Archbishop Ireland: Builder of the Midwest

Tall and somewhat stocky in his later years, John Ireland, a square-jawed son of Irish immigrants, became bishop and then archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, during the late 19th century. He was influential in Church affairs in the upper Midwest, throughout the United States, and even in Europe for more than 50 years, until his death in 1918. By all accounts, he was not only a man of great vision, resolve, and personal magnetism but also a skilled orator who could give a sermon or speech in the elaborate French he had learned during his seminary years in France.

He is best remembered for several achievements: his lifelong crusade for temperance, his early and staunch support for the founding of the Catholic University of America (CUA), his establishment of the St. Paul Diocesan Seminary and the College (now University) of St. Thomas, and the construction of two edifices, the imposing Cathedral of St. Paul and the graceful Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The cathedral sits on a bluff overlooking downtown St. Paul and the state capitol building. A long, double boulevard, appropriately called John Ireland Boulevard, stretches down from this spiritual center to the government center. Across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is the Basilica of St. Mary. The first to be built in the nation, it was almost lost not too many years ago to an ever-encroaching freeway system.

Across the Atlantic

John was born in Burnchurch, County Kilkenny, on September 11, 1838, to Richard Ireland and Judith Naughton. He was the eldest of four children. There was one other sibling, a half-sister who had been born to Richard during his first marriage.

It is said that Richard was an intense, intelligent, and somewhat stern man with little formal education. When he spoke of issues about which he felt strongly, he did so with deep conviction. If the occasion permitted, he would pace and gesticulate in a rather hurried and impetuous way. He apparently loved to tell stories to his children about Irish heroes and heroines—the famed Celtic kings, queens, knights, and ladies of old. All the children in the Ireland family remembered these tales and would reminisce about them when they were older. The mother, who liked to be called Julia, was more light-hearted but also deeply religious.

The Irelands had a 20-acre tenant farm that they rented and cultivated. Richard also worked as a carpenter. The Irelands were better off than most other Irish families at the time who barely had one or two acres.

Nonetheless, tragedy loomed on the horizon. Just as John was growing up, the great famine years of 1845-1848 struck the Emerald Isle. During this fateful time, the whole of Ireland was brought to its knees, with mass starvation and horrendous disease raging everywhere. Nearly one-third of the population perished. The accounts of this Irish famine are disturbingly similar to what we read about today in Africa and other parts of the world.

Richard saw the writing on the wall. When his sister and brother-in-law died in the early stages of the famine, their orphaned children went to live with the Irelands. Suddenly, there was a household of nine young mouths to feed and little or no food to be had. Richard weighed the options and decided to risk the transatlantic voyage to North America. He went ahead with an unmarried sister and one of the orphaned nephews. All three landed safely in Montreal, Canada, sometime in late 1848 or early 1849. Conditions for recently arrived Irish immigrants in Montreal were awful, so they decided to cross the border into Burlington, Vermont. It was there that Richard was able to find some work. He then sent for his wife and the remaining children, who set sail a few months later.

In Chapter 1 of Marvin R. O’Connell’s excellent biography, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church, there is a description of what those voyages were like:

The Atlantic voyage of the emigrant ships took about five weeks and testimony abounds that it was a hideous experience (how hideous for a peasant woman [Judith Naughton Ireland] in charge of nine children, one an infant, can hardly be exaggerated). Only seven pounds of food were provided for the passengers, and the drinking water often grew putrid within a few days of departure. Unscrupulous masters and brokers routinely sold more space than ships possessed; one ship, for example, had 36 berths to accommodate 260 persons. Most of the vessels used by the fleeing Irish were merchantmen with no passenger berths at all; men, women and children were indiscriminately packed into the holds like bales of cotton or like the African slaves of a generation earlier, without adequate air or light or sanitary facilities. The Irish emigrant ships were floating cesspools, and dysentery and cholera killed one in five who sailed on them. American customs officers upon boarding one such vessel discovered pigs and people lying together on deck in “filth and feculent matter.”

Beginning of the Seminary

Somehow Judith and the nine children survived the journey, and the whole family was reunited in Burlington. The transatlantic trip must have had quite an impact on John, who at the time, most records indicate, was ten going on eleven.

