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Our 'French Connection'

May 24, 2007

Our 'French Connection'

The life of the Third Bishop of New York reads like a novel. Bishop John (originally Jean) Dubois was born in Paris in 1764 and educated at the Collge Louis-le-Grand, also in Paris. Two of his classmates were Maximilien Robespierre, the fanatical leader of the "Terror" in the French Revolution, and Camille Desmoulins, a pamphleteer of the Revolution who ended his days on the guillotine. A third classmate was Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, who became the first Bishop of Boston in Massachusetts and, later, the Cardinal Archbishop of Bordeaux in France.

Having completed his studies for the priesthood at the Oratorian seminary of St-Magloire, John Dubois was ordained in 1787 a priest of the Archdiocese of Paris, where he served as a curate in the Parish of St-Sulpice and as a chaplain in a refuge for the poor known as Hospice des Petites Maisons. In May of 1791, he fled France in disguise because of threats of death from leaders of the Revolution and in August of that same year arrived by ship in Norfolk, Virginia, with letters of recommendation from such personages as the Marquis de Lafayette.

In Virginia, Father Dubois took up residence in the home of James Monroe, the future fifth president of the United States, and during this period was taught English by the celebrated statesman and orator, Patrick Henry. Having mastered the English language, he was assigned by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore to do missionary work in the Norfolk area and later to establish a parish in Frederick, Maryland. In 1808, having become an American citizen, he joined the Society of St-Sulpice and opened in Emmitsburg, Maryland, what he expected to be a seminary for priests of the United States. Because of the paucity of vocations at the time, he subsequently expanded his seminary into a college as well. It is today Mount St. Mary's University and Seminary, located a short distance away from the convent founded by St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton, for whom he was a spiritual guide. Among his students were two future leaders of the Church in New York, Archbishop John Hughes and Cardinal Archbishop John McCloskey.

In 1825, Father Dubois was named by Pope Leo XII the Third Bishop of New York, an appointment which came as a total surprise and was not well-received in New York, at least in some quarters. The reasons for the poor reception were many. First, Bishop Dubois, despite his excellent education and more than adequate knowledge of English, spoke with an accent that made him seem to some to be an "outsider." Second, though his appointment to New York was actually opposed by the French-born Archbishop Marechal of Baltimore, the media claimed that Marechal had sponsored and forced it, and the misinformation soon became "fact." Third, the very popular Vicar General of the Diocese of New York, Reverend John Power, was the candidate whom many of the clergy wanted and all of the laity expected.

Whatever of all this, the new Bishop addressed his assignment with energy and enthusiasm. Having traveled literally thousands of miles throughout New York and northern New Jersey, hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, and confirming, he sailed in 1829 to France to beg for priests and funds to serve the community of faith he had been assigned to shepherd. As regards funds, he was extraordinarily successful, thanks to generous support from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith that had been founded in France a scarce 10 years earlier. Unfortunately, no priests came back from Europe with him, as he had hoped above all else. Still, it is worth noting that during his tenure as Bishop of New York, he received into the Diocese and ordained St. John Neumann and received into the Diocese and made the pastor of no less than three parishes Reverend Felix Varela, whom we in New York trust will one day be St. Felix Varela.

Bishop Dubois' achievements during his 17-year tenure were many and impressive. In what is today the Archdiocese of New York, he established six new parishes in New York City and a new parish in each of the towns of Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Cold Spring and Saugerties. He approved and encouraged the creation of a school for young ladies that became Mount St. Vincent Academy. He assisted the Sisters of Charity in establishing St. Peter's School for Girls. He inaugurated the first parish elementary school at St. Peter's in lower Manhattan. He sponsored the founding of two orphan asylums. He built St. Joseph Seminary in Nyack, New York, which, however, burned to the ground in 1834. And he both renovated and expanded St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. His greatest achievement, however, was that he survived in the face of "trusteeism" in his parishes and the bitterest of anti-Catholicism in New York and across the nation.

