Catholics in America – ‘Dagger John Hughes,’ a ‘Roman gladiator’

I deeply love Fordham University and am proud to have built a lasting relationship with both the people there and the institution itself. Because of its storied history and location in the “capital of the world,” the school instills in those that hold it dear a certain appreciation for iconic figures and traditions from the school’s past — The Victory Bell, Denzel Washington and Vin Scully, “The Exorcist,” Vince Lombardi and the seven blocks of granite, the French stained glass windows in the University Church and mention in innumerable Mary Higgins Clark novels. All are interwoven into the tapestry of the school’s heritage and somehow become part of its students, faculty, and alumni. It’s also rumored that “ivy league” was coined there as a term of derision for institutions that couldn’t compete with Fordham’s football team, comparable to “bush leagues”!

In front of the President’s Office on Rose Hill, there is a grey-green statue of another of these inescapable Fordham icons, “Dagger John” Hughes. The effigy wears a mortarboard hat for graduation weekend and is the namesake for an annual founder’s celebration in the summer and a restaurant on campus. Beyond these slightly gimmicky tributes, he is a vitally important figure in American Catholic history.

Hughes was an Irish immigrant from Ulster, who served as the gardener at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., before gaining admittance to the institution through the recommendation of Elizabeth Ann Seton. He went on to be ordained and serve at the parish of Old St. Joe’s in Philadelphia, an honored place in my own spiritual autobiography.

Hughes then became the first archbishop of New York, when the see was raised to an archdiocese in 1850. In addition to Fordham, he founded Manhattan College and the College of Mount St. Vincent. He was known as Dagger John because of both the sword-like cross he included in his signature and the ferocity with which he battled for Catholic causes, often against antireligious and nativist forces within the government.

Archbishop Hughes was instrumental in effecting a permanent change in the Irish underclass in American society. He had been disgusted by the English domination of Catholics in his native country, where the local priest was even forbidden from entering the cemetery when his sister died, so John carried a handful of blessed dirt from him to lay on her grave. He then sought to battle against religious persecution on this side of the Atlantic, being described in a newspaper of the day as “a Roman gladiator” for just causes. He encouraged the waves of immigrants to be vocally Catholic and to resist any attempts to be classified as second-class citizens as they had in some parts of Europe.

He was instrumental in the development of the network of Catholic schools that was to educate generations of Americans and worked tirelessly to better the lives of his flock. His vision of proving to the Protestant majority in America that Catholics could contribute something of lasting value resulted in one of the country’s great edifices, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built from the pennies donated by his followers.

In addition to our Camden Diocese, I have lived for varying lengths of time in Pennsylvania, Boston and Italy, as well as spent a great deal of time in my stepfather’s hometown in Armagh, Northern Ireland and Spain (I will again be spending the majority of this summer in the latter). But New York City is a unique and special metropolis, one which will in some sense always be my home going forward, largely due to Fordham and the time I’ve spent living in Manhattan.

Dagger John is one of the figures who contributed heavily to the distinctively Catholic landscape of the City (Sorry Philly, only this one gets capitalized).

From Hughes through Dolan, there has never been an Archbishop of New York that didn’t have ancestry tracing to the Emerald Isle. And while France may traditionally be called the church’s “eldest daughter,” and recent tension between the land of St. Patrick and the Vatican is undeniable, Irish and Irish-American Catholics have played an enormous role in the history of both the nation and this unique mecca.

Hughes helped convince New York to open wide its rugged arms to countless sojourners, me included, in imitation of the Gospel’s claim, “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” For this, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out Hughes “will ever rank among America’s foremost citizens.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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