Hughes, John Joseph (1797–1864), third resident catholic bishop and first archbishop of New York, was probably born 23 June 1797 (being baptised on 24 June) at Annaloghan, near Clogher, Co. Tyrone, third son among seven children of Patrick Hughes, farmer and weaver from Dernaved, and his wife Margaret (née McKenna). A parish and hedge school contemporary was the novelist William Carleton (qv) (whom Hughes later aided when visiting Dublin in 1862); Carleton's better work depicts their earlier shared background. After 1800 the family moved to a farmhouse in Dernaved townland, nearby in Co. Monaghan (since rebuilt at the Ulster American Folk Park). Unusually Hughes stayed in a chapel school there until 16 (or 17) to prepare for priesthood. A bad farming year then caused his withdrawal and training as a gardener (1814). Two of his siblings died around this time. His father went (1816) to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to prepare a life for the remaining family; John himself went out in 1817, and the rest followed in 1818. John worked as a labourer in Maryland, then as a gardener at St Joseph's school, Emmitsburg, which shared a campus with Mount St Mary's, a secondary school with a senior seminary stream. Its Parisian-born rector Fr John Dubois thwarted Hughes's desire to become a seminarian until St Joseph's superior, Mother (later St) Elizabeth Seton, stressed his merit. Dubois then hired him as overseer of his farm and slaves until he saw for himself the Tyrone man's capacities, and allowed him to enter the school by age 23. On 15 October 1826 Hughes was ordained for Philadelphia, a month before Fr Dubois was himself installed as bishop of New York.
Early career, 1826–38 Hughes had thus already observed the command of others and practised it as a foreman, a local controversialist, and a funds collector. Two cultured European priests, Dubois and Simon Bruté, formed him; two American converts, Mother Seton and Fr Samuel Cooper, influenced him. As a seminarian he was sponsored by Philadelphia's bishop, who liked him – the aged Ulster churchman Henry Conwell, sent there in 1820 when already 75. Hughes witnessed the bishop's loss of power to the fractious (and briefly schismatic) local lay trustees of St Mary's, the city's premier (and cathedral) church, to which Hughes was himself appointed pastor in spring 1827. There he decided that clear hierarchy was the way forward, and mobilised the ‘new’ Irish against the trustees. In 1830 Francis Kenrick (qv), a Dubliner educated in Rome and there ordained in April 1821, was put in with some control as coadjutor bishop to Conwell. Hughes's exact contemporary, they differed markedly. Hughes held that the morale of the poorer Irish required a forceful counter-attack on the anti-catholicism then spreading as a result of the convergence of new mass Irish immigration and America's evangelical revival. Both Dublin and Rome had shaped Kenrick's more irenic approach, which was not dissimilar to that religiously usual in Philadelphia's older catholic community. Hughes acted boldly on each front. He rejected the claim that substantial lay power in church matters was appropriate to the new nation's civic or ‘republican’ culture, and linked it to wider anti-catholic propaganda. Instead he shaped a relevant apologetics and a joint political argumentation. American religious and civil freedoms required that catholics sustain their position, not that they hide or negate it. Religious prejudice against them was both anti-American, and all too reminiscent of the position but recently endured in Ireland. But his own initially abusive polemics marred his case. As Dubois once disciplined him for bullying students when a prefect, Kenrick now rebuked his uncharity. Hughes learned to modify his methods as he matured his insights. Gradually he transformed the thrust of ‘Americanisation’ among many catholics to one that accommodated a robust group-assertion, rather than cultivated the pieties of otherness quietly, or adjusted more or less to socio-political secularity.
Coadjutor and archbishop of New York, 1838–64 Leadership of catholic New York, the epicentre of catholic immigration, offered him a wider context. Hughes was consecrated coadjutor there on 7 January 1838, taking effective command when Dubois suffered a stroke within the month. Dubois had been consecrated at 62 for New York. Lay factions rode roughshod over him. Within ten years he was exhausted, and died on 20 December 1842. Hughes had right of immediate succession. In 1850 New York was made an archdiocese; on 3 October 1850 Hughes received the documents (issued 19 July) confirming this and appointing him archbishop. He was given the pallium personally by Pius IX on 3 April 1851.
