the past 100 years.”

An editorial in the same edition continued the praise: “For well neigh half a century the name John Ireland has been synonymous with the most exalted standards of patriotism and religion,” it stated. “When future historians limn the dim past and record on the scroll of Time the life of God’s Church in America, amid the faint blur of lesser names will stand forth, emblazoned in letters of burnished gold, the words, John Ireland, Archbishop of St. Paul.”

Archbishop Ireland, who oversaw what was then the Archdiocese of St. Paul from 1884 to 1918, had been nicknamed “the Consecrated Blizzard of the Northwest” for his robust personality, extensive vision and ability to make that vision reality.

In his 35 years as bishop, he founded parishes; established institutions including the St. Paul Seminary and the College of St. Thomas (his sister, the comparably formidable Sister of St. Joseph Mother Seraphine Ireland, founded the College of St. Catherine); advocated for temperance and racial equality; sought unity among immigrants and settled them across the state; stirred up controversy in Rome with his vision of American Catholicism; experimented with bridging Catholic and public education; caused a schism in the Byzantine Catholic Church in America; built the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis; and served as a diplomat, particularly during the Spanish-American War.

He also founded newspapers including The Catholic Bulletin, the predecessor to The Catholic Spirit, as well as the Catholic Historical Society and its journal.

He was Minnesota’s first archbishop, as the pope elevated the Diocese of St. Paul to an archdiocese in 1888, and both a Church and civic leader, said Lori Williamson, acquisitions and outreach coordinator with the Minnesota Historical Society.

“He was part of that time and place where religious leaders had great sway over the happenings, especially here, because it was the frontier,” she said. “He was right at that pivotal time where he could really influence the development of a place.”

He was also entrepreneurial, smart, hardworking and charismatic. “He had a lot of really important people’s ears,” Williamson noted.

Michael Hollerich, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul who specializes in Church history, described him as having an “unquenchable” spirit.

“Ireland himself, by temperament, was enormously optimistic and positive minded and forward looking,” he said. “He seems to have been one of those lucky human beings who can’t be laid flat for very long, but just bounces up again — and he had his setbacks and humiliations of many kinds.”

Young immigrant

Like other Irish immigrants of their time, Ireland’s family left its homeland in the late 1840s to escape famine and disease. The Irelands first lived in Vermont and then Chicago before heading up the Mississippi River from Galena, Illinois, to Minnesota.

When Ireland, at age 13, arrived in 1852 in St. Paul, the walls were not yet plastered in the newly erected Church of St. Paul that served as the fledgling diocese’s cathedral, replacing Father Lucien Galtier’s log cabin chapel. Bishop Joseph Cretin, the first bishop of St. Paul, had taken possession of the see only a year earlier. Minnesota was still six years away from statehood.

“St. Paul and Minneapolis were just raw and recently founded,” Hollerich said. “[Archbishop Ireland] was part of a society that was being built from the ground up, and he got in literally on the ground floor.”

Ireland and fellow immigrant Thomas O’Gorman — the one-day bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota — were among the Cathedral school’s first students, and Bishop Cretin hand-selected them for seminary. In 1853, he sent the boys to a Marist preparatory seminary in Meximeux, France. After four years of study there, Ireland spent four more years at a seminary near Toulon, becoming the Francophile that would later be manifested in his commission of the new Cathedral of St. Paul and simultaneously constructed Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, designed by the French-born Emmanuel Masqueray. He returned to St. Paul for his ordination Dec. 21, 1861. He was 23 years old.

Three days before then-Father Ireland’s ordination, President Abraham Lincoln called for a regiment from Minnesota to fight for the Union in the Civil War. In March 1862, the priest received a chaplaincy commission, and he was with the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Regiment when it played a key role in the Union’s October 1862 victory in the Battle of Corinth — an achievement memorialized in a painting in the governor’s suite in the Minnesota State Capitol. In it, Chaplain Ireland is depicted with the charging regiment. In an early biography of Ireland by College of St. Thomas President Msgr. Humphrey Moynihan published in the journal Acta et Dicta, he noted that Father Ireland “was seen hurrying down the line, heedless of the bullets flying around him, carrying a supply of ammunition and crying, ‘Here are your cartridges, boys, don’t spare them,’” meanwhile tending to the wounded and dying.

Cathedral exhibit opens March 18Archbishop John Ireland is the subject of an exhibition the Cathedral of St. Paul is hosting this year in its Hayden Hall and Cathedral Museum. Opening March 18, “John Ireland and the Catholic Church in America” will tell his story from his boyhood to his death through photos, documents and objects he owned and used. Among them is his 130-year-old mitre restored with a grant from the Cathedral Heritage Foundation.

