On July 23, 1834, James Gibbons was born in a simple dwelling on the west side of Gay Street in the city of Baltimore. Twelve days later this fourth child of Thomas and Bridget Gibbons was baptized at the Cathedral of the Assumption. Thus began the association between the future cardinal and this venerable building that went on for nearly eighty-seven years before his burial in the crypt beneath the sanctuary.
James was the first boy in the Gibbons family. His parents were both natives of Ireland, and his two eldest sisters, Mary and Bridget, had been born there in the mid‑1820's, before the family had emigrated to the United States. Catherine, the youngest girl, had been born in Baltimore exactly three years before James; John, the second son, nearly three years after James. The youngest child, Thomas, was born about 1842.
Thomas Gibbons had emigrated from his unhappy homeland about 1829. In Baltimore the Gibbons' fortunes picked up considerably as the father found employment as a clerk with a prosperous importing business. After six or seven years, however, Thomas Gibbons' health deteriorated, and his physician advised a sea voyage. The family undertook a trip to Ireland, intending to return to Baltimore soon. With that in mind they left their furnishings in the care of some cousins.
The three-year‑old lad who left the United States in 1837 retained one recollection of the period. Over eighty years later he wrote to a correspondent:
I was always interested in Andrew Jackson for personal reasons. When I was an infant in the year 1837, General Jackson received an ovation in Baltimore. The procession escorting him through the city happened to pass our residence and my mother held me up in her arms to contemplate the hero of New Orleans, the President of the United States.
p2 After arriving in Ireland in 1837, the Gibbons family went back to County Mayo, and the extended holiday lengthened into sixteen years. Thomas bought some land near Ballinrobe, a small town in the southern part of the county, •ten miles from his native Cortnacullin, and began anew the task of providing for his family. Gibbons carried on a grocery business on Bridge Street; he also had a publican's license for the sale of liquor.
At about the age of seven years James Gibbons started to school. In the company of Francis MacCormack, a future bishop of Galway, he learned his first lessons from a Mr. Jennings. Later James was sent to a private classical school conducted by John J. Rooney in the Cornmarket at Ballinrobe.
The early 1840's, when James Gibbons started to school, were a period of great tension in Irish education. In 1831 the British government had devised a system of national schools for Ireland. The provision for religious instruction in these schools satisfied no one, and the Catholics, Presbyterians, and Church of Ireland people all objected to it from various angles. The Irish hierarchy was divided: Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin sided with the government on the national schools, while Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam, to which Ballinrobe belonged, forbade the children of his archdiocese to attend them. Schools like Rooney's were, therefore, private in character.
With his quick mind young James took in the rudiments of English, Greek, and Latin; in Ballinrobe he first met the classics of English literature and of history. No one disputed Rooney's ability to instruct, but because the fellow was somewhat slovenly and uncouth, some townspeople decided to employ another teacher. According to an old story, Gibbons refused to transfer his allegiance. When challenged to give a reason, he replied that he would learn as much from Rooney in one week as he would from the new teacher in a month. In these early years James Gibbons first showed the love of study that characterized his entire life. He was so eager to learn that he disliked missing a single day at school. Yet Gibbons was, nonetheless, a real boy for all his love of books. In later years one of his companions in Ballinrobe recalled him as "a most gentle, amiable boy, very studious and clever, and a great favorite." He liked to swim in Lough Carra, to hike, and to play cricket, handball, and marbles. In fact, he bore through life a scar on one of his fingers p3from an injury in a cricket game. He was the envy of the neighborhood in playing marbles. His brother related that on one occasion he saw James "sell as many as a shilling's worth and still his pockets were full." He took many long hikes with his closest friend, Charles Clark, the only Protestant lad in town. A quarter of a century later, Gibbons, looking forward to a renewed acquaintance, reminisced about their childhood:
How gratifying it will be to both of us to retrace our steps and revisit once more together those familiar spots where we unbosomed ourselves and where our hearts were knit like those of Jonathan and David. Our friendship has proved lasting, resisting time and all counter affections, because it was based on virtue. When I look back on that early period of my life, like you I attribute much of my subsequent strength against temptations to our pure and healthy conversations, serious and mature beyond our age. Surely our guardian angels must have been with us.
