With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI last week, attention is turning to the conclave in March. I thought this would be a good time to recall the first American eligible to participate in a conclave: John Cardinal McCloskey, the first American cardinal.
Born on March 10, 1810 to Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York when he was seventeen he had a life altering accident. Driving a team of oxen pulling a wagon full of heavy logs, the wagon overturned and buried John beneath the logs for several hours. For the next few days he drifted in and out of consciousness and was blind. He recovered his sight, but his health was permanently damaged by the accident. Out of his travail he decided to become a priest. He was ordained a priest of the diocese of New York in 1834. He wanted to minister to the victims of a cholera epidemic, but his bishop, recognizing rare ability in the young priest, ordered him to Rome where he studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of the Sapienza. Upon his return to America he was appointed pastor of Saint Joseph’s in Greenwich Village where he served from 1837-1844. Homeless children were a special concern of his while he served as pastor. He also served as the first president of Saint John’s College at Fordham from 1841-42. In 1843 at the age of 33 he was appointed coadjutor Bishop of New York. During this time period he was instrumental in the conversion of Isaac Hecker who eventually became a priest and founded the Paulist Fathers.
He was appointed first bishop of the newly created diocese of Albany in 1847. During his tenure he founded three academies for boys and one for girls, four orphanages, fifteen parochial schools and a seminary. He was instrumental in bringing many religious orders into the diocese. With the death of Archbishop John “Dagger John” Hughes, he was, over his protests of unworthiness and unfitness, appointed the second Archbishop of New York. The type of man he was may be measured by his delivering the opening sermon of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, in spite of being informed just moments before that Saint Patrick’s had been gutted by fire. He rebuilt Saint Patrick’s and in 1870 participated in the First Vatican Council. Pio Nono must have taken note of him, because in 1875 he made him the first American cardinal. The new cardinal attributed his red hat to no merit of his: “Not to my poor merits but to those of the young and already vigorous and most flourishing Catholic Church of America has this honor been given by the Supreme Pontiff. Nor am I unaware that, when the Holy Father determined to confer me this honor he had regard to the dignity of the See of New York, to the merits and devotion of the venerable clergy and numerous laity, and that he had in mind even the eminent rank of this great city and the glorious American nation.”
In 1878 he immediately steamed for Rome when he heard of the death of Pope Pius IX. Arriving too late, despite strenuous efforts, to participate in the conclave, Pope Leo XII ceremonially bestowed his Cardinal’s biretta.
During his 21 years as Archbishop and Cardinal of New York, McCloskey founded 88 parishes, innumerable parochial schools, several charitable societies for children and a hospital for the mentally ill. One of his last major actions before his death, with the help of President Arthur, was to prevent the spoilation of the the Pontifical College of North America by the Italian government.
His death in 1885 was a painful one as his feeble health was in complete decline. He bore it stoically and uncomplainingly. Upon his death all of New York mourned.