After spending roughly two years in New England, Richard was still unsatisfied by the prospects for his family and took all of them to Chicago. There, he ran into a fellow Irishman, Thomas O’Gorman, Sr., who had also emigrated from County Kilkenny with his wife and four children. Both families consolidated their resources and proceeded by foot and wagon to Galena, Illinois. From there, they caught the steamboat Nominee up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, arriving in spring 1852, six years before Minnesota was to become a state. According to a local newspaper, The Minnesota Democrat, “‘Two respectable and intelligent Irish families’ had arrived in their new home in St. Paul.” Keep in mind that St. Paul in the 1850s was a rough-and-tough frontier town of dirt streets and approximately 1,500 inhabitants, many of whom were French-speaking fur trappers and traders. There was also a Sioux Indian settlement not too far away on the river. It was a colorful and interesting place for young John. Richard hurriedly built what really was not more than a wooden shack, and both families lived there briefly. Sometime later, the two families moved, each into a larger, more comfortable home. The Irelands’ home was located on Pearl Street. John was sent that autumn to the newly opened Catholic cathedral school for boys.

There, as the story goes, the first bishop of St. Paul, a French-born missionary named Joseph Cretin, spied two promising young lads on the playground, John and O’Gorman, and offered to send them to France to the minor and then major seminaries. The parents agreed and the boys were sent on September 20, 1853, with a chapter-one to the continent, again, only a year and a half after both families had arrived in St. Paul. If you don’t believe in the power of prayer, listen to how O’Gorman recalled the incident: “[Bishop] Cretin led [us] into the church, placed [our] hands on the altar and said: ‘I put you under the protection of God and His Blessed Mother. You are the beginning of my diocesan seminary, the first seminarians of St. Paul.”

Temperance Movement

Bishop Cretin’s prayer to Our Lady was generously answered because both boys not only went on to become priests but also influential bishops, each in his own right. Both completed their seminary studies in France. During the rest of his life, John always referred fondly to his years in France, especially the ones spent at the minor seminary in Meximieux. He returned to St. Paul and was ordained in December 1861. Bishop Cretin had died four years earlier, so he did not witness the ordination of his protégé seminarian.

Only three months after his ordination, Fr. Ireland was sent off again to serve as chaplain to the Union troops from Minnesota in the American Civil War. His tour lasted ten months, and he returned to St. Paul. There, he lived at the cathedral parish with the second bishop of St. Paul, Thomas Langdon Grace, and four other priests. At the time, the diocese was still very much a missionary one, so the young priest traveled throughout the state to other mission churches and parishes. Gradually, he became more occupied with responsibilities at the cathedral: Masses, administration of the sacraments, organizing parish excursions, coordinating Sunday evening lecture series, and preparing his sermons. He was meticulous about his sermons and always memorized them. Preaching became one of his legendary hallmarks. Fr. Ireland had a natural gift of oratory and a strong, resonant voice capable of being heard in any church or hall. He also spoke with great conviction and utmost sincerity. Often, like his father, he added dramatic flair and would gesture with his hands.

Early on as a parish priest, Fr. Ireland became interested in the temperance movement, eventually becoming involved nationally and internationally. He decided from the beginning that there would be no halfway measures about his position and that the only way was total abstinence for those who chronically abused alcohol. He had seen what the ravages of alcohol abuse could do among the Irish pioneer settlers in the saloons on Minnesota Street in St. Paul, and he remained firm in his resolve. He had also heard stories from Bishop Cretin and Bishop Mathias Loras of Dubuque, Iowa, about how serious the problems of alcoholism were among the white settlers and Indians in the upper Midwest. Moreover, as a boy of barely seven, Fr. Ireland had, on one occasion, accompanied Fr. Theobald Matthew, the Irish crusader well-known for temperance. Young as he was, he had taken the pledge. In 1869, Fr. Ireland decided to found the Father Matthew Society of St. Paul, dedicated to encouraging, with divine assistance, abstinence from alcohol and to providing temporal relief for its members. In essence, this temperance organization had some of the very same elements prevalent today in Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1873, Fr. Ireland attended the national convention of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America and was elected its first vice president. During the remainder of his life, Fr. Ireland worked tirelessly and unceasingly for the temperance movement.

Prelate and Patriot

The years passed and the aging Bishop Grace began to count more on Fr. Ireland. Finally, the bishop recommended the hard-working, eloquent priest as a candidate for a bishopric, and in 1875, Pope Pius IX named Fr. Ireland the first coadjutor bishop of St. Paul. When Bishop Grace retired due to ill health in 1884, Fr. Ireland became bishop and, ultimately, archbishop in 1888, when the diocese was elevated to arch- diocesan status.

