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Church militant

We need more hardass clergymen like Dagger John Hughes, and fewer of the namby-pamby, weak-as-water shitlib sobsisters mainstream Christianity is currently burdened with.

We are not the first generation of New Yorkers puzzled by what to do about the underclass. A hundred years ago and more, Manhattan’s tens of thousands of Irish seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy. What made the Irish such miscreants? Their neighbors weren’t sure: perhaps because they were an inferior race, many suggested; you could see it in the shape of their heads, writers and cartoonists often emphasized. In any event, they were surely incorrigible.

But within a generation, New York’s Irish flooded into the American mainstream. The sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who’d been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery. No job training program or welfare system brought about so sweeping a change. What accomplished it, instead, was a moral transformation, a revolution in values. And just as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the late eighteenth century, had sparked a change in the culture of the English working class that made it unusually industrious and virtuous, so too a clergyman was the catalyst for the cultural change that liberated New York’s Irish from their underclass behavior. He was John Joseph Hughes, an Irish immigrant gardener who became the first Catholic archbishop of New York. How he accomplished his task can teach us volumes about the solution to our own end-of-the-millennium social problems.

John Hughes’s personal history embodied all the virtues he tried so successfully to inculcate in his flock. They were very much the energetic rather than the contemplative virtues: as a newspaper reporter of the time remarked of him, he was “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity.” He was born on June 24, 1797, in Annaloghan, County Tyrone, the son of a poor farmer. As a Catholic in English-ruled Ireland, he was, he said, truly a second-class citizen from the day he was baptized, barred from ever owning a house worth more than five pounds or holding a commission in the army or navy. Catholics could neither run schools nor give their children a Catholic education. Priests had to be licensed by the government, which allowed only a few in the country. Any Catholic son could seize his father’s property by becoming a Protestant.

When Hughes was 15, an event he was never to forget crystallized for him the injustice of English domination. His younger sister, Mary, died. English law barred the local Catholic priest from entering the cemetery gates to preside at her burial; the best he could do was to scoop up a handful of dirt, bless it, and hand it to Hughes to sprinkle on the grave. From early on, Hughes said, he had dreamed of “a country in which no stigma of inferiority would be impressed on my brow, simply because I professed one creed or another.”

Fleeing poverty and persecution, Hughes’s father brought the family to America in 1817. The 20-year-old Hughes went to work as a gardener and stonemason at Mount St. Mary’s college and seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Working there rekindled in him a childhood dream of becoming a priest, and he asked the head of the seminary, John Dubois, if he could enroll as a student. Dubois, a French priest who had fled Paris during the French Revolution armed with a letter of recommendation from Lafayette, turned him down, unable to see past his lack of education to the qualities of mind and character that lay within. This was no ordinary gardener, Dubois should have recognized; indeed, as he went back to his gardening chores, Hughes wrote a bitter poem on the shamefulness of slavery and its betrayal of America’s promise of freedom. Not one to forget a slight, Hughes harshly froze Dubois out of his life when he became prominent and powerful. Indeed, in later years, Hughes won the nickname of “Dagger John,” a reference not only to the shape of the cross that accompanied his printed signature but also to his being a man not to be trifled with or double-crossed.

And that he most certainly was, with big ol’ bells on. As I recall, Mike Walsh has written an essay or two about Dagger John, extolling his uncompromising, stout refusal to bend the knee to any earthly prince or potentate and meekly accept his fate as a second-class citizen because of his professed faith.

It’s easy to forget these days, perhaps, but even as recently as 1960 there were a great many Americans who questioned JFK’s fitness for the office of President purely because he was Catholic. They were strongly suspicious of the risk of what they called “popery” and “dual loyalty”—that, as a Roman Catholic, Kennedy’s primary fidelity would necessarily lie not with the US but with the Vatican. If that sounds eerily reminiscent of the accusations hurled at a certain ethnic group today, well, that ain’t no coincidence.

Read on for lots more about the life and times of a truly fascinating man; it’s good stuff, for sure.

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