Thus from February 1838 until his final incapacity (from Bright's disease) in autumn 1863, the Irish-born prelate effectively ruled the diocese and then archdiocese. Within state and nation, he sought to change ‘an apologetic people . . . into a militant people’ (R. J. Purcell, DAB, ix (v, pt 1), 353). Gradually he won acceptance of this by official (but not popular) America, perhaps because in his archdiocese he harmonised massive catholic growth with the city's secular expansion. While he could not provide fully for the huge increases of his people, he provided New York's model ecclesial and school structures for a century. He pioneered and focused its metropolitan character. Twice he cut his jurisdiction's extent, to one-eleventh its original size, carving off almost all upstate New York in 1847, and Long Island and northern New Jersey in 1853. Hughes opened twenty-three parishes during 1840–63 within the city, and a further thirty-seven in the lower Hudson valley outside it. Manhattan's population more than doubled to 805,358 by 1860, its Irish-born then 203,730. Despite such increase, practising catholics for each city parish grew only slightly (10 per cent) from 1840 to 1865, vindicating his new creations. About one-half of catholics practised in the city itself, partly as the provision of parochial schools for their offspring remained very inadequate, with only 5,000 children covered in 1840 and 12,000 in 1860.
In 1840 Hughes sought to overthrow the city's Public School Society (wholly protestant) and its curricula, and to gain New York state recognition and funding for parochial schools. The state then created a secular public school system for the city, run on district lines. Hughes thus triggered the emergence of exclusively secular public schools, and thereby turned many moderate protestants toward nativism, as express Christian education was driven from their schools of choice. Yet he failed to win the funding that could have held his own poor more fully to their church. In 1857 he said: ‘In our age, the question of education is the question of the church’ (Cohalan, 56). His delivery was thus plainly unequal to his vision. His strategy of exclusive and defensive concentration, however understandable, left many unprovided for, with results later modified only by the rising and more politic affluence of many catholics. Through informal ‘Tammany’ links his successor John McCloskey wisely gained catholic teachers in the new district schools educating most catholic children. Hughes did, however, create the formative free parochial school system in the city.
Hughes gradually squeezed lay trusteeism out of New York. Despite a Know-Nothing law to prop it up (1855), he won a state law guaranteeing episcopal title to church properties (1863). He often co-opted trustees onto replacement boards of management. He won informal approval for a catholic chaplaincy in the US military by 1847, and its expansion in 1861 through William Seward, a friend since 1840.
Gaining major funding for New York from various missionary societies in Europe, he convinced Rome that his archdiocese must be a chief priority of the missionary church. He relied on a seasoned inner circle of pre-1835 fellow immigrants active in business (with whom he set up the Emigrant Savings Bank) to fund major projects, including the start of St Patrick's cathedral. He introduced many religious orders, including the Redemptorists (1841), the Irish Sisters of Mercy (May 1846), the Jesuits (also 1846) (granting them control of the nascent Fordham), and the Christian [D. L. Salle] Brothers in two stages (1848, 1853). Oddly, he split Mother Seton's original order by his drive to control their local work; those accepting this (including his sister, Ellen) created a new order based in the city (1846), while – fearing further such pressures elsewhere – the original American Sisters of Charity affiliated to the French Daughters of Charity (St Vincent de Paul) in 1850. Hughes was no ‘devotionalist’ in the by-then-current French or Italian styles. Critics of most Irish clergy, such as George Templeton Strong and John Blake Dillon (qv), excepted him as a man of doctrine, clarity, and intelligence. In 1846 he introduced the choice of the Blessed Virgin as patroness of the US at the sixth provincial council in Baltimore. Though he disliked ‘national’ parishes, Hughes did accept German and French ones, though he distanced Italian claims. He also accepted the creation both of ‘select’ (fee-paying) schools, and of up-market parishes (St Ann's, St Francis Xavier). His view of an urban American church was thus realist and comprehensive. He was certainly no Irish-ghetto builder. To Bishop John England (qv), Hughes was an ‘emphatically self-made man’ (Shaw, Dagger John, 91). He advanced many American-born and convert catholics as vital to his church's future.
