Benjamin Franklin and the First American Bishop

Sunday, July 10, AD 2016


That you may long continue to be the blessing of your country, is the wish of all its friends: and that you may not only live to enlighten and better mankind, but continue to do so, with freedom from sickness and pain, is the earnest prayer of, Honoured and Dear Sir Your most devoted and obliged servant, John Carroll

Letter from John Carroll to Benjamin Franklin, April 2, 1787

Rome had a problem.  Prior to the American Revolution the Catholic priests in the thirteen colonies, approximately two dozen in number had been under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Bishop Richard Challoner, Apostolic Vicar of London.  Challoner died on January 12, 1781, at the age of 89.  His successor, Bishop James Talbot, interestingly enough the last priest in England to be tried, twice, for saying Mass (each time he was acquitted due to lack of evidence), disclaimed any jurisdiction of the Church in the new United States.  Something had to be done to set up an organizational structure for the Church in America, although knowledge about the situation of the Church there was rare in Rome.   Fortunately in nearby France there resided an American whose advice might be helpful.

Benjamin Franklin, American Minister to France, by 1783 had reached a pinnacle of international fame that no American before him, and few since, have attained.   It was therefore not surprising that when the Vatican was mulling the establishment of an American episcopate, that the idea was hit upon to ask the advice of Dr. Franklin.  Thus is was that the Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Giuseppe Doria Pamphili addressed a short note to Franklin:

The 23. July 1783.
Before the revolution which has taken place in N. America, the Catholics and missionaries of those provinces depended in spirituals on the apostolic vicar residing at London. It is well known that this arrangement can no longer take place; but as it is essential that the catholic subjects of the united States should have an ecclesiastic to govern them in what concerns religion. The congregation de propaganda fides, for the establishment and preservation of missions, has come to a determination, to propose to Congress to establish in some city of the und. States of North America, one of their catholic Subjects, with the powers of Apostolic Vicar and with the character of Bishop, or simply in character of Apostolic Prefect. The establishment of a Bishop or apostolic vicar appear’d most convenient, in as much as the catholic subjects of the united States would have it in their power to receive confirmation and orders in their own country, without being obliged for this purpose to betake themselves to a Country under foreign domination and as it might as some times happen, that among the subjects of the united States, there might none be found to take on himself spiritual government, whether as a Bishop or apostolic Prefect, it would be necessary in such a Case that Congress should consent to the person they should chuse to it among the subjects of a foreign nation, most friendly to the und. States.

Giuseppe Doria Pamphili

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8 Responses to Benjamin Franklin and the First American Bishop

  • Fascinating. The few Catholics in the 13 states certainly did not have an easy time of it. Massachusetts was still hostile to anything Catholic, including nearby Quebec ( a rivalry that plays out today with the NHL Bruins and Canadiens). Maryland, founded as a refuge for English Catholics, still had anti Catholic laws on its books. There were undoubtedly more Catholics in the Spanish held territory that became part of the US later.
    Not long after these times, a son of a Russian diplomat and a member of the German aristocracy became ordained as a Catholic priest and came to Maryland. From there he was sent to west central Pennsylvania and became known as the Missionary to the Alleghenies….Dimitri Gallitzin. There exists a cause for his canonization.

  • “the last priest in England to be tried, twice, for saying Mass (each time he was acquitted due to lack of evidence)”

    The last prosecution in Scotland for being a priest was of Bishop Hugh MacDonald, Apostolic Visitor of the Highland District. He was tried before the High Court of Justiciary on the 5th of January 1756.

    The indictment bore that “That the pannel was held and repute to be a Jesuit, priest, or trafficking Papist, or had changed his name and surname ; and that these, or part of them, together with his refusing to purge himself of Popery, by taking the formula prescribed by and annexed to the Act, 3 Sess. 8. and 9. Parl. 1, King William III, when it should be tendered to him by any of the Lords of Justiciary, being found proven by the verdict of an assize, he ought to be banished forth of this realm, with certification that if ever he return thereto, being still a Papist, he shall be punished with the pain of death”

    His real offence, in the eyes of government was blessing the Jacobite standard, when Prince Charles Edward raised it at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745.

    Duly convicted and banished, he ignored the sentence and continued to discharge his duties until his death on 12 March 1773. Government knew well where he was, but winked at it.

  • “tried, twice, for saying Mass (each time he was acquitted due to lack of evidence)”

    Yeah, I’ve been to Masses like that…

  • Mr. Paterson-Seymour, my mother is a McLuckie, a Sept family of the grand and noble Clan Lamont, who recognizes as its chief a Catholic priest from Australia.
    My great-great grandfather George McLuckie left Scotland for Western Maryland in 1866.
    It appears that despite their best efforts the Scots never eradicated the Church.

