Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church.
Pope Leo XIII on John Carroll, first Bishop in the United States
From the beginning of our Republic, American Catholics were at the forefront of the battle to free America from British rule and to enshrine a commitment to liberty in our founding documents. The remarkable Carroll family of Maryland was at the head of this effort by American Catholics. Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence. His cousin Daniel Carroll signed both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Daniel Carroll’s younger brother John Carroll, was the first bishop in the United States of America.
Born on January 8, 1735 in Maryland, he went abroad to study in Flanders and France, joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1769. With the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, he returned to his native Maryland as a missionary priest. A patriot, he served on a diplomatic mission to Canada for the Continental Congress in 1776. During the War he continued his efforts as a missionary priest, along with efforts to persuade the new states to remove disabilities from Catholics in their new state constitutions. He was ever an advocate for religious freedom:
When men comprehend not, or refuse to admit the luminous principles on which the rights of conscience and liberty of religion depend, they are industrious to find out pretences for intolerance. If they cannot discover them in the actions, they strain to cull them out of the tenets of the religion which they wish to exclude from a free participation of equal rights. Thus this author attributes to his religion the merit of being the most favorable to freedom, and affirms that not only morality but liberty likewise must expire, if his clergy should ever be contemned or neglected: all which conveys a refined insinuation, that liberty cannot consist with, or be cherished by any other religious institution; and which therefore he would give us to understand, it is not safe to countenance in a free government.
I am anxious to guard against the impression intended by such insinuations; not merely for the sake of any one profession, but from an earnest regard to preserve inviolate for ever, in our new empire, the great principle of religious freedom. The constitutions of some of the States continue still to intrench on the sacred rights of conscience; and men who have bled, and opened their purses as freely in the cause of liberty and independence, as any other citizens, are most unjustly excluded from the advantages which they contributed to establish. But if bigotry and narrow prejudice have prevented hitherto the cure of these evils, be it the duty of every lover of peace and justice to extend them no further. Let the author who has opened this field for discussion, be aware of slyly imputing to any set of men, principles or consequences, which they disavow. He perhaps may meet with retaliation. He may be told and referred to Lord Lyttleton, as zealous a Protestant as any man of his days, for information, that the principles of non-reistence seemed the principles of that religion which we are not told is most favorable to freedom; and that its opponents had gone too far in the other extreme!
On June 6, 1784 he was appointed by the Pope as superior of the missions in the United States. On November 6, 1789, he was appointed by the Pope as Bishop, after being elected to the post by American priests, a procedure previously approved by the Pope.
In Baltimore, Bishop Carroll proved popular among both Protestants and Catholics as both an ardent American patriot and an ardent Catholic. In 1808 he became Archbishop in the United States with suffragan sees in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown. He died on December 3, 1815, having accomplished the huge task of transforming the Church in America from a mission into thriving and growing part of the Catholic Church. A Baltimore paper marked his death with this observation: In him religion assumed its most attractive and amiable form, and his character conciliated for the body over which he presided, respect and consideration from the liberal, the enlightened of all ranks and denominations; for they saw that his life accorded with the benign doctrines of that religion which he professed. In controversy he was temperate yet compelling, considerate yet uncompromising.
Upon the death of his good friend George Washington, Bishop Carroll preached a eulogy in his memory that became quite famous at the time, and was printed and reprinted, detailing Washington’s role in establishing the independence and liberty of the United States. In this passage he recalled a statement in Washington’s farewell address that we should all recall:
The last act of his supreme magistracy was to inculcate in most impressive language on his countrymen, or rather on his dearest children, this, his deliberate and solemn advice; to bear incessantly in their minds, that nations and individuals are under the moral government of an infinitely wise and just providence; that the foundations of their happiness are morality and religion; and their union amongst themselves their rock of safety: that to venerate their constitution and its laws is to ensure their liberty.