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09.12.04 Guilday, Peter,The Life and Times of John England, First Bishop of Charleston: 1786-1842, published in 1927.

Notes Concerning the Author

Monsignor Peter Keenan Guilday (1884 – 1947) was an American Catholic priest and historian.  Born in Chester, Pennsylvania of Irish parents, he studied for the priesthood at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook Pennslyvania; gained his PhD from Louvain University; beginning in 1914 taught at Catholic University of America; from 1915 to 1941 was principal editor of the Catholic Historical Review and co-founded in 1919 the American Catholic Historical Association. His writings established him as the period’s leading scholar in Catholic Church history. 

The following review by member Rebecca Barbour Calcutt is especially probing and thorough.  It is a history lesson in itself.

Our Review

Like historians of every time and place, we tell our side of the story.  American historians usually begin in 1607 with the permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.  Some might include Roanoke Island’s “lost colony” of 1585 because it is an interesting and intriguing story and those who refer to Indians as “Native Americans” include them because it is the politically correct thing to do.  But it is not often that we read of the French and Spanish settlements, outside of St. Augustine, which pre-dated the British settlers’ arrival in Virginia.  Ignore it though we might prefer but let the record be set straight and let the truth be told as Southerners are wont to do. 

When Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513 he claimed the territory for Spain.  St. Augustine, which supplanted a French colony, was not established by the Spanish until 1565 but other Spanish settlements reached into what is now South Carolina where the village of San Miguel de Gualdape was established in 1526.  This was the first European settlement (as opposed to a temporary trading post) in what is now the United States.  Moreover, the French had a colony on Parris Island that was established by Jean Ribaut in 1562 which they named Charlesfort.  But while the French and Spanish were fighting over the southeastern American continent, their common enemy was the British and this brings us to the heart of the conflict—religion.

 By the time John England was born in Cork, Ireland in 1786, there was already a Catholic presence in America—Spanish from Florida, French who migrated from Canada after the French & Indian War, settlers who had dispersed from the Catholic colony of Maryland, and English and Irish Catholics escaping persecution from Protestants in their homelands.  Yet Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Protestant “dissenters” turned the same persecution they suffered from Anglicans in England on to their “Papist” Christian brethren here in America and Catholics looked to the South for more hospitable climates in which to settle.  South Carolina’s Fundamental Constitutions, written by John Locke, advocated religious freedom but by 1696 an act of the legislature specifically excluded “Papists” and early in the 18th century Carolinians annihilated entire Indian tribes who had been converted to Catholicism, along with their priests and white Catholic settlers, by means of torture, mutilation, and burning at the stake.  Until the 19th century the number of Catholics in America was relatively small and all were grouped into the administrative jurisdiction of the Diocese of Baltimore but by 1820, the need for more than one diocese, and therefore more bishops, was evident, particularly in the South and it was in that year that John England was appointed bishop of the newly created Diocese of Charleston to encompass all of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.

 When Dr. John England took his chair as the bishop of Charleston it was the fervent hope and prayer of Southern Catholics that he would bring order and direction to a number of difficult situations, many of them long-standing.  In his biography, Fr. Peter Guilday recounts each with pertinent historical background.  The first and perhaps greatest of those long-standing issues was something that would become known as “trusteemania” or “America’s own peculiar ecclesiastical disease”.  With the scarcity of priests, administration of the diocese was in the hands of laymen who acted as trustees.  Laymen still participate in the administration of diocesan affairs but prior to the establishment of the diocese, the trustees’ responsibilities included church property and by this means, they came to wield much influence.  As they attempted to transform their temporal power into spiritual jurisdiction, dissention, tumult, scandal, rebellion, schism, and heresy were the inevitable results.  Bishop England eliminated trustees in the Constitution of the Diocese and managed to bring all church properties within his control.

Another major problem involved what Guilday refers to as the “racial component”.  With almost no native priests, foreigners had to minister to the needs of American Catholics and that usually meant either Irish or Frenchmen with the former being preferred due not only to the language barriers often experienced by French priests, but also due to the fact that the vast majority of Catholics in America were of Irish heritage.  Still, the two “races” struggled to control the American Church.  Although Bishop England fought to establish a diocesan seminary so that Americans could be trained for the priesthood, it ultimately failed as vocations were scarce in a country with “the most ambitious and worldly-minded people on earth.”  When one Irish priest was suspended for “excesses in liquor” and a Frenchman appointed in his place, both the priest and his predominantly-Irish congregation fell into open rebellion as they were “imbued with a spirit of false democracy” and attempted to secede from the jurisdiction of the American hierarchy and set up for themselves an independent American Catholic Church under a schismatic bishop.  While this situation might appear to be in the true spirit of America, it ultimately led to the fractionalization that plagues Christianity today.  This was the arena into which Bishop England stepped in 1820.

He also stepped in the midst of a rising nativist movement in America.  Spurred on by anti-Catholic propaganda, the Protestant majority banded together against Irish immigrants in Native American clubs, secret societies, labor movements that sometimes broke out into riots, and eventually a political party commonly known as the Know Nothings.  Bishop England recognized the importance of the American press and acknowledged that fully half of the country’s 1,000 newspapers, were anti-Catholic.  Assuming that the bias was due to ignorance rather than prejudice, he first wrote letters to the editors of those newspapers but they were not printed.  He then attempted to pay the papers’ advertising rates to publish his letters but was again refused.  Finally, he decided that his only recourse was to publish a weekly diocesan paper, The Miscellany, which is still in circulation to this day.

Despite the enormity of these issues, the real threat to Catholicism in America lies within the American political structure itself.  In some ways, Catholicism itself is antithetical to a democratic system and Canon Law, the body of ecclesiastical law of administration of the Church, is impractical in America since it is in opposition to civil law in many instances.  The freedom to practice Catholicism is severely mitigated by the effect of living in an American Protestant society where congregants elect or appoint their own pastors and every man is his own priest.  Moreover, in the 18th and 19th centuries, church attendance was mandatory for Protestants who could not and would not accept the idea that Catholics cannot attend their services if there is no priest available.  Many Catholics buckled under the pressure and lost their faith.  For American Catholics, it is unfortunate that they live in a Protestant country.  As the 21st century marches on, it will be unfortunate for Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, if they come to live in a Muslim or atheist country.

 In his introduction, Guilday outlines the growth of the American Catholic Church:

“What the Church in the United States needed most during the first quarter-century of its established hierarchical life was a strong central government, profound in its loyalty and devotion to the Holy See, whole-heartedly in unison with the dominant anti-foreign and national policies of the day, with all the parts properly subordinated by the laws of ecclesiastical authority, with all the prudent and necessary freedom of the merging of racial characteristics into the national ideal without, however, allowing the growth of a sectionalism that might in the end have been detrimental to Catholic American progress.”

Those foundations were in place when John England became bishop of Charleston and he did much to strengthen the Church’s position in America despite contention both from without and within during the 22 years of his episcopate.

It is interesting to note that Guilday uses Confederate veteran Edward McCrady’s four-volume history of South Carolina as a reference for his biography.  Concerning Bishop England’s devotion to his adopted home, an excerpt from his eulogy states:

“Of the South he was a true friend and an able champion, fearlessly throwing the weight of his character, influence, and intellect, in favor of her much misunderstood and much reviled domestic institutions and vindicating them both at home and abroad.”

May his legacy reveal his ability to calm stormy seas and to reconcile the irreconcilable.

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