Some of the objects that will be on display are owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, which has more than 50 titles in its library on Archbishop Ireland, including collections of his writing. The MNHS collection also includes objects from his life, including his cane and a “lava medallion” of Queen Victoria he donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1870s.

Other artifacts, including Archbishop Ireland’s death mask, are on loan from the archives of the archdiocese. The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas and the Sisters of St. Joseph also contributed to the exhibition.

Archbishop Ireland “had so many talents, and he put them all into the service of the Church,” said Celeste Raspanti, Cathedral archivist and the exhibition’s curator.

“He was a great man because he built up the Church,” she said. “He was faithful always to Rome, but he was building up the Church in America. He wanted an American Church.”

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Temperance advocate

After returning to Minnesota in 1867, he was assigned to the Cathedral and engaged his next battle: the launching of a temperance movement in St. Paul. According to the lore, three drunk men showed up at his door one evening in 1869, and handed him a crumpled piece of paper with the words, “For God’s sake organize a Temperance Society.” It had seven signatures, including that of a saloonkeeper. Father Ireland launched the Total Abstinence Society and went from town to town — and later around the country and into Europe — exhorting the societal and moral dangers of drinking alcohol.

St. Paul was the “absolute epicenter” of the American temperance movement, said James Rogers, director of the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Irish Studies and editor of the New Hibernia Review. As a priest and later a bishop, Archbishop Ireland deeply desired that Irish Catholics earn respectability at a time awash with stereotypes of drunk, irresponsible Irishmen. He saw America as a place where the Irish Catholics, long oppressed in their homeland, could come into their own.

“He was really a commanding figure,” Rogers said. “He was obsessed with the idea that the Irish would be able to prove themselves good citizens, would be able to prove themselves responsible, admirable Catholic men and women.”

When Archbishop Ireland’s father, whom Rogers described as a “small-time politician,” died in 1887 while the bishop was in France, he sent a transatlantic cable to his family with two words: “No wake.” Local folklore also attributes the 50-year hiatus of St. Paul’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade to Archbishop Ireland, who is said to have thought its revelry reflected badly on the Irish Catholic community and requested that it end in 1915, Rogers said.

Frontier colonizer

When Nebraska’s bishop died in 1874, Father Ireland was at first slated to take his place, but Bishop Thomas Grace, who became Bishop of St. Paul in 1859, implored Pope Pius IX not to take him from Minnesota, Moynihan wrote. The following year, he was consecrated coadjutor bishop of St. Paul.

He soon set to work on another project: a systematic colonization of Minnesota. Appalled by the poor urban living conditions of so many Irish immigrants, Ireland was convinced that they would be better off in the country, where hard work could yield a prosperous life on the land. He organized the Catholic Colonization Bureau in St. Paul and the Minnesota Colonization Company, which sold stock shares to help fund the endeavor.

He secured 117,000 acres of land along the railroad in Swift County in west central Minnesota for two years. To entice Catholic pioneers, he assigned priests to the area with orders to build churches and places for immigrants to live until they could settle their own land. The program lasted until 1881 and brought about the settlement of 4,000 families across the state.

While many of the communities flourished, one was a notorious failure involving a delegation of peasants from Connemara, Ireland, who settled in Graceville, but who were more interested in day labor than beginning their own farms. Amid accusations that Archbishop Ireland wasn’t caring for them, he brought the families back to St. Paul. The episode temporarily soured the appetite for western migration among some U.S. Catholics.

Former Bishop James Shannon described the episode in the Minnesota Historical Society’s journal, writing that the settlement program “was the most extensive and successful wholesale Catholic colonization effort in American history” and that the Connemara failure — while widely known — “is in reality an insignificant part of the story of Catholic colonization in Minnesota.”


By 1884, Archbishop Ireland was in the national spotlight for an entirely different reason. That year he had succeeded Bishop Grace as Bishop of St. Paul. When the bishops gathered for the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore — a meeting that gave birth to the parochial school system in the U.S. and to the Baltimore Catechism — Bishop Ireland, a gifted orator, gave an impassioned discourse titled “The Catholic Church and Civil Society,” which outlined his vision for the Church in America.