From the beginning, Archbishop Ireland played a large role in the Church and national affairs. On many occasions throughout his life, he expounded on his great love for the Catholic Church and for the United States. As both a prelate and a patriot who was imbued with the boldness of the pioneering spirit, he reflected on these two great loves frequently. It was at the Third Plenary Council held in Baltimore, Maryland, in November and December 1884 that Archbishop Ireland gave a famous talk entitled “The Church—The Support of Just Government:’ In it, he highlighted his two loves:

I love too deeply the Catholic Church and the American Republic not to be ever ready to labor that the relations of one with the other be not misunderstood. It is true, the choicest field which providence offers in the world today to the occupancy of the Church is this republic, and she welcomes with delight the signs of the times that indicate a glorious future for her beneath the starry banner. But it is true, also, the surest safeguards for her own life and prosperity the republic will find in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the more America acknowledges those teachings, the more durable will her civil institutions be made.

These are the words of a prelate and a patriot. Furthermore, they are the words of one completely convinced of the lasting strengths of Judeo-Christian values and imbued with the fervor of the pioneering spirit.

In the years surrounding the turn of the century, Archbishop Ireland traveled and lectured extensively for Church matters in the United States, Italy, England, Ireland, and France. He was involved in controversial debates: the philosophical and pedagogical underpinnings at the Catholic University of America, the powers of bishops over religious orders in their dioceses, the linguistic issue in ethnic parishes in the United States, and the state versus parish/parishioner funding of Catholic parochial schools. His travels and broad interests brought him in contact with great leaders of the Church and society; among them were Popes Leo XIII and Pius X; Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft; Cardinals Rampolla and Gibbons; Prince Albert of Belgium; entrepreneurs James J. Hill, Henry Ford, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller; and writers Francis Marion Crawford, Julia Ward Howe, Shane Leslie, and Oscar Wilde. At one particularly important juncture in American history, Archbishop Ireland participated directly in behind-the-scenes negotiations in a vain attempt to avert the Spanish-American War of 1898. When, in spite of everything, the war broke out, he was deeply disappointed.

Education Endeavors

One of Ireland’s great abiding interests was education, an interest borne out by the many educational projects he wholeheartedly embarked on during his lifetime.

Initial talk about the need for one of these projects, CUA, had actually come from Bishop Grace. Later, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria gave the project its first tangible impetus. James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop Ireland, Bishop John Joseph Keane of Baltimore, and others followed soon after. There was, however, a fair amount of resistance from other members of the clergy, such as Bishop Corrigan of New York and the American Jesuits, especially those at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

To further the cause, Archbishop Ireland and Bishop Keane went to Rome in 1886 and 1887 to present Pope Leo XIII with a petition for pontifical approval vis-a-vis the founding of CUA. When Cardinal Gibbons became disheartened because of ongoing resistance at home and abroad, and wanted to abandon the project, it was Arch-bishop Ireland who refused to back down. His perseverance paid off, and on April 10, 1887, approval was granted by Leo XIII. The first cornerstone was laid in Washington, D.C., one year later. It is interesting to note that Archbishop Ireland proposed calling the university the Catholic University of America, instead of what it was to have been called—The National Catholic School of Philosophy and Theology.

Two other educational endeavors that Archbishop Ireland undertook with great enthusiasm were the conversion in 1885 of an industrial school for boys into the St. Thomas Seminary and School (now a thriving coeducational Catholic institution of higher learning called the University of St. Thomas) and the founding in 1894 of the St. Paul Diocesan Seminary. For this project, he persuaded James J. Hill, the famous railroad baron of the Northwest, to donate a princely sum of $500,000. The monies went into the design, construction, and endowment fund for the seminary.

Archbishop Ireland concerned himself personally with many of the day-to-day details connected with the building and opening of the seminary. Over the years, he kept in close contact with both institutions and loved to drop in for unexpected visits to the classrooms. Sometimes, he would even take over the class and teach a mini-session on one of the classic writers—Cicero, Virgil, and Horace were his favorites—and would then quote lengthy passages of their writings from memory. He also liked to visit the College of St. Catherine, a school for women founded by his sister, Ellen Ireland, Mother Seraphim of the Josephite order. He also helped her with fund-raising, and once again, as in the case of CUA, he was responsible for the naming of this college, this time in honor of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Bricks and Mortar

During the latter part of his years as archbishop, he turned his efforts to other areas: the building of a cathedral and basilica and the founding of the St. Paul Catholic Historical Society and its prestigious journal, Acta et Dicta. He also published several articles on Catholic historical topics, and three of his four books were published during this period. Although the books are out-of-print, they bear mentioning: Mathias Loras, the First Bishop of Dubuque; Patriotism, Its Duty and Value; America and France; and The Church and Modern Society.