Young Gibbons, reared in the home of deeply religious people, early manifested a love for the Church and its ceremonies that showed itself in his serving Mass as the St. Mary's Church in Ballinrobe from his earliest years.
When James was only eight years old, the spring and summer of 1842 brought famine to County Mayo. This severe distress was mild, however, compared to the scourge in 1845 — the failure of the potato crop. Through the succeeding two years hunger stalked the countryside, the very region in which James lived being one of the hardest hit. Although there is no record that the family experienced actual hunger, the cholera, or "famine fever" as it was called, did strike, and on April 20, 1847, Thomas Gibbons died at the early age of forty-seven. Just two years later, his youngest daughter Catherine was buried beside him. Not yet thirteen years of age, James, this eldest boy in a family of six children, felt the altered circumstances in their home keenly. The death of Catherine caused him so much grief that for a time he lost his appetite.
For six years following her husband's death, Bridget Gibbons continued to live at Ballinrobe, caring as best she could for her growing children. Yet, not surprisingly, Mrs. Gibbons again turned her eyes hopefully across the Atlantic. Emigration to the New World had by now become an old practice among the Irish. The numbers leaving Ireland for America had shown a fairly steady increase since p41815; now the famine of the 1840's accelerated the pace. The year 1846 caused a new record with 109,000 emigrants departing for North America; the succeeding year, the number doubled. Along with many of their neighbors seeking a fresh start in the United States, Mrs. Gibbons and her children prepared to leave Ireland forever.
Bridget Gibbons could not bear to return to Baltimore without the partner with whom she had shared the happiest days of her life. Like many large Irish families, the Gibbons family split up to make the trip to America, James, John, and their sister Bridget apparently coming first, sailing from Liverpool in January, 1853, on a ship bound for New Orleans. After about two months at sea, the ship struck a sand bar off the Bahamas near midnight of March 17. Fortunately there was not a high wind, and at daybreak the passengers were taken in small boats to the island and eventually were sent to Nassau. After a short delay they sailed again and landed at New Orleans. Soon the rest of the family followed. All now reunited in the metropolis of the South, they began a new chapter in the life of each of them.
The city where Bridget Gibbons and her five children cast their lot in the spring of 1853 had long since become the leading port of the South. A good deal of Old World atmosphere still hung about New Orleans: narrow streets, quaint shops, and dwellings that projected interesting balconies over the sidewalks. Enough of the inhabitants had retained the Latin features of their forebears who had built New Orleans to draw the comment of strangers. The year the Gibbons family arrived proved to be one of the most turbulent in the city's long history. In May, 1853, a virulent form of yellow fever, brought in from Jamaica or Brazil, swept through the city, causing thousands of deaths. Added to this havoc was the spirit of political violence, for in this year a group of Whigs introduced the Know-Nothing Party into Louisiana. When the campaign for mayor finally ended in March, 1854, election day left several killed and a considerable number seriously wounded. These disorders continued for the next four years. So bad did conditions become that Governor Robert C. Wickliffe informed the legislature in 1857 that "organized ruffians" were keeping nearly one third of the New Orleans electorate from the polls.a
p5 On his arrival in New Orleans, James Gibbons was nearing his nineteenth birthday, old enough to help support his mother, sisters, and younger brothers. Fortunately he secured employment as a clerk in the grocery store of William C. Raymond on Camp Street. Not long after entering Raymond's employ, James fell a victim to yellow fever. His oldest sister, Mary, nursed him at a great risk to herself. Following the current practice, he remained in bed under heavy coverings to induce perspiration, took hot baths, and went on a near-starvation diet. For a time his weakness became so extreme that his life was despaired of. At length he recovered and returned to work. So satisfied was Raymond with the services of his young clerk that he raised James's salary each year, and — an unusual practice, to be sure — the advances in salary were made for the previous year as well as for the coming year. While James Gibbons found both pleasure and profit in serving the families in the neighborhood, the wealthy sugar and cotton planters who purchased stock that would last them and their slaves for months ahead, and the hardy rivermen who sought provisions for trips up the Mississippi, he had other plans.
