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January 31, 2008

Front Row Center

Throughout the month of August in 1954, 75 seminarians from dioceses and archdioceses across the United States arrived by ship in Naples to make their way by bus to a little town outside of Rome by the name of Castelgandolfo. I was one of them. In Castelgandolfo, across the road from the summer residence of the Popes, the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in Rome, owned a villa where students and staff spent a good part of July and August each year to escape the heat of the Eternal City. The villa had belonged to a noble Roman family and boasted a splendid main building in which we lived, roads scarred by the wheels of ancient chariots, and the foundation of the home of Publius Clodius, a politician who was condemned to death for murder after Cicero delivered an address, "Pro Milone," against him.

On the ground floor of the main building, the walls were decorated with black-and-white photographs of important events in the history of the College. One featured 12 seminarians who formed the "pioneer" class of the College when it opened in 1859. When I first inspected it, I was particularly interested in the two young men from the Archdiocese of Chicago, which I was being prepared to serve as a priest. Years later my interest veered toward two others, one from the Archdiocese of Newark and the other from the Archdiocese of New York. After they returned to the United States as ordained priests, their lives collided and thus embittered a period in the history of our Archdiocese that was already fraught with conflicts and controversies. One tells the story with a heavy heart.

The seminarian from Newark was Michael Augustine Corrigan. He was born in 1839, one of nine children of a well-to-do Irish couple. After private schooling in Newark, he enrolled in Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., to pursue a degree in philosophy. In four years he graduated first in his class and was sent to Rome to study theology at the newly established Pontifical North American College, where he was ordained in 1863.

Two years later he returned to Newark with a doctorate in theology, became a professor at Seton Hall College, and later President of the same institution. In 1873, at the age of 34, he was named Bishop of Newark.

Even his most stern critics, which include a number of distinguished Church historians, concede that Bishop Corrigan was remarkably effective in his first Diocese. He founded 69 parishes and missions, substantially reduced the diocesan indebtedness, saved Seton Hall from bankruptcy and created an administration and clerical culture that were widely admired throughout the land and in Rome as well. Thus it was that in 1880 he was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of New York to John Cardinal McCloskey, whom he succeeded in 1885.

All expected that the new Archbishop would be an altogether successful leader of the largest Archdiocese in the nation. He was well-educated. He spoke and wrote Latin, French and Italian, and read both Greek and Hebrew. He was an administrator "par excellence." He was noted for his priestly piety. And in addition to all of this, he worked day and night.

Unfortunately, however, Archbishop Corrigan shepherded the Archdiocese in an era of bitter quarrels and contentions and was caught up into some of the most damaging of them. He courageously defended parish schools against not only Protestants and politicians, but also against certain members of the hierarchy who could never forgive him for his unbending commitment to Catholic education. He confronted the dangerous phenomenon of "secret societies" but was made to seem to have condemned all of them, even those that perhaps deserved no condemnation. He resisted the establishment of the Catholic University of America because of concerns about the motives of some of its proponents and in the bargain won the lasting enmity of the iconic Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons. He fell afoul of the first papal representative to the United States for reasons that were quite unfair and not confuted for years. He fought a political-theological tendency to exaggerate the excellence of American institutions that was known as "Americanism" and thus came under ongoing attack from the eloquent and at times devious Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul. He even found himself regularly upbraided by powerful immigrant groups notwithstanding the fact that immigrants in the late 1800's—whether Irish, German, Italian or others—had no more zealous champion than Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan.

While dealing with all of this and more, the Archbishop had to contend with years of confrontations, embarrassments and even ridicule at the hands of the other of the two seminarians mentioned above, the one from New York.

His name was Edward McGlynn. He was born in Manhattan in 1837, one of 11 children of a prosperous New York contractor. He attended public schools in the City of New York and at the tender age of 13 was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood at the College of the Propagation of the Faith ("The Propaganda"). He was an outstanding student, highly regarded by his professors, and commanding in his manner. He joined the first class of seminarians at the Pontifical North American College as their prefect and a year later was ordained to the priesthood. His first assignment upon his return to New York was as a curate at St. Joseph's parish in Greenwich Village, and his second was as a curate at St. Stephen's parish in Manhattan.

While at St. Stephen's, Father McGlynn became associated with a group of priests known as the "Accademia" who considered themselves intellectually above their peers. They favored such worthy causes as the abolition of slavery but seemed as well to be calling into question such basic Catholic beliefs as the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture and papal infallibility. Moreover, some of the membership, and especially Father McGlynn, became extremists in their opposition to Catholic schools, even espousing civil legislation to eliminate or at least cripple them.

All of this inevitably unnerved the very conservative and easily upset Archbishop Corrigan, whose principal conflict with Father McGlynn, however, seemed to have to do with a movement to abolish the private ownership of land led by an amateur sociologist by the name of Henry George. Father McGlynn embraced George's theories with unlimited devotion, even though it was never quite clear what exactly they entailed. Archbishop Corrigan, seeing communism, socialism and such in all of this, was horrified; and the result was a series of actions that, at least from our perspective a century later, appear to be way more than the murky musings of Henry George merited. The actions in cluded a dismissal of Father McGlynn from his parish and even an excommunication. The upshot was immense damage to the unity of the Archdiocese, the standing of the Archbishop, and the image of the Church.

In January of 1900, Father McGlynn, who had been named pastor of St. Mary's parish in Newburgh in 1895, died of Bright's disease. Catholic schools continued to grow in enrollment and prestige: the Scriptures continued to be free of error; the Pope continued to be infallible when teaching faith and morals "ex cathedra"; and whatever it was that Henry George had been proposing slipped into richly deserved oblivion. What remained was years of hurt for the Archbishop and much wasted time and energy for the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York. One cannot help but wish that Archbishop Corrigan had taken a lesson from his judicious predecessor, Cardinal McCloskey, who, when informed by his Vicar General of the carryings-on of Father Mc Glynn, wrote from Rome that the matter was best ignored.

Through all of this, Archbishop Corrigan managed to achieve wonders for his flock during his more than 30 years as their shepherd. He established 99 parishes and 75 schools; he brought 24 communities of women and men religious into the work of the Archdiocese; he built and paid for St. Joseph's Seminary in the Dunwoodie section of Yonkers; and he arranged for the construction in St. Patrick's Cathedral of the Lady Chapel, in which he took a serious fall while inspecting the work in the Spring of 1902. A few days later his soul was gathered into the embrace of the Heavenly Father, while his mortal remains were interred under the main altar of the Cathedral he dearly loved.

The photograph that once graced the walls of the villa of the Pontifical North American College in Castelgandolfo is reproduced here. There is, I am sure, a lesson to be learned from it, even though I am not altogether clear what it might be. Perhaps it is enough simply to observe that the rather unimpressive fellow in the second row, fourth from the left, is Michael Augustine Corrigan. The handsome young man, front row center, is Edward McGlynn.


Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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