History Comes for the Archbishop (Part II)

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Archbishop John Hughes (courtesy Library of Congress).

In Part I, I discussed how Archbishop John Hughes’s high reputation with Catholic scholars fell precipitously after the Second Vatican Council, thanks in large part to the scholarship of Fr. Andrew Greeley. Part II argues that the long-lasting impact of Greeley’s negative portrayal of Hughes greatly influenced other scholars. Recent historians, however, have begun to reevaluate more positively Hughes’s role in the assimilation of Irish Catholics on their own terms.


Fr. Andrew Greeley’s criticisms of Hughes, and by extension the pre-Vatican II church, profoundly shaped other historians’ writings on American Catholic history. As more social historians such as Jay Dolan increasingly wrote about the laity rather than the bishops, Hughes was either denigrated or sidelined. Following Greeley’s lead, Dolan blamed Hughes for thwarting an earlier “desire to democratize Catholicism.” Hughes, argued Dolan, was part of a larger trend toward a more devotional, papacy-focused faith that was increasingly “sectarian” and marked by a strong persecution complex. Historian James Hennesey also echoed Greeley in lamenting that Bishop England’s democratic constitution governing his diocese did not outlive him. Calling England’s remarkably democratic system “one of the might-have-beens of American Catholic history,” Hennesey identified Hughes as one of the major forces pushing the church in a more episcopal and authoritarian direction.[1]

In his biography of Bishop John Timon of Buffalo, New York, historian Leonard R. Riforgiato frequently cited Greeley to buttress his claim that Timon was a better, more modern bishop than Hughes. For example, Timon’s decision to build his cathedral in  Buffalo’s heavily Protestant downtown showed he was open to “social interaction with non-Catholics,” whereas Hughes’s placement of St. Patrick’s far from the city’s then center was a “monument to Catholicism triumphant.” “Hughes did not offer a working alternative to the Ghetto, but John Timon did,” Riforgiato claimed. “To its great detriment, the church followed the vision of Hughes, not Timon.” In short, Riforgiato substituted Timon’s name for England’s in an anti-Hughes diatribe that was essentially the same as that of Andrew Greeley.[2]

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral as seen in 1913, perhaps Hughes’s crowning achievement (courtesy Wikicommons).

Although Hughes will likely never again enjoy the high reputation he had among Catholics before the 1960s, a number of recent scholars have begun to reevaluate his legacy and pushback against Greeley’s wholly negative picture. These newer studies tend to praise Hughes for insisting on assimilation into American society on Irish and Catholic terms. In reevaluating the early 1840s New York City school debate, Martin L. Meenagh argued that Hughes “deserves to be integrated back into discussions of U.S. public culture and modernity, so great was his impact.” Calling his influence on the subsequent story of Catholic education “a lasting victory for Hughes,” Meenagh, in contrast to scholars like Greeley, praised Hughes for his “pragmatic approach to Catholic leadership” during the debate. Although critical of his stance on slavery, Mary C. Kelly similarly praised Hughes’s “ethnic leadership” through which he “constantly attempted to advance the interests of New York’s Irish.” Despite his flaws, Kelly believed that Hughes deserves to be remembered as an Irish-American intellectual especially as he lived at a time “when contemporary social and cultural constraints ought to have precluded his progression.” Finally, Mary E. Brown directly challenged Greeley’s negative of Hughes, arguing that the archbishop was exactly what the church needed, “someone to defend it from nativists and to protect its people from proselytization.” “Hughes set the pattern for the method of assimilation that… immigrants actually used,” Brown argued, further lauding him for having “set a high standard for discussing the process of assimilation.”[3]

These articles by Meenagh, Kelly, and Brown strongly suggest that a book-length reevaluation of Archbishop John Hughes is in order for the 21st century. Hughes was too important of a leader, intellectual, and controversialist for scholars to dismiss a new biography as a tribute to a reactionary man or destined for obscurity in the dusty, forgotten shelves of university libraries devoted to American Catholic history. At a time when religion and immigration are again central to the question of who can be an American, perhaps historians should revisit a man whose entire life was one answer to that question.


[1] Jay P. Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 49-70; James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 113-4.

[2] Leonard R. Riforgiato, The Life and Times of John Timon (1797-1867): The First Bishop of Buffalo, New York, edited by Dennis Castillo (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 365-7, 490; A notable critique of Hughes not beholden to Greeley was written by Walter G. Sharrow. Sharrow described Hughes’s thoughts on slavery, which he found to be marked by “extreme reluctance and ambiguity,” as mildly against the institution and “out of step” with the reality of the system’s barbarity as it existed in the United States (Walter G. Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum America,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 57, No. 3 (July, 1972), 255-6, 260-1, 269).

[3] Martin L. Meenagh, “Archbishop John Hughes and the New York Schools Controversy of 1840-43,” American Nineteenth Century History, Vol. 5, No 1 (Spring 2004): 35, 62; Mary C. Kelly, “A ‘sentinel of our liberties’: Archbishop John Hughes and Irish-American Intellectual Negotiation in the Civil War Era,” Irish Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May 2010): 155-6, 159-162; Mary E. Brown, “John Joseph Hughes (1797-1864): Definitions of ‘Assimilation’,” in The Making of Modern Immigration: An Encyclopedia of People and Ideas, edited by Patrick J. Hayes (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 1: 279, 284.