  • Penguin Fan

    Argyll and the Isles, where Clan Lamont had their seat, was one of the great Catholic centres, along with the West Highlands.

    The other main centre was the Gordon lands in Aberdeenshire in the North-East.

    Until after the ’45, government power north of Stirling was negligible; people were Catholic, Episcopalian or Presbyterian by clans. This explains why there were so few Catholic martyrs in Scotland, in contrast to England and Wales.

    The proto martyr was a Father Frank a monk, who was stabbed to death in the sacking of the Trinity Friars monastery in Aberdeen, on 4 December 1559. Next was another monk, a Father Robson about whom there is very little known, who was hanged for saying mass in Glasgow. The third was John Ogilvie, a Jesuit missionary who was badly treated, assaulted and eventually entrapped in an argument about the Pope having power to depose kings. He was convicted of treason and hanged in Glasgow on 28 February 1615. He, too, had been guilty of saying mass. The murder of Cardinal Beaton was purely political.

    The British government treated the Highland clergy with great savagery after the failure of the ’45.
    Of the priests who had accompanied the Prince, Rev Mr Colin Campbell of Morar was murdered on the field of Culloden; unarmed, he was shot down by Hessian mercenaries, whilst trying to rally the fugitives for one last charge. Rev Mr Allan MacDonald, rector of the seminary at Scalan, near Glenlivet was imprisoned for a year in a military garrison and then ordered to leave the country. Scalan itself was burned on the orders of the Duke of Cumberland, as a “nest of traitors.”
    Rev Mr Aeneas McGillis of Glengarry was put to the horn (outlawed) and fled the country.
    Of those who had stayed at home, but had “prayed for the Pretender,” Rev Mr Neil McFie of the Rough Bounds, Rev Mr Alexander Forrester of Uist and Rev Mr James Grant of Barra were bundled on board ship and deported to France, without the formality of a trial.
    Rev Mr William Harrison of the Rough Bounds was later captured carrying Jacobite dispatches and similarly deported.

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  • Oops. Thanks for catching that. I have corrected it.

Fortnight For Freedom Day Eleven: Catholics in the American Revolution

Sunday, July 1, AD 2012

To obtain religious, as well as civil, liberty I entered zealously into the Revolution, and observing the Christian religion divided into many sects, I founded the hope that no one would be so predominant as to become the religion of the State. That hope was thus early entertained, because all of them joined in the same cause, with few exceptions of individuals. God grant that this religious liberty may be preserved in these States, to the end of time, and that all believing in the religion of Christ may practice the leading principle of charity, the basis of every virtue.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence



Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:

On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First,  Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.


Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to  highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic  institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation  with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to  defend our most cherished freedom.


The fourteen days from June  21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to  July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for  freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face  of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the  Church of Rome.  Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our  Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that  would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for  religious liberty.


We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day.  This is the eleventh of these blog posts.

American Catholics, a very small percentage of the population of the 13 colonies, 1.6 percent, were overwhelmingly patriots and played a role in the American Revolution out of all proportion to the small fragment of the American people they represented.  Among the Catholics who assumed leadership roles in the fight for our liberty were:

General Stephen Moylan  a noted cavalry commander and the first Muster Master-General of the Continental Army.

Captains Joshua Barney and John Barry,  two of the most successful naval commanders in the American Revolution.

Colonel John Fitzgerald was a trusted aide and private secretary to General George Washington.

Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of Illinois, whose aid was instrumental in the conquest of the Northwest for America by George Rogers Clark.

Thomas Fitzsimons served as a Pennsylvania militia company commander during the Trenton campaign.  Later in the War he helped found the Pennsylvania state navy.  After the War he was one of the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787

Colonel Thomas Moore led a Philadelphia regiment in the War.

Major John Doyle led a group of elite riflemen during the War.

The list could go on at considerable length.  Figures on how many Catholics served in the Continental Army or the American militias is speculative as records of religious affiliations were not normally kept.  From anecdotal evidence my guess would be at least five percent of the American troops were Catholic, far in excess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

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24 Responses to Fortnight For Freedom Day Eleven: Catholics in the American Revolution

  • Let us not forget the contribution that Spain (then a Catholic country) made in the American cause for independence. The Spanish efforts are usually ignored or forgotten.

    The Spanish Navy kicked Great Britain out of the Mississippi Valley and harassed the British Navy throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea – a fate Great Britain justly deserved for spreading the Black Legend and harassing Spanish shipping for centuries.