From the time when he had served Mass in the chapel back in Ballinrobe, his religion had meant more to him than it did to most boys. He thought nothing of going a distance from his family's parish church to attend a ten‑day mission at St. Joseph's Church, opposite Charity Hospital, the second week in February, 1854. A band of famous missionaries was on hand: Alexander Czvitovicz, Francis X. Masson, Isaac T. Hecker, Clarence Walworth, and Augustine Hewit, all members of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the last three, converts to the Catholic Church. Gibbons attended faithfully the exercises of the mission and found inspiration in the sermons of the distinguished preachers. For some time the young man had been considering the priesthood as a vocation. But like every serious-minded youth contemplating a step of this kind, he hesitated, not knowing whether he "should serve God in the Church as a priest, or as a layman in the world." A close reading of Orestes Brownson's apologetic essays in his famous Review stimulated greatly Gibbons' thoughts of how much he might accomplish for the Church in the priesthood. Now, during the mission at St. Joseph's, Father Walworth's spirited talk on the priesthood settled James's doubts and solidified his decision to devote his talents to this high calling.
p6 Once his final decision had been made, Gibbons turned to another Redemptorist, John B. Duffy, for help. Father Duffy, a priest at St. Alphonsus Church in New Orleans, had distinguished himself during the yellow-fever epidemic of 1853 by his zeal in behalf of the sick. Along with his other duties, Father Duffy also found time to give Latin lessons to a number of boys who had manifested a desire to become priests. The earlier lessons of Jennings and Rooney in Ireland again came alive in the mind of young Gibbons. From this priest-mentor, too, came James's decision to pursue his priestly studies under the Sulpician Fathers in Baltimore. Father Duffy not only suggested the place for study, but wrote to Archbishop Francis P. Kenrick of Baltimore asking him to accept Gibbons as a student at St. Charles College. The Archbishop promptly assented. From the outset Gibbons was enrolled as a clerical student for the Archdiocese of Baltimore; that meant that he had elected to lead his life permanently in that part of the country.
While the determination of her eldest son to study in far‑off Baltimore created a certain sorrow for Mrs. Gibbons, the devout widow's happiness at the thought of James's becoming a priest outweighed her loneliness at his impending departure.
In the late summer of 1855, at the age of twenty‑one James Gibbons set out from New Orleans for Baltimore. The •1000‑mile journey could not be made entirely by rail. Gibbons, therefore, took the easier and cheaper transportation afforded by the steamboat up the Mississippi and then over the Ohio River to Cincinnati. There he took the Baltimore and Ohio to a point west of the Allegheny Mountains, detrained, and continued over the mountains by stage. He was exactly sixteen days en route from New Orleans to Baltimore.
By 1855, Baltimore had grown to a metropolis of 188,251 persons, nearly 25 percent foreign-born. Recent immigration had added hundreds of Germans and Irish to the native population, and with both groups highly organized, "either or both could swing a close election." The presence of so many foreign-born, of course, fanned the flames of hatred among the Know-Nothings who had appeared in Baltimore politics three years before. Election day in November, 1855, was marked by rioting, and "the success of the Know-Nothings was complete. Baltimore City and thirteen out of twenty‑one counties were ranged in the Know-Nothing column." Through most of Gibbons' student days in Baltimore the Know-Nothings reigned supreme; p7they were dislodged from the city government only in October, 1860, after a period of violence.
Despite unpleasant incidents caused by the tactics of the Know-Nothings, the Archdiocese of Baltimore with its nearly 120,000 Catholics and 127 priests continued its quiet advance. Out in the countryside near the village of Ellicott City, St. Charles College was just past its embryonic stage. It had opened its doors seven years before, with Father Oliver L. Jenkins, S. S., as president, one other priest, a deacon, a housekeeper, and four boys as students. Before long other students were attracted to this preparatory seminary conducted by the Sulpician Fathers, and by 1855 forty‑two students were crowding the accommodations sufficiently to warrant making a dormitory on the third floor of the single building that served the community for all purposes. This change created room for about seventy. A large room on the east end of the second floor was fitted up as a community chapel. The charges were $100 for board and tuition for school year, payable half-yearly in advance. Living conditions were rather primitive. With the dormitory heated by only one central stove, the young man from New Orleans suffered from the cold that first winter, the coldest on record in Maryland since 1817.