When Archbishop Ireland was in his mid-60s, a point in life when most individuals think of retiring or slowing down, he began the extremely ambitious construction of two impressive churches in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He assembled a building committee that consisted of the leading and influential members of the community. The Cathedral of St. Paul was started in 1906, and construction on the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis began a year later. Main construction for both churches was finished in 1915. Both edifices were designed by the French-born Catholic architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, who had been living and working in St. Louis, Missouri. After being contracted as the architect of these two edifices, Masqueray came to live in St. Paul, but tragically in 1917, he died unexpectedly of a uremic attack on a streetcar. The Cathedral of St. Paul was built in a neoclassical Renaissance style, and the Basilica of St. Mary was done in what is called beaux-arts style.

The ground plan of the Cathedral of St. Paul is in the form of a Greek cross with nearly equal arms. The overall dimensions are quite grand: 306/2 feet high, 307 feet long, and 216 feet wide. It is topped off by an impressive, gray-green copper dome that can be seen from quite a distance when the sun is setting over the city. The striking silhouette of the cathedral dominates the entire skyline of the city. Inside, surrounding the sanctuary, are the six shrines of the nations; five are dedicated to the patron saints of the French, German, Slavic, Irish, and Italian ethnic groups that settled the area and one to the patroness of missions, Therese of Liseux.

The Basilica of St. Mary, on the other hand, has an interesting detail in its interior that consists of the twelve apostles standing watch over the sanctuary grillwork. These statues are exact replicas, done to half-scale, of those found in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

In 1915, when Archbishop Ireland said the first Mass at 6:00 a.m. on Palm Sunday, the cathedral was filled with more than 3,000 faithful. Tears came to his eyes as he turned to face the congregation. Much still needed to be completed: The walls were bare, and the stained-glass windows, statuary, mosaics, and other decor had yet to be installed. But the cathedral had opened its doors. It was not until 1927 that an Ernest Skinner organ was installed behind the altar in the sanctuary, and later, in 1963, another Aeolian-Skinner organ was installed in the choir loft. At the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, it was much the same situation; main construction had been completed also in 1915, which allowed the first Mass to be celebrated just a few months after the first Mass at the cathedral. Both are impressive churches, and the project to finance and build either one of them would have been a daunting one at best. Archbishop Ireland undertook both at the same time—a testimony to his incredible drive and vision. Now, some 85 years later, the cathedral and the basilica, in spite of shifting demographics to the suburbs, continue to be extremely active and vibrant parishes much loved by the Catholic faithful of the Minneapolis–St. Paul area.

History Proves

In the three years following the opening of the cathedral and the basilica, Archbishop Ireland began to slow down. He traveled much less, staying most of the time in his archdiocese. During the last year of his life, arteriosclerosis began to take a heavy toll on his health, confining him to a wheelchair. Doctors felt he should get away from the rigors of the Minnesota winter, so in failing health, he spent the winter of 1918 in St. Augustine, Florida. He returned to St. Paul in springtime and continued to languish over the summer, unable to regain his strength. In September, he took a dramatic turn for the worse and died on September 25, 1918. A funeral Mass was celebrated by Bishop O’Gorman, his friend and childhood playmate of long ago, on October 2, 1918, at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The cathedral was filled to over-flowing. Condolences and tributes poured in from all over the globe, such as from President Theodore Roosevelt:

I mourn the death of Archbishop Ireland. He was a great patriot as well as a great churchman. Personally, he was an old and valued friend, and, moreover, when with him I felt as though I were in the company of a great ecclesiastical statesman of the old type in point of ability, and yet abreast of modern American thought. His death is a great loss.

James Cardinal Gibbons said:

The last Prelate who has descended below the horizon of the tomb was the Venerable Patriarch of the West, the great Apostle of temperance, the sturdy Patriot who had endeared himself to the American people without distinction of race or religion, the man who contributed perhaps more than any other to demonstrate the harmony that exists between the Constitution of the Church and the Constitution of the United States. Needless to say, I am speaking of John Ireland, the Lion of the fold of Judah.

During the 80 years of his life, Archbishop Ireland witnessed and played a key role in the tremendous growth of the American Catholic Church. Were he around today, he would be quite saddened by the current state of moral affairs in our nation, but he would probably be in the thick of important debates, offering what history would prove to be, in most instances, extremely sound advice.

Author’s note: A special thanks to Michaelene H. Zawistowski and John B. Davenport for their suggestions and materials for this article. Aside from O’Connell’s work on John Ireland, I also used material from another excellent out-of-print biography entitled The Life of Archbishop John Ireland by James H. Moynihan, New York: Harpers, 1953.


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

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