    The high society of Havana (yes, there used to be such a thing in Havana) gave Washington and the Continental Army money and supplies.

  • Catholic influence on Washington himself may also be greater than commonly thought. I think a priest was called to his home when he was dying.

  • Jordi Farragut Mesquida, the father of Admiral Farragut of Civil War fame, was an immigrant from Spain. He served in the Revolution as both a naval officer and as a volunteer at the Battle of Cowpens.

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  • I had no idea the Catholic population was so small. I always wondered why there weren’t more among the founders.

  • One of the rebellious colonists’ objections to the Quebec Act (1774) was the protection it afforded to the Catholic Church. Quebeckers did not exatly rush to join the ‘patriots’ in throwing off the intolerable yoke of British government, and Bishop John Carroll was excommunicated by Archbishop Briand of Quebec.

    The founders of the American republic, and the framers of its constitution, were steeped in the Deism and Freemasonry of Enlightenment Europe. This may produce a superficial tolerance, but when push comes to shove is incompatible with Catholicism, as the history of post-Enlightenment Europe demonstrates. What we are seeing now is the logical outcome of the heresy of Americanism condemned by Leo XIII.

  • A rumour says that George Washington converted to the catholic faith on his deathbed, assisted by a jesuit priest. He handed the priest some important documents that would be now in the Vatican archives.
    Probably was he secretly converted since long because some of his protestant guests at Mount Vernon were a bit amazed to see a picture of our Lady in front of a picture of St John the Baptist in his dining room.

  • Jacques: When you entertain men who are courageous enough to die for the truth, all you can give them is the Virgin.

  • A complete myth that Washington converted on his death bed. What went on at Washington’s death bed is well recorded and no conversion to the Faith occurred, and there is no historical evidence, as opposed to after the fact wishful thinking, that he converted at any other time in his life. Let us stick to the historical record please.

  • Complete and total rubbish John. Anti-Catholicism was a tool widely employed by the Brits during the War in an attempt to rouse Loyalist sentiment. It was the patriots who spoke out in favor of tolerance for the Catholics. An element of anti-Catholicism did enter into colonial opposition of the Quebec Act in 1774, but such anti-Catholicism found no support in such leaders of the Revolution as George Washington. In his instructions to General Arnold on September 14, 1775 in the American attempt to liberate Canada from the rule of George III, Washington cautioned him, “I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of the religion of the country, and its ceremonies. Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case they are answerable.”

    Your attack on the Founding Fathers as deists and masons is the usual critique of historically illiterate ultra trads and I am surprised at you stooping to such bilge. The fact is that the Faith flourished under the tolerance installed by the Founding Fathers, and the problems we are encountering now, and which are far worse in Merrie Olde Englande, are a product of contemporary Leftism rather than any defect in the work of the Founders.

  • Katherine Drexel believed he died a Catholic. A biography of Mother Drexel by Ellen Tarry, said she prayed for George Washington’s soul.
    Just because it wasn’t recorded doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The doctors may have been anti catholic, or afraid of ruining his reputation if this deathbed conversion were to be known.
    I can’t go back a personally verify but it is recorded that Washington defended Catholics on Guy Fawkes day, he attended mass, he donated to building a Catholic church in Philly, he visited to Charles Carroll’s home, the slaves who went to get the priest told about it–all these make me think what I think about it– others may think differently.

  • No Don, not complete and total rubbish, but a timely (if deliberately overstated) corrective to the one-sided Yanks-good-Brits-bad view of the American Revolution still too prevalent on this blog. Talk of ‘liberating’ Canada is hilarious; it’s akin to Stalin ‘liberating’ central and eastern Europe. And all this banging on about George III – Britain in the 18th century had cabinet and parliamentary government, and although the king was by no means a figurehead, he did not make policy.

    To say that the US constitution is a product of Enlightenment thought is to state the obvious. Fortunately its authors were at bottom pragmatic and level-headed Englishmen, and as revolutions go, the American one was probably the most beneficial in history. When the hot-headed French tried to apply the same principles after 1789 the result was a total and unmitigated disaster, not least for the Church. Happy Independence Day.

  • She was born almost sixty years after the death of Washington Anzlyne. She could believe whatever she wished to about Washington, but her wishes do not alter the historical record and that is what we deal in here.

  • “Talk of ‘liberating’ Canada is hilarious; it’s akin to Stalin ‘liberating’ central and eastern Europe.”

    More rubbish John. A fair example of what French Canadians would do absent a British garrison was illustrated in 1777-1778 in the Illinois country where they eagerly joined with George Rogers Clark to drive out the Brits and aided him in his capture of Fort Vincennes. King George determined every step of British policy in America, and maintained the War to crush America, a War which was largely unpopular among the British people, until even he had to recognize reality after Yorktown.