James Gibbons was, of course, quite unfamiliar with the discipline in an institution for the training of future priests. He observed with some misgiving the silence maintained when the boys walked to their meals and when they filed into the hall for morning prayers. The friendly spirit of the new arrival from New Orleans overflowed with questions and greetings, but when he experienced nothing but silent gestures and an icy stare from the superior, Gibbons resigned himself to the rule.
Two other phases of the life at St. Charles James Gibbons found thoroughly to his liking, namely, study and recreation. Father J. B. Randanne was a hard taskmaster in the Latin classes, but Gibbons, well trained in Ballinrobe and New Orleans, experienced no difficulty. This same Father Randanne also exercised some supervision over the students' recreation. On his arrival at St. Charles Gibbons had two suits of clothes. But in the course of baseball and football games, the breeches gave way. Randanne came to the rescue with a suit of his own design. The vest came up to the seminarian's chin, the coat went down to his heels, and, as Gibbons later stated, "John L. Sullivan could have gotten into the legs of the trousers." Randanne's sole p8reaction to the ridiculous garment was: "I will cure you of your vanities."
In the college at Ellicott City, Gibbons again played with vigor at outdoor sports and once more took long hikes with his friends. Across the Frederick turnpike from the college campus Doughoregan Manor, the vast ancestral estate of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was a special attraction for the students. Some of his associates at recreation later attained prominence in the American Church: Thomas M. A. Burke, who in 1894 became the fourth Bishop of Albany, and John S. Foley, the son of a well-known Baltimore Catholic family, who in 1888 had the pleasure of having his old friend, by then a cardinal, consecrate him as fourth Bishop of Detroit.
At the end of the first year young Gibbons received a first premium in Greek and in second-year French and a second premium in Church history, Latin, English, and elocution. He improved on this performance a year later when, as a member of a graduating class of five, he carried off a first premium in Greek, French, rhetoric, and elocution and a second premium in Church history and Latin.
Selected to make the student's address at the commencement on July 12, 1857, Gibbons framed a graceful tribute to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who had given the college its property, and to Carroll's descendant, present as the guest of honor, who allowed the students to roam freely on his estate. In its final form Gibbons' speech was sufficiently good that Father Jenkins "showed his appreciation of the oration by making a copy of it to be preserved."
After a four-week vacation in New Orleans, James set out again on September 1, for the mother seminary of the United States, old St. Mary's on North Paca Street, Baltimore. A warm recommendation preceded him: "Bon ; talent," Father Jenkins had written to Father François Lhomme, the superior at St. Mary's. The student body into which Gibbons entered on September 10, 1857, consisted of thirty‑two young men; the faculty included five priests besides Father Lhomme. The following year, François P. Dissez joined the faculty to teach philosophy; Gibbons became especially attached to him. The friendship formed in 1858 endured through half a century until the night in 1908 when the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore stood sadly by the deathbed of his old professor.
Gibbons made an outstanding record at the seminary. At the end of his first year, he ranked first in his class and won a coveted p9appointment as "master of conference," the seminarian in charge of review for public examinations. At the end of four years, the faculty recorded its high esteem:
|1.||Talents & capacity more than ordinary, especially facility.|
|3.||Disposition & temper: amiable, equanimity; cheerfulness; zeal for duty, great ardor for study, & almost too great eagerness for knowledge; for some time inspired some fears lest he might not take the right direction.|
|4.||Regularity 9; virtue 9.|
|5.||Preaching very successful; judgment, exposed to be carried by his imagination.|
|7.||Observation: gained the esteem & affection of all.|
One of his professors gave this summary of his career at summary's Seminary:
James Gibbons manifested the bon esprit at St. Mary's as well as at St. Charles' by his affability, politeness and kindness towards all, superior and fellow-students. He was a regular and edifying seminarian. He profited by all opportunities to increase his knowledge. Even in recreation he liked to ask his Professors about the subject-matter of his studies or readings. He had a special zeal for the study of Holy Scripture; in his private rule he set apart one hour to read it every day.
Through all these four years at St. Mary's the Sulpicians themselves bore the expenses of this candidate for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It is small wonder, then, that Gibbons should have felt a lifelong gratitude to the Sulpicians. In the years to come he more than repaid these good priests by establishing three burses at St. Charles College, giving $15,000 for the chapel fund of St. Mary's, and bestowing on the two institutions combined a gift of $50,000.
