Number 3 of my series on great Jesuits of American history.
A year before the colonies won their fight for independence, John McElroy first saw the light of day in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, Ireland on May 11,1782. At this time English imposed penal laws meant that Irish Catholics were treated like helots in their own land. The great Edmund Burke described the penal laws well:
“For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
As a result of these laws McElroy could receive little education in Ireland. Ambition and a thirst for knowledge caused him, like many Irish Catholics before and since, to emigrate to the US, landing on our shores in 1803. He became a bookkeeper at Georgetown College, studying Latin in his off hours. In 1806 he joined the Jesuits as a lay brother, but his intelligence and his industry quickly marked him down to his Jesuit superiors as a candidate for the priesthood. Ordained in 1817 , for several years he served at Trinity Church in Georgetown, until being transferred to Frederick, Maryland, where, during the next twenty-three years, with the boundless energy which was his hallmark, he built Saint John’s Church, a college, an orphan’s asylum, and the first free schools in Frederick. He was then transferred back to Trinity in Georgetown where he remained for a year until the Mexican War began.