Tenth Archbishop of Baltimore
Motto: Quis ut Deus? “Who is like unto God?”
Michael Joseph Curley was born in Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland, on October 12, 1879, the son of Michael Curley, a fairly prosperous farmer, and Maria Ward. He attended the Marist Brothers’ school in Athlone until age sixteen, then went to Mungret College, Limerick, conducted by the Jesuits, to study for the priesthood. Though he originally dreamed of being a missionary to the Fiji Islands, the visit of a bishop of Florida to Mungret led him to volunteer his services for that under-developed part of the Catholic world. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Royal University in Dublin, he entered the Urban College of the Propaganda in Rome in 1900 to prepare himself for the life of a missionary in the United States. He was ordained by Cardinal Pietro Respighi, vicar general of the pope, on March 19, 1904.
In Florida Curley was sent by the bishop of St. Augustine to a parish at DeLand that encompassed 7,200 square miles, greater by a thousand than the archdiocese he would later govern. He lived in a rented room above a store and took his meals in a diner where a five-dollar ticket bought him twenty-one meals. In 1914 he served nine months as chancellor and secretary to the bishop, then was himself named bishop of St. Augustine on April 3, 1914, and raised to the episcopacy on June 30 by the bishop of Savannah. In 1917 he attracted national attention by battling a convent inspection bill and later an act forbidding sisters to teach “colored” children. On August 10, 1921, he was named to succeed the venerable Cardinal James Gibbons as archbishop of Baltimore. He took possession of the premier see on November 21.
In his first years in Baltimore Curley devoted himself to the work of consolidation, centralization, and the implementation of Vatican directives, goals already achieved by the larger archdioceses. In 1922 he organized the Office of Education, in 1923 the Bureau of Catholic Charities, and in 1925 the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The achievements of which he was proudest were in education; by 1926 he felt that he could boast, “I defy any system of grammar school education in the United States to prove itself superior to the system that is being maintained in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.” He energized such societies as the Holy Name, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of America, and International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, charging them with such tasks as the support of Catholic schools, poor relief, and defense of the Church.
In time Curley won a reputation as a battler as well as that of a builder. He was the most outspoken and militant prelate in America in the interwar years. Among the crusades he launched were those against the anticlerical governments of Mexico and Spain, the salacious movies coming out of Hollywood, and the Catholic Foundation movement for the establishment of Catholic centers at secular universities, which Curley felt undermined Catholic schools. He was the first American bishop to speak out forcefully against Communism, persuading the bishops in 1936 to conduct a study of its influence in America. In Baltimore and Washington he established labor schools to disseminate papal teachings on social justice and to counter the activities of the Communist party in local unions. Curley was quick to demand apologies for what he considered slurs against the Catholic Church, waging a bitter campaign against the Baltimore Sun when one of its reporters compared Hitler to Ignatius Loyola.
Though he avoided involvement in local politics, Curley was outspoken in his criticism of the foreign policy of the Roosevelt administration. On this and other matters his public statements proved often a source of embarrassment to the administrative committee of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, with whom he was often at odds. In 1936 Curley submitted his resignation to the conference when ordered to dissolve a corporation he had created for Mexican relief. Curley was also frustrated in his efforts to make a true university of The Catholic University in Washington, of which he was, as archbishop of Baltimore, the chancellor. The dismissal of the rector whom he supported Curley also took as a rebuke.
Curley had, in fact, no close friends among the American bishops and was the first archbishop of Baltimore not to be recognized as leader of the Catholic Church in the United States. On July 22, 1939, however, he was named also archbishop of the newly created Archdiocese of Washington, but he continued to govern the two archdioceses as a unit. Unaware of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Curley responded to a reporter in a flippant manner concerning the catastrophe. The interview was used by those who wished to silence him to have the apostolic delegate deliver an admonition. Pained by the reproof, Curley made no pronouncements on political affairs for the rest of his life.
Perhaps the majority of his spiritual children in the two archdioceses he governed came to admire this bluff and blunt Irishman so unlike his irenic predecessor, in whose shadow Curley lived throughout his years in Baltimore. In his disdain for the values of mainstream America, Michael Curley, in fact, put himself at odds with the Maryland tradition begun by Carroll and revived by Gibbons. His contribution to the Catholic militancy of the interwar years was, perhaps, unequalled. As a builder he also had few equals, doubling the institutions and personnel in his twenty-five years in Baltimore.
Much of this was accomplished from a hospital bed. Curley suffered from a number of ailments, among them sinusitis, shingles, and high blood pressure. He suffered a number of strokes that induced partial paralysis, blindness, and on May 16, 1947, death. Archbishop John McNicholas of Cincinnati, a former antagonist, summed up the many assessments of his episcopacy. In Curley’s death, he declared, “the Church loses a warrior prelate for its unchangeable teachings . . . a champion of Christian education of our youth, a friend of the missions, and almoner of the poor.” Curley was, perhaps, the most honest and forthright of American bishops. Even his critics admired his directness and candor as they deplored his lack of tact. Even more did those who really knew him admire his simplicity of life and love of the poor. He tried, in fact, to live as poorly as the poor he never patronized.
Fitzpatrick, Vincent de Paul. Life of Archbishop Curley: Champion of Catholic Education. Baltimore, 1929.
Spalding, Thomas W. The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989. Baltimore, 1989.
By 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.