Having received minor orders in 1859, Gibbons moved on in the summer of 1861 to the subdiaconate on June 28, and to the diaconate on June 29. Finally, with five of his classmates, he was raised to the priesthood on Sunday, June 30, 1861, by Archbishop Kenrick, whom Gibbons later recalled as "the first really great man whom I can remember to have known intimately. . . ."
By the time of James Gibbons' ordination, the long bitter controversy over slavery had culminated in civil war. Nowhere did the bitterness of the conflict divide the population more than in Baltimore. Maryland, linked for long years by close commercial, social, and p10historical ties to the South, was generally southern in sympathy, but Baltimore's large manufacturing interests bound the city to the North. When the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment approached Baltimore on its way to Washington in April, 1861, angry Baltimoreans of southern views set upon the troops, killing four and wounding thirty‑six. In these circumstances there was strong sentiment for secession of Maryland from the Union. The government at Washington took no chances: on the night of May 13 Union troops under General Benjamin F. Butler occupied Federal Hill near Baltimore. The general election in November decided once and for all the status of Maryland within the Union. All practical hopes of the secessionists disappeared, many southern sympathizers fled, and "Maryland became in fact as well as in name a loyal state," though the diehards continued all through the war to cause incidents. A severe censorship of the press was enforced by the federal authorities. During the war nine Baltimore newspapers were suppressed at least temporarily, two of the nine were forced to suspend publication because of the arrest of their editors. The Catholic press was no exception. The Catholic Mirror was suspended during the week of May 23‑30, 1864; in October, 1864, J. and C. Kreuzer, proprietors of the Katholische of Baltimore, were warned by General Lew Wallace against publishing any antigovernment tracts, threatened with suspension of their newspaper should the order be disobeyed, and commanded to submit each issue to the provost marshal for examination.
Such were the general conditions in which Father James Gibbons inaugurated his priesthood in Baltimore. While the young priest, twenty-seven that summer, had lived all his life in the United States south of the Mason and Dixon Line, he did not favor the South during the Civil War.
I had been born a Southerner and brought up a Southerner, and my heart was, of course, with the Southern States. Indeed, my brother was actually fighting in the Army of the Confederacy; but I could never believe that succession would succeed, and even if it should succeed I could not help but see that it would be the destruction of what was already a growing, and what might become a very great nation. Therefore my head was always with the Union.
It was not easy for a priest with such opinions to carry out his religious ministrations in the Baltimore of these years. So intensely did p11many of the Baltimore Catholic clergy feel about the righteousness of the Confederate cause that in the first year of the war the priests of the cathedral parish refused to read Archbishop Carroll's prayer for the civil authorities because it contained a petition for the preservation of the union of the American people. Archbishop Kenrick finally decided that he would read it himself, and as Gibbons related:
I suppose during the reading of that prayer he suffered more than one could well imagine; for when he mentioned the Union of the States, many people got up and publicly left the Cathedral, and those who remained expressed their dissent from the Archbishop's petition by a great rustling of papers and silks.
Gibbons' first parochial experience came as an assistant at St. Patrick's Church in Fell's Point, a rough section of Baltimore stretching along the waterfront where the Patapsco River reached out to meet the Chesapeake Bay. The rough elements of society found in all large port cities filled some of the streets, but back a few blocks from the water, modest, respectable dwellings housed many fine families of both native and immigrant stock. Here he stayed a mere six weeks. Then, in accordance with the common practice of appearing newly ordained priests to country pastorates, he was transferred to St. Bridget's in Mount Savage, Maryland.
A pastor only six weeks after ordination, the eager priest went promptly to work. While the simple church was adequate for the religious services of his congregation, he had to make his home in a few small rooms built against the wall of the church with no provision for light or ventilation and with the floorboards resting on the ground. The neighborhood had not yet been built up; the only house close at hand was that of Mrs. Bridget Smyth, one of his parishioners, who served as a housekeeper for the priest's rooms and sent one of her sons to sleep there each night because the lonely location was thought to be dangerous.
