AlumniHall of HonorInductees H - P /  John Cardinal McCloskey

John Cardinal McCloskey

First President (Rector), Fordham Prep & University (1841-3)
Archbishop of New York
College of Cardinals
First American Cardinal

When John McCloskey was brought to be baptized on May 6, 1810 by the Rev. Benedict Joseph Fenwick, SJ at Old St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, he arrived by boat. John’s parents, Patrick McCloskey and Elizabeth Harron (or Hassen) McCloskey had settled in Brooklyn after they arrived from County Derry, Ireland, and Brooklyn did not yet have any Catholic churches. And so, every Sunday, the family would walk down to a beach on the Brooklyn side and row across the East River to attend Mass. In those days, the only other Roman Catholic church in the area was Old St. Patrick’s between Mulberry and Mott Streets.

Unlike so many Irish immigrants of the 19th century, the McCloskeys were fairly well-to-do and belonged to a well-educated family of successful farmers, doctors, lawyers and priests. John’s parents had married in 1808 at Derry Cathedral before crossing the Atlanttic. In America, his father held a well-paying position as a clerk for H.B. Pierrepont and Company.

After learning his letters from his mother — and no doubt his prayers — young Johnny entered a local private school located on Red Hook Lane, eventually moving to a select boarding school for boys in Brooklyn at the intersection of Carroll, Clinton and Henry Streets that was run by a retired British actress and convert to Catholicism. Later in life, McCloskey, who was noted for his distinct enunciation, would credit his old teacher, Mrs. Charlotte Milmoth, for his early training as a speaker.

In 1817, the family moved to Manhattan where John would start at the Latin School, and where the headmaster would deem him an extraordinarily bright pupil and would promise the McCloskeys that he would make their blue-eyed son a lawyer, or as he put it, “the ornament of the New York Bar.”

Upon the death of her husband in 1821, John’s mother moved her family to Bedford, New York — John McCloskey had two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. Shortly thereafter, arrangements were made for John to travel to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to study at Mount St. Mary’s College — in those days, a college education was seen as a single continuous program beginning with what we now call the middle school level. He was advanced in his studies, but his physical health was not robust. As noted in his biography, during his years at the Mount he distinguished himself not only intellectually, but by his poise, charm, modest demeanor and mild manner. Indeed, eloquence, tranquility, humility and a gentle, imperturbable resolve would be that traits that characterized the future archbishop throughout his extraordinarily productive career.

When young John started at Mount St. Mary’s, there was a priest teaching Latin and math and overseeing the study hall who is today a fellow member of the Prep Hall of Honor. In 1838, that instructor became bishop and then archbishop of New York and would became known in some quarters as “Dagger John” on account his fierce determination to win Catholics — Irish Catholics in particular — an equal footing in this country. The priest, of course, was none other than John Hughes, who on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in 1841 founded St. John’s College in Fordham, New York, what we now call Fordham University and Fordham Prep.

After finishing his studies in Maryland in 1826, John moved back with his mother in Bedford, undecided about what course his life should take. In the summer of 1827, driving a fully loaded wagon with little or no experience, he had an accident, and the oxcart overturned on him. He had life-threatening injuries from which he would never fully recover. It was during his slow recuperation that he discerned his vocation to the priesthood, dashing the hope of his former headmaster that he would be “an ornament of the New York Bar.”

McCloskey was ordained in the Diocese of New York in 1834, making him the first native New Yorker to become a priest. After his ordination, he was appointed professor of philosophy at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Nyack-on-the-Hudson, New York. McCloskey’s opening remarks to his first students on their first day of class, as preserved in his notes:

The study on which you now enter is one of a far higher nature than any which you have hitherto pursued. No longer the learning of idioms, or languages, the flower of rhetoric, the beauties of imagination, the brilliant flashes of genius, as charming as in the harmonious strains of poetry, or convincing, persuading and delighting as in the fervid glow of oratory; but it is the study of ourselves, the study also of Him who gave us existence, endowed us with reason and intelligence. Not that other studies are unimportant. No, they are the avenues, pleasant at times, at others rugged, which conduct you to the groves of philosophy.

A fire destroyed the seminary a year later, and so, McCloskey’s superiors sent him to Rome, thinking he might benefit from the warmer climate as he pursued additional study. After returning from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1837, he was made pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village where he is said to have had a special concern for homeless children.