“There is no conflict between the Catholic Church and America,” he told his fellow bishops. “I speak … as an American citizen no less than as a Catholic bishop. … I could not utter one syllable that would belie, however remotely, either the Church or the Republic, and when I assert, as I now solemnly do, that the principles of the Church are in thorough harmony with the interests of the Republic, I know in the depths of my soul that I speak the truth.”

That speech was the first of many similar orations he would give in the following years that addressed what he saw as an intrinsic complementarity between the Church in America and the country’s founding vision, as well as the Church’s need to adapt to meet the opportunities and challenges of the day.

Along with similarly minded American bishops such as Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore; Archbishop John Keane of Dubuque, Iowa; and Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Illinois, Archbishop Ireland became known as an “Americanist,” and he used the term himself to describe his position. The label encompassed a worldview that accepted a pluralistic society and believed that Catholics could not only reconcile their faith with the United States’ democratic-republic, but also that the non-monarchical system of government was one in which Catholicism could thrive.

“Basically, it was simply the willingness to embrace the particular political and cultural circumstances of the United States of America as not just tolerable, but a favorable environment for the growth of the Catholic Church,” Hollerich said.

The view rubbed wrong at the Vatican, where Pope Leo XIII was dealing with the aftermath of the French Revolution, in which Catholics who hoped for a return of the monarchy were at odds with those who thought they could stake a place within the French Third Republic. Pope Leo XIII’s efforts to reconcile with the French government had failed, and some Church leaders blamed Archbishop Ireland, who had backed the effort. In part to assuage the French monarchists, Hollerich said, the pope condemned the “Americanism heresy” in “Testem benevolentiae nostrae” (“A Witness of Goodwill”), a 1899 encyclical addressed to Cardinal Gibbons.

The friction also resulted from the misunderstandings Vatican leaders had for the American Church, Hollerich said, calling America and Rome at the time “two ecclesiastical cultures walking right past one another.”

To illustrate the “incomprehension” Vatican leaders had for Archbishop Ireland, Hollerich pointed to a vignette from the prologue of Father Marvin O’Connell’s 1988 biography “John Ireland and the American Catholic Church,” in which Father O’Connell describes Archbishop Ireland in Paris in May 1899 following a speech he gave to honor Joan of Arc — then yet to be canonized — whom he extolled for loving both country and Church. Walking with his priest secretary, he turned to his companion and asked him, “Do you know what they asked me in Rome? At the Vatican?”

“No,” the priest secretary said.

“They asked me if I believe in the divinity of Christ,” Archbishop Ireland said.

Eight years later, Pope Pius X would condemn modernism, striking a much bigger blow to Archbishop Ireland’s vision than “Testem benevolentiae” did, Hollerich said

However, his “modernist” view was vindicated, in some respects, with the Second Vatican Council, particularly in his view of the laity’s vocation, Sister Katherine McLaughlin, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, argued in her 1990 doctoral dissertation on the subject.

“[Archbishop] Ireland emphasized the need for courage, fortitude and perseverance for the laity in their social mission,” she wrote. “He wanted a proactive rather than reactive laity.”


The papal condemnation of Americanism didn’t help Archbishop Ireland’s ongoing dispute with local German Catholics, who were arriving in the area in great numbers. Germany had undergone a Catholic revival in the mid-1800s, and German Catholic immigrants zealously guarded their liturgies, language and culture, resisting Archbishop Ireland’s desire for Catholic assimilation and temperance, Hollerich said. He noted that the trend among German immigrants would persist until World War I made assimilation desirable for German Americans.

Archbishop Ireland also disliked “national churches,” a trend in parish founding that organized Catholics by their nationality instead of geography. Nonetheless, several national churches began under his watch, including Assumption in St. Paul, a German parish run by Benedictines from St. John’s Abbey.

Archbishop Ireland also generally disliked religious orders, in part, Hollerich said, because their community organization fell outside of diocesan structure, and he had less authority with their clergy. He particularly disliked the Jesuits, and they generally didn’t like him. According to historian John T. McGreevy in “American Jesuits and the World,” German-born Jesuits complained to their community’s leader about the “excessive” nationalism displayed by Archbishop Ireland and bishops like him.

Archbishop Ireland had an infamous encounter with a Byzantine Catholic priest with wide-reaching consequences. When Father Alexis Toth, a Ruthenian, presented himself in 1889 to Archbishop Ireland for local permission to minister, Archbishop Ireland asked if Father Toth was married, or had been, as is canonically permitted in the Church’s Eastern rites, which were influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. Father Toth told the archbishop he was a widower, and recalled that Archbishop Ireland “threw the paper on the table and loudly exclaimed, ‘I have already written to Rome protesting against this kind of priest being sent to me!’” and that he didn’t consider Father Toth Catholic.