While Father Gibbons' parishioners were not numerous, they were widely scattered; reaching them required long and sometimes exhausting trips in all kinds of weather. Most of his people were quite poor, industrial employees who worked in the copper works and rolling mills of Canton or agricultural workers who tilled their small farms and market gardens. Naturally these people could not contribute much to the support of their pastor, and Gibbons had to tax his ingenuity to meet expenses and to improve the parish. At length he p12held a fair in Carroll Hall in the city, and from the proceeds of this and succeeding entertainments he raised enough money to erect a neat brick rectory alongside the church.
Early the next year Archbishop Kenrick asked Father Gibbons to assume charge of St. Lawrence O'Toole Church, •a mile away at Locust Point across the Patapsco River. In this new parish, he gained new insight into the hardships of the working class, for his parishioners were mainly the families of dock workers and shipbuilders. The dual assignment put a strain on the pastor's frail constitution. Each Sunday morning he had to leave Canton at six o'clock and to row in a skiff across to Locust Point where he would hear confessions, say Mass, preach, baptize, and attend sick calls. He then rowed back across the river to Canton in time for the high Mass at St. Bridget's at ten‑thirty where he likewise delivered a sermon. He fasted throughout this early morning travel, of course; the ordeal left him with a lifelong ailment in the form of bad digestion.
Beyond his two parishes, the young pastor found time to act as a volunteer chaplain at the two principal military posts in Maryland: Fort Marshall, not far from St. Bridget's, and Fort McHenry, within the boundaries of the parish of St. Lawrence. On one occasion at Fort McHenry in July, 1864, Gibbons, after hearing the confession of a Confederate prisoner, sought to get some nourishment for the man, who had not been properly provided for by the hospital doctor. For this act of kindness, he was told that his services would no longer be accepted at the fortress, and that he need not return. Gibbons explained the sequel: "However, I did return, since I threatened to make known to the higher authorities what had taken place; and men who exercise martial law with little regard for the feelings of those below them are often very sensitive as to the feelings of those above them."
The young chaplain had a variety of experiences during the war. On one occasion in 1864, a Confederate soldier, visiting his family in eastern Maryland, was arrested as a spy and condemned to death. Partly through Father Gibbons' efforts, a reprieve from President Abraham Lincoln saved the soldier's life. Having escaped from the hangman's noose, the soldier reappeared after the war to ask Gibbons "to tie a more pleasing knot," and Gibbons happily officiated at the wedding. Another time he was called to Fort Marshall to attend a soldier in a delirium from fever. In an effort to bring the soldier back p13to his senses, Gibbons began to ask him questions. To the query as to where he was born, the soldier answered, "Ireland." To the question of what part of Ireland, the sick man replied the western section. Finally the priest learned it was Ballinrobe. He then inquired if he knew the pastor of Ballinrobe and the soldier replied yes, he was his brother. At once Gibbons exclaimed: "You are Hal Conway!" In such strange circumstances did the chaplain discover an old schoolmate from Ballinrobe.
The war years brought a major change to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. When Archbishop Kenrick died in July, 1863, the appointment of a new archbishop was delayed by the exigencies of war and by the delicate task that faced the Holy See in filling the premier see of the United States — a city southern in sympathy although lying within the Union lines — with a candidate who would offer satisfaction to various groups. Happily, the selection finally fell upon Martin John Spalding, Bishop of Louisville. He was of old Maryland stock; this factor helped to make his appointment a highly popular one. Baltimore's seventh archbishop took possession of his see on July 31, 1864.
Despite the hazards of war Father Gibbons undertook a visit to his family in New Orleans. The young priest had been greatly weakened by his strenuous work in the two parishes and military forts, and his obvious illness alarmed his family lest he be lapsing into tuberculosis. For this reason his sister Bridget, Mrs. George Swarbrick, persuaded him to go to Lewisburg, Louisiana, for a rest. There the resilient spirit and basically healthy constitution of Father Gibbons revived.