'Trusteeism" was an arrangement whereby the finances and administration of parishes were in the hands of lay parishioners, many of whom had little respect for the bishop and all of whom thought themselves free to accept or not accept, support or not support, the clergy whom the bishop named to serve them. In the early 1830s, for example, in St. Joseph's Parish in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, four pastors were engaged and dismissed by the trustees in three years; and if that were not enough, the trustees of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral actually cut off all sustenance and shelter for Bishop Dubois in his Cathedral, forcing him to declare that he was prepared "to live in a basement or a garret," if that were necessary.

Moreover, the internal conflicts attendant upon "trusteeism" weakened the Church notably as it faced external attacks from anti-Catholic bigots. In the 1820s and 1830s, immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe were flooding into New York; and most of them were Catholics with little education and a willingness to work for shamefully low wages that kept wages low also for those who had arrived in America before them. All of this led newspaper editors to publish incredibly lurid tales about Catholic worship, Catholic clergy and especially Catholic nuns, knowing full well that what they were printing was untrue. Slogans abounded against the "evils of Popery"; and they regularly came from the mouths and pens of persons of prominence, such as Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented the telegraph and spent immense energy, particularly in his latter years, violently and viciously condemning Catholics, Unitarians, Irish and those who favored the abolition of slavery.

In 1837, old and weakened by illness, countless struggles, and not a few defeats, Bishop Dubois asked for a Coadjutor Bishop to assist him in his labors. That same year, Pope Gregory XVI chose for the task a priest from Philadelphia who proved to be more than a match for "trusteeism," anti-Catholicism and the demands of a community of faith that was growing at breakneck speed. His name was Father John Hughes, whom Bishop Dubois consecrated in January of 1839 and with whom he worked until December of 1842, when he left the world to be embraced in heaven by the God Whom he had served with remarkable courage and devotion.

Over the past week, I was twice reminded of Bishop Dubois in unexpected circumstances. On May 12th, after ordinations to the priesthood in St. Patrick's Cathedral and a lunch with the new priests and their families at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, I made my way to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in lower Manhattan to discuss proposals that I had received about the parish the week before. The pastor led me on a most helpful tour of the rectory, the school and the convent. Standing in front of the Cathedral as I was about to leave, he drew my attention to a slab of granite fitted into the steps leading up to the main door. It bore the name of Bishop Dubois and the dates of his birth and death.

"Why is he buried there?" I asked.

"They say he wanted it that way," the pastor replied. "He felt he had been walked over for years and arranged to let it continue."

I got into my car, hoping the story was not true but promising myself to offer Mass the next day in thanksgiving to the Lord for the Third Bishop of New York and all that he achieved and suffered in one of the most troubled eras of our history.

Four days later, I was again in Yonkers, this time to bless the new offices of a splendid and much-admired publication known as Magnificat, which appears monthly and contains the readings for daily Mass and both "Morning Prayer" and "Evening Prayer" from the Breviary. The elegant booklets are published in Paris; and present for the blessing were the owner, M. Pierre-Marie Dumont; the international editor, M. Vincent Montagne; and the editor of the English edition, Reverend Peter John Cameron, O.P., along with his gifted staff.

The ceremony began with an address in French by M. Dumont and another in English by Father Cameron, both of whom in the course of their remarks recalled that the Third Bishop of New York was born and reared in Paris. I responded by congratulating all in attendance and observing that Bishop Dubois and Magnificat are deeply appreciated gifts from France. The blessing followed, and the event concluded with a toast in French champagne. It was a bit early in the day, but I participated all the same. For somehow I knew that from his place in heaven Bishop Dubois would want it that way.

"Salut!" M. Dumont declared.

"Salut!" we all answered, "avec plaisir."

(Subscriptions to Magnificat can be obtained by contacting 1-866-273-5215.)

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 With prayerful best wishes, may I remain
Very truly yours in Christ,
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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