John Carroll 200 years later

By Archbishop William E. Lori

This December, we remember in a special way our nation’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, who died 200 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1815. Born in the Prince George’s County town of Upper Marlboro in 1736, John was the fourth of seven children of Daniel Carroll and Eleanor Darnall. He was also a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1748, John was sent with his cousin Charles Carroll to the Jesuit school of St. Omer in France. He entered a nearby Jesuit novitiate Sept. 8, 1753, and took his first vows two years later. He was ordained a priest Feb. 14, 1761, and after nearly a decade of teaching, John Carroll took his final vows  Feb. 2, 1771.

Carroll would return to live in his native Maryland until 1776, when he was asked by the Continental Congress to accompany a mission to Canada consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll. He would leave Canada to accompany the ailing Franklin back to Philadelphia.

With the success of the American Revolution, Carroll realized something must be done for the support of the clergy and the protection of their properties in the new nation. He took the initiative in 1783 by calling several priests to Maryland, where a constitution was framed from a plan he had outlined. It provided for a chapter of the clergy elected from three districts. To the chapter would be entrusted the former Jesuit properties (the Jesuits had been suppressed in 1772) and responsibility for the conduct of the clergy in temporal matters.

When told that the Holy See was free to make any arrangement for the new nation it wishes, the pope, at Franklin’s recommendation, named Carroll “Superior of the Mission in the thirteen United States” on June 9, 1784.

On Nov. 6, 1789, Baltimore, where he had lived since 1786, was made the first diocese of the United States with John Carroll, having been almost unanimously elected bishop by the nation’s priests. Baltimore was raised to a metropolitan archdiocese in 1808, and four new dioceses were established that year: Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Bardstown, Ky.

Archbishop Carroll would guide the church during an era that saw the Catholic population grow from 25,000 in 1789 to approximately 160,000 in 1820, five years after his death. Following the election of President George Washington and the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791, Bishop Carroll opened that same year the first Catholic synod in the United States, at St. Peter’s pro-Cathedral in Baltimore.

John Carroll understood well the importance of education to human flourishing and human dignity, as well as to the growth of the Catholic Church. This is evident in his decisions to invite the Society of St. Sulpice to establish the first Catholic seminaries in the United States (St. Mary’s in Baltimore and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to establish the first Catholic school for underprivileged girls. He is also credited with establishing what would be called Georgetown College and urging English Dominicans to begin a priory and college in Kentucky for the large number of Maryland Catholics that migrated there.

He also understood the importance of weaving Catholicism into the fabric of American society within the construct of the newly guaranteed principle of religious freedom. He cautioned against unnecessary public displays of Catholic piety and oversaw the gradual growth of the church by limiting the number and exclusivity of Catholic groups. And he expertly navigated church politics, especially those involving the Holy See. This diverse and talented skill set represented what came to be known as the Maryland Tradition and proved our first bishop to be both a deft statesman and churchman.

Archbishop Carroll’s pioneering example gives every generation a lasting legacy on which to build upon anew.

Archbishop Lori will celebrate a Mass to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Carroll Dec. 6 at 10:45 a.m. at the Baltimore Basilica.

Read more “Charity in Truth” columns from the archbishop here.