The Synods and Councils of Baltimore (1791 – 1884)

Most significant have been the synods and councils of Baltimore. The first Baltimore synod was held in 1791 when twenty-two priests met with Bishop Carroll to draw up guidelines for the practice of the faith by the clergy and laity. Since Baltimore was then the only diocese, this synod took on a national character. Successive synods were held in 1831, 1853, 1857, 1865, 1868, and 1875. The last diocesan synod was held in 1886 under Cardinal Gibbons.
Following erection of suffragan sees at New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Bardstown in 1808, the bishops of these new dioceses, with the exception of Bishop Luke Concanen of New York who died before reaching America, met with Archbishop Carroll and Bishop Neale in 1810 and agreed on rules to guide the Church in the United States. The bishops intended to meet again later, but the War of 1812 and Archbishop Carroll’s death precluded the convocation of a provincial council. Archbishop Neale’s reign was too short to adequately prepare a council, and his successor, Archbishop Marechal, for a number of reasons, decided not to convoke a provincial council.
A year after the death of Archbishop Marechal, the new Archbishop of Baltimore, James Whitfield, called together the first provincial council which met in 1829. Archbishop Whitfield also presided over the council of 1833. The fourth archbishop, Samuel Eccleston, was the only Archbishop of Baltimore who was a convert. He served from 1834 until 1851, opened St. Charles College in 1848 and presided over the provincial councils of 1837, 1840, 1843, 1846, and 1849.

The first six provincial councils, like the synod of 1791, were national in character because Baltimore was the only archdiocese in the Republic. The council of 1849 and the provincial councils of 1855, 1858, and 1867 were regional in character, and their decrees were binding only on the Catholics of the Baltimore province.

Most memorable in the history of Baltimore were the three plenary councils presided over by Archbishops Kenrick in 1852, Spalding in 1866, and Gibbons in 1884. These, like the first six provincial councils were important to the entire United States Catholic population. At all the councils, significant rules were laid down covering such diverse questions as Catholic education, the Indian and Black apostolate, lay participation in secret societies, immigration and colonization, and the erection of new dioceses and missions.
At the council of 1852, the bishops named the Blessed Mother, under the title of Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States. Another significant byproduct of the first plenary council was a decree by Pope Pius IX in 1858 conferring on Archbishops of Baltimore “prerogative of place,” meaning the archbishop takes precedence over all other American archbishops in councils, gatherings, and meetings of the hierarchy regardless of seniority.