    “To say that the US constitution is a product of Enlightenment thought is to state the obvious.”

    The Declaration owes more to the Enlightenment than does the Constitution which was much more a result of American experience in colonial times, the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation. The Declaration is the poetry of the American soul and the Constitution is the prose.

    “Happy Independence Day.”

    Thank you John. A God Save the Queen, who my sainted mother dearly loved, back at you!

  • The pictures of our Lady and St John the Baptist were recorded on the belongings inventory after George Washington died.
    This is a strong clue regarding his secret conversion to the catholic faith probably a long time before his death.

  • Not at all. Washington received constant gifts from admirers in the United States and around the world. The paintings may be among such gifts. In any case such paintings would not have been unusual possessions for an Anglican which is what Washington was. There is zero evidence that Washington ever converted to the Faith.

  • Don, why do the Canadians, the vast majority of whom live within 250 miles of the US border, want to preserve their independence and allegiance to the Crown rather than throw in their lot with the almighty Republic to the south? This is despite the fact that unlike Oz and NZ they drive on the wrong side of the road and don’t play cricket.

    Obviously, it was to everyone’s benefit that the US won the Cold War and the Soviets lost. But The US, being the only superpower, needs to realize that its imperial hegemony (as was Britain’s in the 19th century) is the result of a single-minded pursuit of national interest, even at the expense of its allies.

  • “Don, why do the Canadians, the vast majority of whom live within 250 miles of the US border, want to preserve their independence and allegiance to the Crown rather than throw in their lot with the almighty Republic to the south?”

    Because of 1776. The English portion of Canada was reinforced to a large extent by defeated loyalists who settled there and took on the name of United Empire Loyalists. Their hostility to the United States became one of the elments in the foundation of Canada.

    “But The US, being the only superpower, needs to realize that its imperial hegemony (as was Britain’s in the 19th century) is the result of a single-minded pursuit of national interest, even at the expense of its allies.”

    Nations rarely act in disinterested altruism, and when they do they usually reap only scorn and sorrow as their reward. Defeating the totalitarian idealogies of the last century was obviously to the benefit of the US and it obviously also benefited people around the globe. The foreign policy of the US is most successful when it combines elements of self interest and altruism. When it departs from either factor, it usually comes a cropper.

  • Don, you don’t need to be reminded that if Her Majesty’s other realms (Oz, NZ etc) decided to go republican Canada would not, despite that the French Canadians are more French than the French. That is entirely due to the almighty republic to the south which has

  • [Forget the last comment, which was left hanging and posted in error.] If it were just 1776, then one would imagine it would not mean much nowadays. But national identity is often fuelled by aggressive neighbours – Poland is a prime example. The French revolutionary armies rampaged through the peaceful German Rhenish towns imposing liberty, equality and fraternity – ou la mort; with portable guillotines in their baggage. Capital punishment was quite rare in the German states at that time. The extent to which Americans contributed to the French Revolution is a matter of debate, but ideas are exportable, and although I would entirely agree that the American revolution was on balance a ‘good thing’ (to quote Sellars and Yeatman) the same cannot be said for later revolutions based on its example.

  • “King George determined every step of British policy in America …” How, pray, did he do this? He didn’t attend Cabinet meetings (his great-grandfather was the last monarch to do so). The problem with you republicans is that you take ancient Roman models as an ideal (Enlightenment conceit again, yawn). No wonder a lot of American Catholics want to break away from Rome. Too monarchical by half.

  • George III set government policy John by controlling Parliament through corruption and preferment. He set the policies of his governments up to the conclusion of the Revolution on all major questions, a situation often decried by British politicians during his reign. When he met John Adams after the War, the first American ambassador, George III noted:

    “I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power. The moment I see such sentiments and language as yours prevail, and a disposition to give to this country the preference, that moment I shall say, let the circumstances of language, religion, and blood have their natural and full effect.”

    The attempt to portray George III as some sort of detached figurehead of a monarch is risible. He was head of state in reality as well as in title. The disaster of the American Revolution helped change that as well as George III’s growing madness.

  • The problem with you republicans is that you take ancient Roman models as an ideal (Enlightenment conceit again, yawn).

    Oh goodie, is Morning’s Minion commenting here again?

  • Oh! the 18th century was besotted with classical models. As Thiers sardonically remarked, “we who, after having been Athenians with Voltaire, tried for a while to be Spartans under the Convention, ended by becoming soldiers of Caesar under Napoleon.”