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Our History: Humble Beginnings

April 13, 2006

Our History: Humble Beginnings

Just a few weeks ago I mentioned in this column that in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York in April of 2008, I would be devoting a number of my columns over the next two years to the history of the splendid community of faith that we have come to be. This is the first of those columns. I will do my best to touch upon high points of our story and hopefully pique the reader's interest in the complete history of the archdiocese which Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, a skilled historian, has kindly agreed to write in connection with our bicentennial celebration.

The tale begins across the ocean. In 1783, the Holy See wanted to know if it could safely begin to organize the Church in the newly established United States of America. Accordingly, the Papal Nuncio to France approached Benjamin Franklin in Paris to ask him about the matter. Franklin assured the Nuncio that there was no reason for hesitation or concern. Nonetheless, the authorities in Rome felt it best to move slowly. Thus, they named a Jesuit priest from Maryland Prefect Apostolic of the new nation, making him a kind of delegate of the Holy Father with limited episcopal powers, and directed him to study the situation of the clergy and laity in the 13 original states so as to make a thorough report to Rome.

The priest's name was Father John Carroll. He came from one of the most distinguished families in the land. Indeed, a cousin of his signed the Declaration of Independence; and one of his brothers was among the framers of the Constitution. He was born in Maryland in 1736 but was educated for the priesthood in what is today Belgium where, after ordination, he taught in the Jesuit colleges of Lige and Bruges. With the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, he returned to Maryland to exercise his priesthood in the community where his family's home was located.

As Prefect Apostolic, Father Carroll proved to be extraordinarily energetic and effective. He carefully informed himself of the situation of Catholics in the United States, visited Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York personally and repeatedly, and finally made a series of reports to Rome that proved to be of immense help to the decision-makers in the Vatican.

When in 1784 the law in New York against the activity and even the presence of Catholic priests was repealed, Father Carroll moved quickly. He put a priest in charge of the State of New York and Eastern New Jersey and directed him to found a parish in New York City, which at the time was the second largest urban center in the nation after Philadelphia. The parish was St. Peter's on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan, which despite numerous difficulties and misunderstandings managed to survive and ultimately to thrive. It is, of course, the parish that made us all so proud of its courageous clergy and laity in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Similar progress was made in the other major cities of the Eastern seaboard. Thus, in 1789, Father Carroll was named the first bishop of the new Diocese of Baltimore and consecrated in Dorset, England, the following year. His achievements in his new role were outstanding. He called a national synod in 1791 in which he issued excellent norms regarding Church governance and the proper administration of the sacraments. He brought clergy from Europe and encouraged the founding of new communities of religious women. He created two Catholic colleges, Georgetown and Mount St. Mary's, and a major seminary as well. He wrote and spoke widely about the rights and duties of American citizens; and with uncommon charm and tact, he sealed warm relationships with the political leaders of the day, including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Finally, after almost 20 years of presiding over the Church in the land he loved so dearly, the aging bishop succeeding in convincing the Holy See to divide his diocese so that the growing Catholic population might be better served. As a result, on April 8, 1808, Baltimore became an archdiocese; and four new suffragan dioceses were brought into being. For three of them Archbishop Carroll had candidates to present to Rome. They were Father Michael Egan for the Diocese of Philadelphia, Father Jean Cheverus for the Diocese of Boston, and Father Benedict Flaget for the Diocese of Bardstown in Kentucky, which in 1841 became the Diocese of Louisville. To lead the new Diocese of New York, however, he had no one to propose. Hence, the choice was made by the Holy Father, Pope Pius VII, on the advice of his counselors in Rome. It fell to a Dominican priest who was the prior of the Church of St. Clement in the heart of the Eternal City. His name was Father Richard Luke Concanen, and he was never to set foot in New York.

Richard Luke Concanen, the first Bishop of New York, was born in Ireland in 1747. At the age of 17 he fled his native land to make his way to Italy where in 1770 he was ordained a Dominican priests in Rome's Lateran Basilica. For the next 35 years, Father Concanen held numerous positions of leadership in the Order of Preachers, all the while serving as "agent" in the Vatican for several bishops in England, Ireland and the United States, one of them being Bishop Carroll of Baltimore.

The wars that followed upon the French Revolution and the ascendancy of Napoleon inflicted immense damage on the Church throughout Europe. Father Concanen lived through the tragic pontificate of Pope Clement XIV during which various religious orders, including the Jesuits, were suppressed for political reasons and the even more tragic pontificates of Pope Pius VI and Pope Pius VII, both of whom were imprisoned in Paris by Napoleon to the horror of Catholics across the world. He watched England oppress Ireland and the Church in Ireland. And to cap the climax, he spent the last two years of his life, from 1808 to 1810, trying to gain passage to New York in the face of embargoes by both the English and the French which made travel to the United States virtually impossible.

On June 19, 1810, Bishop Concanen, who had been consecrated in Rome in April of 1808, died in Naples after having been prevented by French naval officers from boarding a ship destined for New York. He was buried the next day in a Neapolitan church dedicated to St. Joseph where few, if any, even knew who he was.

The story, however, does not end there. One hundred sixty-eight years later, on July 9, 1978, to be exact, a plaque identifying Bishop Concanen as the first Bishop of New York was attached to this tomb and blessed by one of his successors, Terence Cardinal Cooke. The plaque had been brought from New York to Naples by the Cardinal, who was accompanied by two of his Auxiliary Bishops, The Most Reverend Anthony F. Mestice and The Most Reverend Patrick V. Ahern.

The plaque was set in place and blessed at the conclusion of a Mass for the repose of the soul of Bishop Concanen celebrated by the Cardinal and the two Auxiliary Bishops. As they were leaving the church, they met a Catholic Chaplain of the United States Navy whose ship was anchored in the harbor of Naples. In the course of their conversation with the Chaplain, they suggested that he might want to visit the tomb of the first Bishop of New York and see the plaque that adorned it.

This the Chaplain did, and thus another of Bishop Concanen's successors knelt in prayer before his final resting place. The Chaplain's name was Reverend John J. O'Connor.


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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