Everybody’s heard of Saint Patrick, the British-born missionary whom we celebrate today and who’s credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland.
But as someone of proud Irish descent, I’d like to pay tribute today to an American Irishman named John Joseph Hughes. You may never have heard of him, but he was one of the most important men in American history, if not the entire world.
An Irish immigrant gardener eventually ordained to the Catholic priesthood, “Dagger John,” as he was called due to the habit of punctuating his signature with a dagger-like cross and behaving with a similarly aggressive flair, became the first archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York. He served between 1842 and 1864, a time of explosive Irish-Catholic growth in America.
According to a reporter covering him during his tenure as the city’s Catholic shepherd, he was “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity.”
A Protestant convert who emigrated from Ireland at age twenty, Hughes had his initial application for the priesthood rejected. Church leaders deemed him uneducated and ignorant, charges that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In fact, he was brilliant and resourceful, traits that would come in handy throughout his long and productive ministry. Hughes made his mark as an eloquent orator speaking persuasively against religious bigotry. At the time, prejudice against newly arriving immigrants, especially the Irish, was rampant.
In 1838, at the age of 40, Bishop Hughes was transferred to New York, where he was appointed to the role of coadjutor bishop. His assignment couldn’t have been more fraught with difficulty. Writing in the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank, William Stern described the debauchery and cultural chaos found throughout the city, especially in those areas populated by recent immigrants hailing from Ireland.
According to Stern, family life had disintegrated in a wave of immorality that included the proliferation of rampant gangs known for their alcoholism, prostitution, robberies and mob violence. “Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish,” he writes, “so those police vans were dubbed ‘paddy wagons’ and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called ‘donnybrooks,’ after a town in Ireland.”
“Death was everywhere. In 1854 one out of every 17 people in the sixth ward died. In Sweeney’s Shambles the rate was one out of five in a 22-month period. The death rate among Irish families in New York in the 1850s was 21 percent, while among non-Irish it was 3 percent. Life expectancy for New York’s Irish averaged under 40 years. Tuberculosis, which Bishop Hughes called the ‘natural death of the Irish immigrants,’ was the leading cause of death, along with drink and violence.
This was the horrendous scene into which the new bishop waded. One can only imagine what went through his head.
What did he do?
For starters, he decided to build from scratch a Catholic school system, believing that the future of the city would be found in the character and intellect of its children. “In our age the question of education,” he said, “is the question of the church.” He wanted the schools to stand out from their secular counterparts. In addition to a strict but standard curriculum based on the classical education model, the schools emphasized morality, virtue, and, naturally, Catholic theology. Parents were obligated to participate in the care and upkeep of the schools. Hughes would eventually expand his pioneering efforts to the college level, founding Fordham University, as well as Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent Colleges.
But the bishop was considered to be most effective and influential when engaging New Yorkers both from the pulpit and on the street with a straightforward spiritual perspective. He regularly preached on the need for personal transformation, encouraging the faithful to assume individual responsibility for their actions and realize the benefits of living disciplined and biblically grounded lives.
Bishop Hughes also made the Scriptures real and relevant. The simple principles of right and wrong were stressed, which, though obvious in hindsight, seemed to have been forgotten or, at the least, regularly ignored. By all accounts, Hughes preached a simple and positive message of faith, hope, and love. By helping New Yorkers see their lives from an eternal rather than a temporal perspective, they were motivated to immediate action.
The success of his efforts was stunning.
Alcoholism and drug use dropped. Irish neighborhoods, once known for their violence, became bastions of peacefulness. Membership and participation in church rose dramatically.
In just a short period of time, the city had been transformed, not by fiat or fire and brimstone, but through the deliberate and disciplined efforts of a man whose main goal was to change a culture by reforming hearts and minds in and through the name of Jesus Christ.
But here was Bishop Hughes secret:
He didn’t simply preach at them; he talked with them, like a father to a son. And the effects of this direct and gracious approach are still being felt today. Experts have suggested that had Bishop Hughes failed in his attempt to reform the Catholic Irish culture in New York, the future of American immigration and thus, America itself, would have been drastically altered.
It may seem reasonable to discount this example of cultural transformation as something from another era. But to dismiss it so quickly would be a grave mistake. Those committed to redeeming the current culture can find practical application and inspiration in the work of Bishop John Hughes.
Although a man of significant title, he possessed no extraordinary authority or talent. He could talk and teach with power and persuasion – but many had previously attempted to impact the culture in that manner, only to fail. What made Hughes different was that instead of trying to merely change behavior, he worked tirelessly to reach a person’s heart and thus their motivational center. He was able to craft arguments and share information in a way that moved people from apathy to action. And most importantly, as he did this, he was able to effect permanent change.
On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I’m grateful for the life of “Dagger John” – an articulate Irishman whose life and ministry stands as a model to those of us who feel a similar call to shape the world, not by power but through the strength of personal relationships.