When Fordham Prep and University were founded together in 1841, Bishop John Hughes appointed his former student, Fr. John McCloskey, to be its first rector, or president. That Hughes gave McCloskey the responsibility to get the new college up and running says much of Dagger John’s estimation of him. Few details of McCloskey’s time at Rose Hill still remain, but it is known that he was present on June 24, 1841 when the first six Fordham students arrived for a preliminary summer session before a full contingency of about fifty young men arrived for the start of Fordham’s first official school year that September. Formally, he would have been known as Rev. Dr. McCloskey, but it is likely that the boys called him Father Rector, as was the custom of the day.  

Among his first faculty appointments were Fr. Ambrose Manahan for Greek and mathematics, Fr. Felix Vilanis for moral philosophy and Hebrew, Fr. John Conroy for Latin and Fr. Edward O’Neil for physics and chemistry. Mr. John Harley, a seminarian, taught bookkeeping and served as the school’s first prefect of discipline, or dean. And finally, Fr. Bernard Llaneza taught Spanish, Mr. J. J. Maximillian Oertel, German, and Mr. MacDonald (no first name recoded), French. McCloskey himself taught rhetoric and literature.

Two of McCloskey’s friendships during his tenure at Rose Hill are worth noting. As recorded in her biography, during her first year at Fordham, fellow Hall of Honor member Sr. Basilia McCann “received the grace of friendship with McCloskey.” Much planning and economizing were needed to keep Hughes’ school open, and McCann, heading the Domestic Department, was in a position to help curb the institution’s expenditures — Father Rector’s right-hand woman, as it were.  Another of his close associates was an Episcopalian priest named James Roosevelt Bayley, who visited Fordham often during McCloskey’s time for long afternoons of theological discussion. Converting to Catholicism, James Bayley, the nephew of none other than St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, was ultimately ordained as a Catholic priest and served as Fordham’s third president and final diocesan president before the arrival of the Jesuits in 1846. 

In 1843, McCloskey returned full-time to St. Joseph’s, and was appointed coadjutor bishop under Hughes about a year later. In 1847, he became the first bishop of the newly established Diocese of Albany, where the 60,000 Catholic residents were said to be “scattered and poor.” He quadrupled the number of churches there, tripled the number of priests, established numerous academies, parochial schools, orphanages and a seminary, and built the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. 

In May 1864, John McCloskey was appointed the second archbishop of New York after the death of Archbishop Hughes. It was an office he accepted reluctantly, writing to friends for help in avoiding the appointment: “I speak only from the deepest sincerity of heart and from the strongest conviction of conscience when I say that I possess neither the learning, nor prudence, nor energy, nor firmness, nor bodily health or strength which are requisite for…the Archbishop of New York.“ The Holy See disagreed. McCloskey would serve in that position for the remaining 21 years of his life.

It is no wonder that McCloskey resisted the appointment to head the Church in New York — anti-Catholic sentiment was rife; the controversy over the New York Church’s position on abolition was beginning to boil over; there was discord between the various immigrant Catholic communities; and there were the financial demands of pastoring and caring for the area’s rapidly expanding Catholic population. There was also the matter of completing the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue begun by his predecessor. Despite his earlier protests that he was not up to these tasks, Archbishop McCloskey handled all of these with skill, grace and aplomb. In addition, he more than doubled the number of priests in the archdiocese, increased the number of churches and chapels threefold, saw to the establishment of parochial schools, children’s charities and a hospital for the mentally ill, and even rebuilt Old St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street after fire consumed the original structure in 1866.

In 1870, he participated in the First Vatican Council.

McCloskey was created a cardinal on March 15, 1875, making New York’s first native-born priest America’s first cardinal as well. At his investiture at Old St. Patrick’s on April 27th of that year. McCloskey would make the following remark:

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 upon 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, upon the death of Pope Pius IX, His Eminence, John Cardinal McCloskey would become the first American prelate eligible to participate in a papal conclave. He set off for Rome, but travel being what it was in those days, he arrived too late to vote. Nonetheless, the newly elected Pope Leo XIII took the opportunity of Cardinal McCloskey’s visit to Rome to bestow upon him ceremonially the red hat of the cardinalate on March 28th of that year.

John Cardinal McCloskey died on October 10, 1885. He passed away peacefully clutching a crucifix. Present were his private secretary, Msgr. John Farley (later a cardinal himself and McCloskey’s biographer) as well as his three beloved nieces. He is interred under the main altar at St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue.

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