Most Rev. John Carroll

First Archbishop of Baltimore

Motto: Ne derelinquas nos Domine Deus Noster. “Forsake us not, O Lord our God.” (Psalm 37:22)

First bishop and archbishop of Baltimore and founder of the American Catholic hierarchy, John Carroll was born at Upper Marlboro, Maryland, On January 8 (or 19), 1736, the fourth of seven children of Daniel Carroll, merchant and planter, and Eleanor Darnall. Though but remotely related on his father’s side to the more famous Carroll branch that produced Charles Carroll of Carrollton, he was through his mother a second cousin of the latter. Through his mother he could also claim descent from some of the leading families of England. John was probably baptized in the chapel of the newly built mansion of his uncle Henry Darnall III called “His lordship’s Kindness.” The uncle would soon after take communion in the Church of England in order to hold public office and then flee the province when caught embezzling public funds. John would have more than his share of blacksheep relatives.

Early Years

John Carroll was probably first instructed by his mother, who had been educated in the convent school of the Sepulchrine nuns of Liège, which training the historian John Gilmary Shea claimed, “gave him the ease, dignity, and polish which marked him through life.” In 1747 he was sent to a school recently established by the Jesuits of Bohemia Manor in Cecil County and in 1748, with his cousin Charles Carroll, to the Jesuit school of St. Omer in French Flanders. At the latter his brother Daniel and many other Maryland Catholics received a solid grounding in the classics. Daniel returned to Maryland the year John arrived to pursue the life of a planter and later politician. John entered the Jesuit novitiate at Watten nearby on September 8, 1753, and took his first vows two years later. From Watten he went to the English College at Liège to pursue his studies in philosophy and theology. On February 14, 1761, he was ordained a priest by the auxiliary bishop of Liège. In 1762, having finished his studies, he began to teach philosophy at the English College. By 1767 he was teaching at the Jesuit college in Bruges. After a year’s tertianship in Ghent Carroll took his final vows on February 2, 1771. Not long after he began a continental tour as chaperon for the young Charles Philip Stourton, a future baron, a broadening experience for them both.

Carroll’s goal was Rome, where the pope was on the verge of suppressing the Society of Jesus. They lodged for a time at the Jesuit College of Nobles in Bologna, where Carroll first met his future friend and faithful correspondent Charles Plowden. By the fall of 1772 Carroll was in Rome incognito. “What a revolution of ideas,” he wrote a friend in February, “do all these proceedings produce in a mind accustomed to regard this city as the seat of Religion” (John Carroll Papers, 1:29). When word of the suppression finally reached him in Bruges, he wrote his mother, “The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death” (32). The suppression of June 21, 1773, made the unhappy Marylander his “own man,” and the following year he returned to America and another revolution.

Creating a Church

In Maryland Carroll resided with his mother at Rock Creek, where his brother Daniel built a chapel for him to serve the Catholics of the neighborhood. In 1776 he was asked by the Continental Congress to accompany a mission to Canada consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and his cousin Charles Carroll. Though he questioned the propriety of a minister of religion being involved in political affairs and entertained small hope of winning over the Canadians, he felt it his patriotic duty to go. Snubbed by the local clergy on the orders of the bishop of Quebec, Carroll took an early opportunity to accompany the ailing Franklin back to Philadelphia.

Carroll’s sympathies were with the revolutionary cause, which he saw as favorable to the future of the Church in the new nation. With independence ratified by treaty in 1783, he wrote jubilantly to an official in Rome that “our Religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary, than our political one.” It was “a blessing and advantage, which is our duty to preserve & improve with the utmost prudence” (80-81). When a cousin, Charles Henry Wharton, wrote a work to justify his conversion to the Protestant Episcopal Church suggesting that Roman Catholicism was inimical to a free society, Carroll felt compelled to publish in 1785 a 115-page rebuttal, An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America, his most ambitious literary effort. In it he argues that “America may come to exhibit a proof to the world, by general and equal toleration, by giving a free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to an unity of faith” (140). At this point in his career Carroll also favored a liturgy in the language of the people and a recognition of papal power as extending only to spiritual matters. In 1785 he fought a bill that would have laid a tax for the support of clergymen in Maryland. To at least two American newspapers he sent essays demanding equal rights for Roman Catholics.

