His name was John Joseph Hughes, and he may have been 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 forty, 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:
New York’s Irish truly formed an underclass; every variety of social pathology flourished luxuriantly among them. Family life had disintegrated …
The immigrants crowded into neighborhoods like Sweeney’s Shambles in the city’s fourth ward and Five Points in the sixth ward (called the “bloody sixth” for its violence”) … Besides rampant alcoholism, addiction to opium and laudanum was epidemic in these neighborhoods in the 1840s and 1850s. Many Irish immigrants communicated in their own profanity-filled street slang called “flash talk”: a multi-day drinking spree was “going on a bender,” “cracking a can” was robbing a house. Literate English practically disappeared from ordinary conversation.
An estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as “nymphs of the pave,” worked the city in 1850, and Five Points alone had as many as seventeen brothels. Illegitimacy reached stratospheric heights—and tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, brought havoc to their neighborhoods. The gangs fought one another and the nativists—but primarily they robbed houses and small businesses, and trafficked in stolen property. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that 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.
Where to begin?
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 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. He 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. His success was stunning:
Alcoholism and drug addiction withered away. By the 1880s an estimated 60 percent of Irish women, and almost a third of the men, totally abstained from alcohol. Many Irish sections in the city became known for their peacefulness, order, and cleanliness—a far cry from the filth, violence, and disease of the Five Points and Sweeney’s Shambles of mid-century. Gone, too, was the notorious Irish promiscuity of those years; New York’s Irish became known by the latter part of the nineteenth century as a churched people, often chided by the press for their “puritanical” attitudes. Irish prostitutes virtually disappeared in the city, as did the army of Irish youths wandering the streets without adult supervision. Irish family life, formerly so frayed and chaotic, became strong and nourishing. Irish children entered the priesthood or the convent, the professions, politics, professional sports, show business, and commerce. In 1890 some 30 percent of New York City’s teachers were Irish women, and the Irish literacy rate exceeded 90 percent. In 1871 reformer “Honest” John Kelly became the leader of Tammany Hall, and with the election in 1880 of shipping magnate William Grace as mayor, the Irish assumed control of city politics.
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. 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.
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