The rejection caused Father Toth to leave the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, an exodus joined by thousands of Byzantine Catholics in the United States, including entire parishes. The development delighted the Russian Czar, Hollerich said, and he helped to fund the building of new Churches, including St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis. The Orthodox Church in America canonized Father Toth in 1994.

Politician and diplomat

Archbishop Ireland was not afraid to dive into politics, and he was friends with Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who was part of an unsuccessful campaign to win Archbishop Ireland a much-desired red cardinal’s hat. Although he campaigned for Republicans, Archbishop Ireland’s stances defy contemporary “liberal” and “conservative” categories, Hollerich observed.

“What was magnificent about the man was his openness and his confidence that this was a world that offered opportunity and possibility for … human growth potential, that this is a world where there is still more good to be done than evil to be avoided,” he said.

Archbishop Ireland championed the reform of policies that made it difficult to preach Catholicism to inmates in penal institutions, a cause that succeeded with the enacting of an influential Texas law. He also advocated for racial equality in society and especially within the Catholic Church, ordaining the nation’s first diocesan African-American priest. As tensions mounted between Spain and America over Cuba in 1898, the Vatican asked Archbishop Ireland to try to persuade President McKinley to avoid war, but to no avail. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Archbishop Ireland worked with American and Church officials in the Philippines, then a U.S. territory fighting for independence, to navigate the tense relationship there between Church and state.

Education visionary

Back at home, Archbishop Ireland was an ardent supporter of Catholic higher education. In addition to founding the St. Paul Seminary (with the support of his frequent collaborator, railroad baron and Methodist James J. Hill, whose wife, Mary Mehegan Hill, was Catholic), the College (now University) of St. Thomas and what would become St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, he helped to establish The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He also funded the establishment of DeLaSalle High School on Minneapolis’ Nicollet Island.

“A lot of the geography of St. Paul is the way it is because of things he did,” Williamson said, noting that the seminary and college influenced their neighborhoods’ settlement.

Despite his love for Catholic higher education, Archbishop Ireland had misgivings about a parochial school system. He thought it might slow Catholic immigrants’ societal assimilation, Hollerich said. In the 1890s, he experimented with an educational arrangement in which Catholic schools would rent their building to the public school during the day while standard subjects were taught, and the Catholic students would arrive before the school day for Mass and stay after school for catechesis, when the building reverted to parish control. Schools in Faribault and Stillwater tried the arrangement, but it drew suspicion from both the public school system, which feared it was a Catholic takeover, and from Catholics, who thought it was undercutting the parochial school system, Hollerich said.

Archbishop Ireland went to Rome to defend the arrangement and received permission to continue it, but the “Faribault Plan” had unraveled due to public school opposition by the time he returned, Hollerich said.

Lasting legend

Archbishop Ireland died 14 days after his 80th birthday. He had been ill for a year, but he still pushed himself to work. His childhood friend, Bishop O’Gorman, administered last rites two days before his death. His obituary in The Catholic Bulletin stated, “The close of his career was like the gradual descent of the flaming orb of day into a calm and peaceful sunset.”

Today, “anyone who studies American Church history has to learn about Archbishop Ireland,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda. The century since the prelate’s death, and especially the Second Vatican Council, has put his vision and leadership into a positive perspective, he said.

“He really was in favor of strong pastors [and] strong parishes. Even though he was such a strong leader, he was very much an advocate of subsidiarity. … As a result, we continue to have parishes that are very independent, we have schools that are very independent, and that’s part of the fabric of this local Church,” he said.

He said he has been inspired by Archbishop Ireland’s attentiveness to the needs of immigrants and his sense of justice. “It’s important to see how dedicated he was to this local Church and to this community,” he said. “Even though he had a national vision, he was always operating out of his pastoral care for this local Church.”

Archbishop Ireland’s most obvious lasting legacy, Rogers noted, is brick-and-mortar, with the numerous parishes, schools and institutions established under his leadership, many of which gave immigrants a path to success in their adopted country.

He also modeled a tradition of the local Church’s engagement in the public life, Rogers said. “He had an activist view of the Church’s mission,” he said. “He definitely thought that the Church was to be a presence and a force in public and civic life.”

“He’s one of those people who had really big ideas about the way things should go and happen, and he worked really hard to put them into action,” Williamson said. “He was an immigrant from Ireland, but he wanted to be part of this country. He knew in his head what he wanted to do to get there.”

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