From the outset of his priestly career Gibbons had a very high ideal of the preaching office. About him there was nothing of the fiery orator, nor anything distinguished in his style of composition. But he did have to a marked degree the gift of putting religious truths in a simple and attractive dress that won the conviction of his audiences. He spoke to the people on simple yet basic subjects like pride, mortal sin, the love of God, the resurrection of the body. All his sermons showed the same unadorned recitation of dogmatic truths clarified by homely illustrations. The thought of using the pulpit for any other purpose than the inculcation of moral values and the instruction in religious truths was abhorrent to him. At St. Bridget's Church on the first Sunday of the new year 1863, he reviewed p14for his people the suffering that had come upon the nation by reason of the Civil War. Amid the conflict, he said, they had heard nothing from the Catholic pulpit to excite their passions or to give them a thirst for blood; rather the American Catholics had heard in their churches only of God's glory and of man's need for peace, of Christ and Him crucified. Referring to preachers who invoked the God of battle instead of the God of peace, he said: "A fearful responsibility awaits those who have sounded the new blast from their church desks, & fanned the flame of civil hatred and dissension. These will have their judgment, let us attend to ourselves."
One sermon proved to be terrifyingly apt. It was Good Friday night, April 14, 1865, and Gibbons was preaching at St. Joseph's Church in Baltimore. In commenting on the base treachery of Judas toward Jesus, Gibbons said:
Imagine a great and good ruler, who had done everything to deserve the confidence and affection of his subjects, and who had lived only for his country and had no desire but for his country's good, imagine such a ruler struck down by the hand of an assassin! Would you not feel, my brethren, a deep indignation at his murder?
Only an hour or two after Gibbons' sermon that same evening, President Lincoln fell at Ford's Theater from the bullet of John Wilkes Booth.
As normal times returned after the war, Father Gibbons gave up his volunteer chaplaincies and devoted himself to his two parishes. He seemed perfectly content, and his mind was filled with plans for the improvement of his parishes. The new archbishop had other plans, however. Archbishop Spalding developed a strong liking for this wiry little priest whose gracious manner complemented so well his piety and his administrative ability. Before long Spalding got the idea of appointing Gibbons to the busy cathedral household as his secretary. Alternately pleased by the possibility and troubled by a departure from his parishioners, Gibbons debated sleeplessly about his answer. Finally he reached the decision: he stood ready to accept the archbishop's will. When word of the appointment spread, a committee of parishioners from St. Bridget's pleaded with the archbishop to leave their pastor with them. But Spalding held to his original decision, and in mid‑December, 1865, Father Gibbons joined the cathedral staff.
p15 As secretary, Gibbons accompanied the archbishop on his visitation tours throughout the archdiocese, an experience that stood him in good stead in later years. Though secretarial duties were his primary responsibility, he also found time for the priestly ministrations that he loved so well and performed with so much profit to souls: hearing confessions regularly in the cathedral, taking his turn at the parish Masses, preaching, giving instructions in the successful Sunday school that he began conducting soon after his arrival.
Baltimore was, in a sense, the Catholic capital of the United States. Here were held the councils of the American Church and here, too, was directed much of the important business of the Holy See with the American bishops. Archbishop Spalding was in Baltimore only a few months when he began laying plans for a plenary council. By February, 1866, Pope Pius IX gave the council his approval and designated Spalding as apostolic delegate. The archbishop, in turn, sent out the letter of convocation to the American hierarchy. This activity, of course, greatly increased the archbishop's correspondence, and through the spring and summer the arrangements for the council kept Gibbons very busy.
The solemn opening of the Second Plenary Council took place in the cathedral in October. As assistant chancellor of the council, Gibbons came into direct contact with the six archbishops besides Spalding, the thirty-seven bishops, and the large number of distinguished priests who were in attendance as theologians and superiors of religious orders. It was James Gibbons' first formal introduction to the leaders of the American Church, and they, in turn, had an opportunity to observe the young priest who in a few years would be of their number.
To keep the Church apace with the expanding nation, the hierarchy had a continuing duty to suggest new dioceses to the Holy See. In a session held on October 13 the name of Gibbons was placed first on the terna (list of three names) chosen to fill the Vicariate Apostolic of North Carolina that the bishops were proposing to the Holy See. The council submitted to the Congregation of the Propaganda a very favorable opinion of Gibbons' qualifications for this episcopal office, the delegate speaking of him as "the most worthy of all for the Episcopacy." "He is," said Spalding, "a priest in every respect perfect."
