By Fr. George Welzbacher
June 3, 2007
I remarked last week in The Pastor's Page that our magnificent Cathedral is an enduring monument not only to the architect who designed it, Emmanuel Masqueray, but also to John Ireland, the first archbishop of St. Paul (from 1888), who had the courage in a state that had been admitted to the Union a mere half-century before, to envision for the Upper Midwest a Cathedral that could hold its own with the great churches of Europe. For those of you who would like to know more about this extraordinary churchman may I recommend the fascinating biography entitled John Ireland, written by the distinguished historian Father Marvin O'Connell, a priest of this archdiocese and a life-long friend of mine who for many years served as chairman of the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. In the meantime I am enclosing in this week's parish bulletin a brief sketch-a very meager sketch---of the life of this important figure in American Church History. This brief biographical essay was included in the information packet that each of the pastors in the archdiocese received in preparation for the celebration of the Centennial.
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Archbishop John Ireland
John Ireland was bom September 11, 1838 in Bumchurch, County Kilkenny, Ireland to Richard Ireland, journeyman carpenter, and Judith Naughton Ireland. He had one older sister, Mary Ann, and four younger siblings, named Ellen, Eliza, Richard, and Julia.
Ten years later Ireland and his family emigrated to Montreal. In 1850 they briefly moved through Boston and Chicago. With growing antagonism toward the Irish, Richard Ireland had little luck with job prospects. He pooled resources with another Irish family, the O'Gorman's, and traveled to Saint Paul on the Steamer Nominee. They settled on Pear Street, which is now West Fifth Street.
As a boy john Ireland had the good fortune to attend a school overseen by Bishop Joseph Cretin. Bishop Cretin decided that Ireland and Thomas O'Gorman [who had indicated an interest in becoming priests] should go to France to begin studies for the priesthood and to become the first seminarians of the Diocese of St. Paul.
The young men studied at the minor seminary at Meximieux, the same seminary where Cretin had done his studies. After four years, Ireland went to Montbel's seminary to complete another four years of studies.
Back in Saint Paul and ordained a priest only six months Father Ireland went to serve in 1862, as a chaplain in the Civil War with Minnesota's Fifth Regiment. The volunteer soldiers traveled to Camp Clear Creek, Mississippi where they faced battle almost immediately. Ireland found himself doing everything from carrying ammunition to the front lines to hearing the soldiers' confessions for hours on end during nights before impending battles.
Under the direction of Colonel Lucius Hubbard and General David S. Stanley, Ireland saw his last fierce conflict at the Battle of Corinth in Mississippi at the end of October, although he was not discharged until the following spring.
Once back home, Ireland resumed his duties as a diocesan priest. He quickly became known for his good sermons. He was quoted as saying, "People flock to hear a priest who has something to say." In these sermons the young Irish priest consistently spoke out against alcohol abuse which was ruining many immigrants' lives. Speaking to his own Irish brethren... "The foe to your race today is the saloonkeeper. The remedy is total abstinence" (O'Connell, p. 105). Ireland started a Temperance Society called the "Crusaders" which met regularly in the basement of the Cathedral. For Ireland, it was the beginning of a crusade that would last a lifetime.
Ireland also become known for his promotion of equal rights. In 1888, Ireland bought the Swedenborgian Church across from Rice Park for the African American community. They quickly outgrew their space and in 1892 a permanent church, the Church of Saint Peter Claver was founded with help from Ireland and one of the parish's' notable early parishioners, Frederick McGhee.
McGhee was a highly regarded attorney in criminal law and in the field of human rights. McGhee and Ireland found they shared similar ideals about interracial fairness and respect ... Saint Peter Claver Church, located at 375 N. Oxford, near 1-94 and Lexington Avenue, continues strong today.
Members of the Cathedral of Saint Paul had also outgrown the capacity of the third Cathedral. And Ireland, who by 1888 had become the first archbishop of the growing diocese, knew he would soon embark on his greatest endeavor-building a magnificent metropolitan cathedral that would be reminiscent of the timeless grand churches of Europe.
In May 1904, Archbishop Ireland went to see the Louisiana Purchase Expedition at the World's Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri. It was there that Ireland met architect Emmanual Masqueray. It was during this first meeting that Ireland shared his decision to build a great cathedral; soon he chose Masqueray to be the architect.
Ireland initially considered the Midway District for a possible site of the fourth (the present) Cathedral, believing at one point that the two cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis would merge and the Cathedral would thus be right in the middle. However, as the idea of a single city seemed increasingly to be farfetched, Ireland bought the property on what is now known as Cathedral Hill.
As construction began, the Archbishop visited the work site nearly every day to review the day's progress as well as to pay his respects to the workers who were lending their skills to build this great temple on the hill. Ireland celebrated the first Mass inside the new Cathedral at sunrise, Palm Sunday, March 28, 1915. More than 2500 people received Holy Communion. One of the first in line was Ireland's own sister, Mother Seraphine, Provincial of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The aging archbishop's health worsened during the winter of 1917-18. His last visit was said to have been in early winter. Confined to a wheelchair, he came over to watch the placement of the marble in the Chapel of St. Joseph. Archbishop Ireland died on September 25, 1918. Over four thousand citizens and more than eight hundred priests were at the funeral Mass on October 2, 1918. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, where his faithful architect, Emmanuel Masqueray, had also been buried the year before. He had wanted to be buried "out in the sunshine, among my people" (Hansen, p. 47).
Ireland is credited with founding St. Thomas College in 1885 together with a preparatory school now known as St. Thomas Academy. In 1894 he founded the Saint Paul Seminary with the financial help of his Methodist admirer James J. Hill. And two years after commissioning the construction of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, Ireland commissioned the building of St. Mary's Basilica in Minneapolis. He was also instrumental in establishing the Catholic University of Washington.
A street running between the Capitol and the Cathedral of Saint Paul has also been named in his honor, John Ireland Boulevard.
Information taken from the following two sources:
John Ireland and the American Catholic Church; Reverend Marvin R. O'Connell Minnesota Historical Press 1988
The Cathedral of Saint Paul: An Architectural Biography; Eric C Hansen Library of Congress No. 90-80194