The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death." So wrote John Carroll to his mother in 1773. Word had just reached him that the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), to which he belonged, had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. Fortunately for the Roman Church in the United States, God blessed Carroll in a different manner than his sorrow suggested. He not only lived, but became the first bishop of the United States.
John Carroll was born in Maryland on January 8, 1736. He studied in France and was ordained as a Jesuit priest. When the Jesuit order was shut down, what was he to do?
He came back to the United States and preached, building a chapel on his mother's farm in Maryland. Supporting himself, he worked as a missionary and wrote letters pleading for an end to anti-Catholic legislation. Carroll won so much respect that he was asked to join a committee sent by the Continental Congress to seek the neutrality of Canada in the Revolutionary War. It was unsuccessful.
After the war, Carroll took the lead in organizing the new nation's Catholics. In 1784 the Vatican made him superior of the "American mission," -- putting him in charge of all thirteen states!
Carroll was American to the core. He realized that American Catholicism must acknowledge democratic forms. Bishops should be elected by a select body of clergy. "Otherwise we shall never be viewed kindly by our government here, and discontent, even amongst our own clergy, will break out." Rome agreed, but "for the first time only." The clergy chose Carroll.
On this day, November 6, 1789, the election of the Rt. Rev. John Carroll was confirmed by Pope Pius VI. Carroll became the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.
Fearing that Protestant Americans would view his oath of office as a violation of religious freedom, Carroll asked Rome for permission to delete the line that said "I will to the utmost of my power seek out and oppose schismatics, heretics, and the enemies of our Sovereign Lord and his successors." That simply would not be swallowed by Americans. The Vatican agreed.
Bishop Carroll's new diocese was "just" three million miles square. He needed trained priests. To equip men for the ministry, he invited the Sulpicians to work with him. They were noted for their educational prowess. This move was successful.
Carroll died on December 3, 1815, having blazed a trail for Catholics by his hard work and commonsense.
- "Carroll, John." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958 - 1964.
- Lossing, Benson J. Eminent Americans. New York: Mason Bros., 1857. Source of the image.
- O'Donovan, Louis. "John Carroll." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
Last updated April, 2007.