THE FAMINE AND THE CHURCH
Timothy J. Meagher, Archivist
Catholic University of America
The memories of Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-49) would echo through Irish and Irish American history. Many Famine exiles turned their energies to building up the Catholic Church in America. Indeed, the power and influence of such Famine survivors in American Catholicism was remarkable.
Just a rough count reveals that at least 16 of the 89 bishops of the United States in 1890 had grown up in Ireland during the Famine. The first three rectors of the Catholic University of America, John J. Keane, later Archbishop of Dubuque; Thomas J. Conaty, later Bishop of Los Angeles; and Denis O’Connell, later Bishop of Richmond, had also grown up in Ireland during some or all of those bleak Famine years.
This group of Famine survivors among the Catholic Church’s hierarchy also included the two most important and powerful men in the American church at that time, or at any time in its history, for that matter: Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and Catholic University’s first chancellor, and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul. John Ireland was 8 years old when the Famine hit his native Kilkenny. Hunger and disease carried off his aunt and uncle, forcing his parents to take in a brood of young cousins. Eventually, Ireland’s family, the cousins included, emigrated to America.
Gibbons suffered even more from the Famine’s havoc. His father, Thomas, died from Famine fever in 1847. and two years later Gibbons sister also died. Young James was so distraught at her death he refused to eat for several days.
How did these paragons of the American church remember the Famine? John Ireland did his best to forget – at least publicly. America and the future, not Ireland and its past, became his passion.
Gibbons, too, loved America, but he did not forget the Famine. For Gibbons the Famine could only be understood as part of God’s “mysterious providence.” To him, “the Famine had been sent to send the Irish upon a mission to America where they would build the church in the greatest republic in the world.”
Ireland’s suffering had produced America’s salvation, perhaps, but the pain of the sacrifice of people never really went away.