He famously faced off public authority when nativist riots impended in April 1844. But this obscures a deeper change. His early and continued counter-polemics with anti-catholic partisans (e.g., Controversy between Rev. Messrs Hughes and Breckenridge (1834); Kirwan unmasked (1848)) gave way to the realisation that in an emergent metropolis with a bare majority then catholic (if problematically so), the analogous problems had shifted to those posed by the attractions of secularity, the indifference of elites, and the irresolute commitment of many formal adherents. The Know-Nothings of 1854–5 did not worry him as much as had their 1840s forerunners. His later battles were with secular spokesmen who respected him, notably Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, and James G. Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, both highly political men. All three sought rival definitions of a culture, variously to sustain, exclude, contain, or modify Hughes's insistence that American liberty accept the spiritual obediences of catholics as fully licit, and their culture as a public contribution to urban and national vitality and order. His disputes with immigrant Young Ireland and Confederation leaders of 1848 had similar roots (except in the breaches with Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv), who was less sanguine about both America and its Irish than was Hughes). A supporter of Daniel O'Connell (qv), and very active in famine relief, Hughes showed initial sympathy for both 1848 goals and later the Fenians, unsurprisingly given the trend to an overlap of Defender and United Irish interests in his childhood townlands.
Politically, and unlike most Irish, Hughes disliked the Democrats (despite many Democratic associates) for their assertive secularity, regretted Irish captivity to them, and preferred the orderly Whigs. Like most Irish, he distrusted the anti-slavery enthusiasms of the new Republicans. Having tried a ‘catholic’ slate in 1841 during the schools battle, thereafter he held that catholics as such ought to be non-partisan. This precedent became a tradition and was upheld by most Irish American bishops and laity (notably in 1901).
Yet Hughes had not forgotten the youthful anti-slavery reactions of his own Maryland years. His reform patriotism was deepened by many trips to Europe (October 1839–February 1840, summer 1843, December 1845, December 1850–July 1851), on which he was scandalised by Old World inequities. The shock of southern secession elicited a mature loyalty to the US, made contentious in his city in that many of his people's editors and leaders were Democrats wishing a ‘moderate’ and short war and a negotiated peace. The Lincoln administration sent him to France and Rome on the union's behalf in late 1861. He stayed in Rome until summer 1862.The anti-draft riots of July 1863 shadowed his last year, but his standing curbed their divisive impact.
It is as flexible planner of a metropolitan catholicism in a culture of multiple freedoms that he is most admirable. He disciplined his ‘tough’ and combative sides to that task. A rural Irishman seasoned to a rural America, Hughes tamed an urban-ward flood. His opposition to mass westward colonisation by the Irish newcomers reflected his close experience of farming in both Ireland and America; he did not oppose migration by stages to the land. Through it all he sustained a quiet and exhausting charity into the decline of his later years (c.1858–63), which drove him to live with his sister's family and move in a very limited circle. He died 3 January 1864.
Papers The papers of John Hughes are principally in the archdiocesan archives at St Joseph's, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York. The collections include the diaries of two of his secretaries, Fr James R. Bayley and Fr Thomas Preston, and photocopies and microfilms of many of his letters in other archives, starting with those first made by his would-be biographer Peter Guilday. As the American church was under the jurisdiction of Rome's Congregation of Propaganda Fide until 1908, key papers went through it; these are catalogued and calendared by Anton Debevec and Finbar Kenneally, United States documents in the Propaganda Fide archives: a calendar, 1st ser. (5 vols, Washington, DC, 1966–74). Copies of the relevant ones are now in the above archives. So too are copies of his correspondence with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (Lyon and Paris, its papers housed at its archives in Lyon). Photocopies were sent to the relevant American dioceses (United States) from 1987 to 1992: see a summary list by diocese in Jean-Marie Jammes in Catholic Historical Review, lxxv (Apr. 1989), 264–7. Henry J. Browne, another would-be biographer, also amassed collections on Hughes and his times. His unpublished biography is in the archives at Columbia University in the H. J. Browne papers there. Various sermons, articles, and pamphlets of Hughes are in Lawrence Kehoe (ed.), Complete works of the Most Rev. John Hughes, D.D. (2 vols, 1865); it is very incomplete and there has never been a collected works. The counter-view was closely provided and documented by James Gordon Bennett in his New York Herald. There is no published full scholarly biography.