With independence Carroll realized something must be done for the support of the clergy, almost all former Jesuits, and the protection of their properties. In the face of the apathy and irresolution of his former colleagues, he took the initiative in 1783 by calling several priests to White Marsh, 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, which would meet regularly, would be entrusted the former Jesuit properties and responsibility for the conduct of the clergy in temporal matters. Only then did the ex-Jesuits petition the Holy See to grant the necessary spiritual faculties to their former superior, Fr. John Lewis. Rome meanwhile, through the French foreign minister, approached the American representative in Paris. When told that the Holy See was free to make any arrangement for the new nation it wishes, Congress having nothing to do with religion, the pope, at Franklin’s recommendation, named Carroll instead of Lewis “Superior of the Mission in the thirteen United States” on June 9,1784.

Not wishing to be under the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide, which was charged with missionary territories, Carroll informed the cardinal prefect, Leonardo Antonelli. That it would be impolitic to create for the new nation a vicar apostolic directly under this curial congregation. When the time was right, he insisted, the United States should have a diocesan bishop chosen by its own clergy. A compromise that was something of an anomaly would eventually be worked out: the American clergy would, for the first time only, be allowed to elect their bishop. But this diocesan bishop would be under the Congregation of the Propaganda. Troubles in New York and Philadelphia, plus the antics of wandering priests, soon convinced Carroll and the chapter that a bishop was needed. Carroll was elected almost unanimously. On November 6, 1789, by the pontifical brief Ex hac apostolicae, Baltimore, where Carroll had lived since 1786, was made the first diocese of the United States with Carroll its bishop. On August 15, 1790, he was raised to the episcopacy in the chapel of the Weld family, Lulworth Castle, Dorset, England, where his friend Charles Plowden was chaplain, by Bishop Charles Walmesley, vicar apostolic of the Western District.

Bishop of Baltimore

In November 1791 Carroll held the only synod of his twenty-five year episcopacy. It concerned itself mostly with the administration of the sacraments and support of the Church. Nothing was legislated in the area of education, Carroll’s principal concern. As early as 1786 he had pushed for the creation of what would come to be called Georgetown College. Its first student was finally admitted in November 1791, a little more than a month after the French Sulpicians, who had broached the possibility to Carroll in England, opened St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. In 1805 the Sulpicians would also establish St. Mary’s College in Baltimore and in 1808 Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg. Carroll would likewise give his approval to the founding of visitation nuns, who in 1799, under the direction of Leonard Neale. His successor, would begin Visitation Academy in Georgetown. In 1805 Carroll would urge English Dominicans to begin a priory and college in Kentucky for the large number of Maryland Catholics migrating thither. In 1809 he would encourage Elizabeth Seton to establish the American Sisters of Charity for the education of girls. He was not successful, however, in inducing the Carmelites, who had come to Maryland in 1790, to take up the work of education.

An unfortunate rivalry in the field of education developed between the former Jesuits and the Sulpicians. Although Carroll tended to favor the Sulpicians, upon whom he had come to lean heavily for advice, he took the lead in effecting a restoration of the Society of Jesus in Maryland in 1805, without informing Rome, by an affiliation with the Russian Jesuits, who had been protected from suppression by Catherine the Great.

Carroll encouraged the building of churches by trustees in the manner of Episcopalian vestries. This he saw as the best way to secure church property and involve the laity in the governance of the Church. Trustees, however, proved unruly in the port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and even Baltimore. Despite assertions to the contrary by historians such as John Gilmary Shea and Peter Guilday, Carroll never repudiated the system, which worked well in the rural churches of Maryland. Trustees proved indispensable in the erection of the magnificent cathedral that Carroll began in 1806, engaging the noted architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. More vexing than troublesome trustees were the many problem priests with whom Carroll had to contend. One of the most notorious was Simon Felix Gallagher of Charleston, an eloquent alcoholic with a large following. Carroll’s policy towards such priests was one of forbearance, even kindness. One of his accomplishments ignored by historians was his ability to tame such troublemakers, even Gallagher. It was, however, the presence of irresponsible and contentious priests that probably convinced Carroll of the inadvisability of Episcopal election by the clergy.

Archbishop of Baltimore

Carroll’s inability to govern a diocese coterminous with the United States was apparent from the start. As early as 1793 he was told to consult his clergy on the choice of a coadjutor. The consultation took the form of an election, and the lot fell to Lawrence Graessl, a former Jesuit. He died, however, before the brief arrived. A second coadjutor, Leonard Neale, was chosen, probably also by election, in 1795 but a miscarriage of the briefs prevented his being raised to the episcopacy until 1800. Neale proved of little help. In 1804 Carroll was given administration of the Danish West Indies and other nearby islands that were under no ecclesiastical jurisdiction and in 1805 the Louisiana Territory. Finally, on April 8, 1808, Baltimore was raised to an archdiocese with four suffragan sees Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Bardstown, Kentucky.