In the spring of 1867 Archbishop Spalding decided upon a trip to p16Europe to attend the celebration in Rome marking the eighteenth centennial of the martyrdom of St. Peter. During his absence the archbishop kept in touch by mail with Baltimore, and one letter referred again to the bishopric for his secretary. In his reply, Gibbons' mixed feelings were apparent:
As your Grace seems determined to inflict a mitre on me, I think it would be a good idea to send me on from France some of the Episcopal paraphernalia. I have the blues since I read your letter. To leave Baltimore is hard enough, but to lose the genial company of the archiepiscopal house costs me a good deal, — more than I can say in words. You see I take it seriously, because your letter appears serious.
The city of Baltimore was throughout his long life the place above all where James Gibbons loved to be, and the thought of leaving it brought readily to his mind a sense of exile.
In 1868, after Archbishop Spalding's return to the United States, the Maryland legislature passed a law levying a state tax of ten cents on each $100 of taxable property to support the public schools. No provision was made for any aid to schools under denominational control, nor was any account taken of the need for religious instruction of children attending the public schools. Naturally the Archbishop of Baltimore felt that the state should be willing to give some form of financial assistance to the private schools conducted under Catholic auspices. With this in mind he asked Gibbons to prepare a report that would demonstrate the saving to the state of Maryland from the Catholic schools. Gibbons' detailed account showed that the Catholics of Baltimore alone saved the state $37,945. The report, referred to the Senate Committee on Education, died there.
Meanwhile, the threat of the miter of North Carolina finally became a reality. Once the decision had been made, plans could mature for the consecration of the young priest as a bishop. The date was set for Sunday, August 16, 1868, and the invitations went out some weeks in advance. Gibbons, the first alumnus of St. Charles to become a bishop, must have been especially pleased by the reply of an old friend of his days in the seminary, Thomas Burke: "I feel that the hand of God has been in your appointment and that in it, neither ambition nor human influence had any share."
Then he added a series of questions that now seem almost prophetic:
p17 How many churches will there not spring up under your fostering care? How many young levites by your encouragement will consecrate themselves to God in the sacred priesthood? How many converts will be added to the fold of Christ? With what tender care with the poor despised children of Africa be instructed in the saving truths of our holy religion? In a word what charitable and religious institutions will spring up as monuments to your zeal?
One letter must have touched him deeply, a brief note from Father James Dolan at St. Patrick's in Baltimore under whom he had first served as a priest. Dolan enclosed a check for $100 for Gibbons' new mission, with the promise as well of a missal and two chasubles. Other friends in Baltimore were also generous, and a few days before Gibbons' consecration he was able to send off a check for $6,000 to purchase a lot adjoining to St. Thomas Church, his little protocathedral in Wilmington, North Carolina.
At length the great day arrived when James Gibbons was to be made a bishop. Thomas A. Becker, a priest of the Diocese of Richmond, was consecrated first Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware, at the same ceremony. Archbishop Spalding was the consecrator of these two priests, and the coconsecrators for Gibbons were Patrick N. Lynch, Bishop of Charleston, and Michael Domenec, C. M., Bishop of Pittsburgh. The preacher for the occasion was Father Thomas Foley of the cathedral staff.
At the time of his consecration James Gibbons had just passed his thirty-fourth birthday. He was the youngest among the more than 1000 bishops scattered throughout the Catholic world and, of course, the youngest in the United States. His ecclesiastical jurisdiction in North Carolina being only a vicariate apostolic and not a diocese, he was given the title of Bishop of Adramyttium, one of the many dioceses that had long ago passed out of existence but the titles of which were reserved for titular bishops of missionary territories. Any priest ordained only seven years and relatively uninformed about the exacting duties of episcopal administration might well have entertained misgivings at the prospect that confronted Gibbons. Never adventuresome, nor particularly endowed with initiative and originality, he was nevertheless determined in pursuing a course that he had decided was right. If the thought of his impending departure from the Baltimore that he loved so well to the North Carolina that he knew so little caused him to grow faint, his deep trust in the designs of Providence buoyed him up.
a 1853 really was a very bad year to be moving to New Orleans. For the Know-Nothing Party formed in Louisiana in that year (although pretty short-lived), see Chapter 12 of Kendall's History of New Orleans and Gayarré's History of Louisiana, Vol. IV, pp678‑679. For the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, see Chapter 10 of Kendall's History of New Orleans and Chapter 12 of Grace King's New Orleans, The Place and the People; this whole last chapter also gives us a very good feel for the city and its atmosphere.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 11 Apr 13