Life & Soul

The Jesuit who helped to set American Catholics free

Women walk past a statue of Archbishop John Carroll at Georgetown University in Washington DC (CNS)

I am being disabused of my prejudices about the Church in the United States, the biggest of which is a colonial one of assuming that it is simply a cadet branch of the Church in the mother country and was exported from here. The reality is more complicated.

In 1632 a huge swathe of land was granted to the 1st Lord Baltimore by Charles I, and named Maryland after his wife Henrietta Maria. Religious freedom was guaranteed in the new colony and the first Catholic settlers arrived in 1634. Thereafter, Maryland became a haven for Catholics escaping persecution, but their freedom was short-lived as Puritan settlers, backed by help from England, sought to revoke freedom of religion, even causing civil war. For the next 200 years there would be continuing opposition from Protestants, but Maryland had acquired a reputation as a home for Catholics. It was even suggested that the name in fact referred to Mary, the Mother of God, as much as the Queen Consort.

In 1784, the territory of the United States was declared a distinct administrative area by Propaganda Fidei, and in the year of the French Revolution, Fr John Carroll was named as the first Bishop of Baltimore with responsibility for the whole territory. Carroll was born in Maryland to an Irish father and an English mother of Catholic descent. He was sent to a school in Europe, St Omer (the forerunner of Stonyhurst). At 18, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained after the customary 14 years of formation. He lived in Europe until he was 40, teaching at St Omer and then Liège. When Pius VI suppressed the Jesuits in 1773, Carroll returned to his native Maryland. There were still anti-Catholic laws in place and he began the life of a missionary in Maryland and Virginia.

When the War of Independence broke out, he travelled with Benjamin Franklin to Quebec on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to persuade Canada to join the 13 colonies revolting against the English Crown. It is significant that of the 13 states forming the newly independent nation after the first war, the four nearest to Carroll’s missionary endeavours voted to end penal laws discriminating against Catholics.

Independence forced the issue of the administration of the Catholics of this new state. Carroll and some two dozen confreres had come under the jurisdiction of the English Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. This arrangement could no longer continue, and Carroll was appointed the first Bishop of Baltimore and sailed to England for his consecration, which took place in the chapel of Lulworth Castle.

Undaunted by the task of governing a diocese covering some three million square miles, Carroll invited the Sulpicians to found a seminary in Baltimore City, which still thrives today. He also founded Georgetown University, staffed by the restored Jesuits, and commissioned a magnificent cathedral in Baltimore, designed in classical style by the English-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, famous for his work on the US Capitol building and the White House porticoes.

The American Church grew up with the new republic and until recently happily co-existed in the space provided by the constitutional separation of church and state. That has changed. Baltimore diocese has five Catholic hospitals and many healthcare centres which together treat nearly two million patients a year. The implications of so-called Obamacare are dire for these institutions, which are not recognised as religious entities but as employers, and are therefore obliged to provide their employees with access to sterilisation, abortifacient drugs and contraception.

In 1808 – more than 40 years before the English hierarchy and dioceses were restored – Carroll was made an archbishop with four suffragan sees. He died seven years later aged 80 and is buried in his cathedral.

I had the privilege of saying Mass in Baltimore’s Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. This is not Carroll’s cathedral downtown but a more modern Neo-Gothic building on the outskirts. It completed a circle of my own spiritual connections with the Church in Baltimore. My aunt and uncle’s funerals were held there two years ago, and I was ordained priest by Cardinal Stafford, who is a native of Maryland and became an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in 1982.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).

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