Carroll himself ordained the bishops he had chosen for all but New York. That choice he had left to the Holy See, but Bishop Richard Luke Concanen died in Europe soon after his consecration. Not only was Carroll obliged to continue his care of New York but also of Philadelphia, where Bishop Michael Egan, in poor health, proved incapable of dealing with a variety of troublemakers. While Boston and Bardstown were in the capable hands of John Cheverus and Benedict Flaget respectively, Carroll was unable to send out the man he had chosen as administrator of Louisiana, William DuBourg, until 1813.

Although Carroll came to appreciate the support of the Congregation of the Propaganda, he and his suffragans attempted to deal directly with the pope. This effort, as well as that of filling the empty sees of New York and Philadelphia after Egan’s death in 1814, was frustrated by the imprisonment of Pius VII and the unsettled condition of the Holy See.

Carroll’s last years were particularly troubled ones. War with England prevented him holding the provincial council he had planned. He was compelled to complain of foreign interference in the choice of bishops for the orphaned sees. He had to suffer independent-minded Jesuit superiors. At the time of the restoration of the society in 1814 he refused to surrender at once the powers, properties, and parishes the superior demanded. His death after a brief illness on December 3, 1815, brought respite but occasioned a universal outpouring of regret.

The Maryland Tradition

John Carroll has sometimes been criticized by historians for having abandoned such enlightened goals as a vernacular liturgy and the election of bishops, for having relinquished the “republican blueprint” he had fashioned in the 1780s. While it is true that he evidenced a greater conservatism as bishop than he had shown as a priest, in authority he faced increasingly obdurate and complex problems. The destructive character of the French Revolution and “furious democracy,” moreover, served to moderate attitudes born of the American Revolution. Carroll was a Federalist, who regarded property as a social separator. To whatever extent he may have looked to Europe for models after becoming a bishop, however, he was still the architect of the Maryland tradition in American Catholicism.

Born of an ardent patriotism, Carroll’s own devotion to such American principles as freedom of conscience and separation of Church and state were readily communicated to his coreligionists in America. To friends and acquaintances abroad he continually held up his native land as a model for imitation. No minister of religion, moreover, contributed more to the ecumenical spirit that stamped the early national period than did Carroll. He developed close friendships with almost all the leaders of other denominations.

This easy association Carroll accomplished largely by the leadership he exerted in promoting civic improvement. As early as 1782 he found a place on the original board of trustees for St. John’s College in Annapolis and was elected its president in 1788. He would also be elected to the board of Baltimore College but declined the office of provost because of age. He was prominent in the founding and in the management of such organizations as the Library Company of Baltimore, of which he was proudest, the Baltimore Female Humane association, the Maryland Society Promoting Useful Knowledge, and the Baltimore General Dispensary. Carroll’s example led other Catholics to immerse themselves in the affairs of the larger community, to lend their talents to civic enterprises.

Catholic piety in the Carroll era was simple and personal. Carroll did not wish Catholic worship, or the display of Catholic piety, to be a source of dissension. On one occasion he wrote disapprovingly of a Corpus Christi procession conducted by a pastor on the streets of Baltimore. Carroll wished the Catholic populace to blend imperceptibly into the social fabric. He governed a Church with a minimum of institutions and associations and had little inclination to create strictly Catholic ones.

In its relationship with the Holy See Carroll wished a measure of autonomy for the American Church. Although he overcame his initial distrust of the Congregation of the Propaganda, he was not overly generous in the information he supplied the Roman authorities nor overly conscientious in following their directives. At the same time, he instilled in his spiritual children a deep loyalty to the pope as a symbol of unity.

This amalgam of attitudes and values that was the Maryland tradition would be the chief legacy that John Carroll bequeathed to the Church of which he was the founder and father.


Guilday, Peter. The Life and Times of John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore. New York, 1922.

Hanley, Thomas O’Brien, ed. The John Carroll Papers, 3 vols. Notre Dame, Indiana, 1976.

Hennessey, James, S.J. “An Eighteenth Century Bishop: John Carroll of Baltimore,” Archivum Historiae Pontificae 76 (1978) 171-204.

Melville, Annabelle M. John Carroll of Baltimore: Founder of the American Catholic Hierarchy. New York, 1955.

Spalding, Thomas W. The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore 1789-1989. Baltimore, 1989.

—-. “John Carroll: Corrigenda and Addenda,” Catholic Historical Review 71 (1985) 505-518.

By Bro. Thomas W. Spalding , CFX
Originally published in Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley, eds. The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997). Used with permission of author’s estate.