Illuminations: An Irishman Named England
By: J. Michael Finn
Many bishops, priests and religious of Irish birth or descent are credited with beginning and growing the Catholic faith in early America. One of these was Bishop John England, a native of Ireland, who became one of the most recognized churchmen of his time.
John England was born on September 23, 1786 in Cork, Ireland, to Thomas England and Honora Lordan. John was the eldest of ten children. He completed his primary education at Cork.
In 1802 he entered St. Patrick’s College in Carlow, where, while he was still a student, he taught and also preached at the cathedral. By dispensation he was ordained before the prescribed age on October 11, 1808, by Bishop Francis Moylan at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Cork.
While a priest in Cork, he was also appointed chaplain to the Presentation Convent, the Magdalen Asylum, and the city prison. He served as inspector of the Catholic poor schools. At St. Mary’s College he was a teacher of philosophy, and then served as its president from 1812 until 1817.
During these years, he took an active role in the Veto Question (the proposal that the English monarchy could veto the appointment of Irish bishops). In the pages of the Cork Mercantile Chronicle, where he served as editor, he opposed any program that would give the British government the right to interfere in the appointment of bishops. In the elections of 1812 he fearlessly exerted his influence, maintaining that, “in vindicating the political rights of his countrymen, he was but asserting their liberty of conscience.”
Next to Daniel O’Connell, his influence was the greatest in the agitation which led to Catholic Emancipation. To help this cause he founded The Religious Repertory, a Catholic magazine which he continued to edit until he left Ireland. Father England’s concern regarding the condition of Irish felons transported and imprisoned in Australia, led to the establishment of the Catholic Church in Australia.
In July 1820, Pope Pius VIII established the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, which was formed from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It encompassed 140,000 square miles and consisted of three states: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Father England was serving as parish priest at Bandon, 16 miles from Cork. He also was the Vicar Foreign and Secretary of the Diocese, from May 1817 until he resigned in August 1820. At that time, he was notified from Rome that he had been named as the first bishop of Charleston, South Carolina. It was speculated that his appointment and exile to America may have been an effort to silence his political activities in Ireland.
Consecrated Bishop of Charleston at Cork on September 21, 1820, in the parish church of St. Finbar, he left Ireland from Belfast and arrived in Charleston on December 30, 1820. Upon his arrival, he found only two churches in the new diocese and two priests.
In 1822 Bishop England’s remarkable energy and zeal led him to establish the United States Catholic Miscellany, the first Catholic newspaper published in the United States. It continued to be published until 1861. He also compiled a catechism and prepared a new edition of the Missal in English, with an explanation of the Mass.
Bishop England founded the Philosophical and Classical Seminary of Charleston, which began operating in January 1822. St. John the Baptist Seminary, which he opened in 1825, soon provided trained priests for the diocese, four of whom eventually became bishops.
On January 8, 1826, Bishop John England became the first Catholic clergyman to preach before the U.S. Congress. The overflow audience included President John Quincy Adams.
In his speech, England refuted some anti-Catholic sentiments that the President had expressed some years earlier. He proclaimed that Catholic belief was not an enemy of democracy and stressed its compatibility with republican values. The bishop’s sermon, which lasted two hours, was so well received that 21 members of Congress immediately encouraged him to publish it in book form, which he did.
Spiritual Care of African Americans
A striking phase of Bishop England’s apostolic character was manifested in his spiritual care of African Americans. In 1830, he established in Charleston the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, who were to devote themselves to the sick, provide education to African American women and provide for their religious instruction. In 1834 he further promoted education and charity by the introduction of the Ursuline Sisters into the diocese.
The Bishop celebrated an early Mass in the cathedral for African Americans every Sunday and preached to them at this Mass and at a Vesper service. He was accustomed to deliver two afternoon sermons. If he was unable to deliver both, he would disappoint the rich and cultured who flocked to hear him, and preach to the poor.
In the epidemics of those days, he exhibited great devotion to the sick. His priests and the Sisters of Mercy volunteered their services in the visitations of cholera and yellow fever victims. He was known to have walked the streets of Charleston in his bare feet. Several times the excessive fatigue and exposure incurred in his visitations around the diocese caused him to become ill. More than once he was in danger of death.
Charleston was a heavily Protestant city. He often defended the Catholic minority against nativist prejudices. In 1831 and 1835, the bishop established free schools for black girls and boys.
In 1835, upset by the propaganda of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a mob raided the Charleston post office and the next day turned its attention to England’s school for “children of color.” Alerted, England led Charleston’s Irish Volunteers to protect the school.
In the interests of his impoverished diocese, England visited the chief towns and cities of the United States, crossed the ocean four times, sought aid from the Pope, and made appeals in Ireland, England, France, Italy, wherever he could obtain money, vestments, or books.
In 1841, he visited Europe for the last time. On the long return voyage there was much sickness, and he became seriously ill due to his constant care for others. Though very weak, on his arrival in Philadelphia, he preached seventeen nights consecutively, also four nights in Baltimore.
With his health broken and his strength almost exhausted, he promptly resumed his duties on his return to Charleston, where he died on April 11, 1842 at the age of 55.
At the time of his death, Bishop John England had become well known throughout the United States. His diocese, which began with two churches and two priests, had grown to fifteen churches and chapels; upwards of forty stations, and twenty-two priests. When he died the Freemans Journal in Ireland reported, “His manners were so mild, his character so pure and his charity so unbounded, that on hearing of his severe illness, public prayers were offered in the Protestant churches for his recovery!”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].