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Ireland Library: About John Ireland

First archbishop of St. Paul, Minn.  Born Burnchurch, County Kilkenny, Ireland, exact date unknown; baptismal date Sept. 11, 1838.  Died St. Paul, Sept. 25, 1918. Grave site information.

John Ireland

Early Career

His parents, Richard and Judith (Naughton) Ireland, immigrated with their six children to the U.S. (1848), settling in Burlington, Vt. In 1851 they moved to Chicago, Ill., and a year later to the frontier town of St. Paul, Minnesota Territory.

Joseph Cretin, first bishop of St. Paul, selected Ireland to study for the priesthood (1853) and enrolled him in his own alma mater in France, the preparatory seminary of Meximieux in the Diocese of Belley. Ireland completed the course in classics (1857) with academic honors in several fields, especially in French and in oratory. His exceptional fluency in French was a valuable asset in his later career. After theological studies at the French Marist seminary at Montbel, near Toulon, he was ordained (Dec. 22, 1861) in St. Paul by Cretin's successor, Bp. Thomas Langdon Grace, and served for a few months as a curate in the cathedral parish. Ireland then joined the Fifth Minnesota Infantry Regiment as its chaplain, serving with distinction until his uncertain health and his bishop's need for his services forced his resignation on March 19, 1863. Despite the brevity of his Civil War career, Ireland savored all his life the taste of action he had had at the Battle of Corinth, and he always maintained close bonds with other veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

In 1867 Ireland was appointed rector of St. Paul's Cathedral. He represented Bishop Grace at Vatican Council I (1869?70), although he could neither speak nor vote at the Council sessions. When Pius IX named Ireland titular bishop of Maronea and vicar apostolic of Nebraska (April 12, 1875), Grace went immediately to Rome and successfully petitioned the pope to revoke the appointment so that Ireland might continue to work for the Church in Minnesota. Later the same year, Pius IX confirmed Ireland's titular bishopric and appointed him coadjutor, with the right of succession, to the bishop of St. Paul; Ireland was consecrated by Grace on Dec. 21, 1875.

As an ardent spokesman for the Catholic Total Abstinence Society, Ireland was featured regularly at their meetings, and he soon earned a leading place in that movement as well as a wider, even national, reputation as an orator of force and eloquence. Disturbed by reports that Catholic immigrants in eastern cities were suffering from social and economic handicaps, he organized and directed in Minnesota (1876?81) the most successful rural colonization program ever sponsored by the Catholic Church in the U.S. (see IRISH CATHOLIC COLONIZATION ASSOCIATION OF THE U.S.). Working with the western railroads and with the state government, he brought more than 4,000 Catholic families from the slums of eastern urban areas and settled them on more than 400,000 acres of farmland in western Minnesota.

Ordinary of St. Paul

On July 31, 1884, ill health led Grace to resign as bishop of St. Paul in favor of his coadjutor. Two years later, at the Provincial Council of Milwaukee, Ireland joined the other bishops of the province in petitioning the Holy See to erect a new archdiocese west of Milwaukee to accommodate the growth of the Church in that region. On May 4, 1888, St. Paul was raised to the rank of an archdiocese, and Ireland was named its first archbishop. The next year five new dioceses (Winona, Duluth, and St. Cloud in Minnesota and Sioux Falls and Jamestown in Dakota Territory) were established and attached as suffragan sees to the new Archdiocese of St. Paul. The proliferation of dioceses in the Northwest prompted the New York Times to speculate that "another cardinal's hat was soon to be bestowed by Pope Leo on an American prelate? John Ireland," a rumor that was to follow the archbishop for the rest of his life.

At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) Ireland delivered his famous address, "The Catholic Church and Civil Society," which remains the most eloquent statement of his lifelong concern to encourage mutual understanding and respect between the Catholic Church and the pluralistic democratic society of the U.S. The thesis of this address has since been often cited as a fundamental tenet of the progressive position in Church-State discussions. In ringing phrases Ireland confronted his fellow bishops with the challenge: "I do not, I think, mistake my fellow countrymen when I ascribe to them on the occasion of the Plenary Council holding session in Baltimore the wish that a statement be made as to the attitude of the Catholic Church in her teachings and in her history toward civil society and, in a special manner, toward the form of civil society which obtains in the United States of America."

In spite of growing administrative burdens, Ireland retained a scholarly interest and discipline throughout his life. He wrote regularly for learned reviews. His collected essays, significantly entitled The Church and Modern Society (1896), present his thoughtful and literate statement of the problems that confront the Church in a pluralistic and democratic society.

Ireland's last great project was the construction of a new cathedral commensurate with the growth and dignity of his archdiocese. Nine years (1906?15) were required for the work, and the result was the present Cathedral of St. Paul, recognized as one of the most impressive church buildings in North America.

Church Leader

In the last decade of the 19th century, Ireland joined Cardinal James GIBBONS as an acknowledged leader of the American hierarchy. On questions of national and ecclesiastical policy, the archbishop was an eloquent speaker and a tireless writer. His forthright positions on questions of the day often drew him into controversy with Church and State leaders who did not share his views, and he was often criticized by two opposite groups for precisely opposite reasons. Many of his fellow Catholics, especially in France, considered him too American and not sufficiently Catholic; it was chiefly French journalists and theologians who accused him of the "heresy of AMERICANISM." At the other end of the spectrum, some of his own countrymen who did not share his faith accused him of being too Catholic and not sufficiently American. In 1892 Ireland was commissioned to represent the Holy See in France when Leo XIII sought to convince the French hierarchy and Catholic lay leaders that the future of the Church lay with the people and not with the restoration of the monarchy. On the occasion of his public address to an elite Parisian audience on June 18, 1892, Ireland's elegant French, his tactful diplomacy, and his command of his subject won new respect in France for the position advocated by the Pope, a position Ireland considered to be best exemplified by the successful record of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Immigrant Problem

In the years of the great Atlantic migration, Ireland was anxious that Catholic settlers in America should give generous and patriotic allegiance to their adopted land. He often spoke on patriotism and urged his people to accept the ways and the language of their new country. In this effort he earned the opposition of a zealous and religious German lay leader, Peter Paul CAHENSLY, who protested to Leo XIII that the insistence on "Americanizing" the immigrants was resulting in mass defections of German-born Catholics from the American Church. The solution proposed by Cahensly was the establishment of dioceses in the U.S. staffed exclusively by German bishops and priests. Whatever the justice of Cahensly's complaints against the Irish-dominated clergy, it is clear that the creation of German-speaking enclaves would have seriously impaired the unity of the Church in the U.S. Thanks largely to the promptings of Gibbons and Ireland, Leo XIII refused to support Cahensly.


In the history of American education Ireland is often cited for his design of the so-called FARIBAULT SCHOOL PLAN, which he inaugurated in the Minnesota cities of Faribault and Stillwater. Under this plan the parochial school could be rented to the local public school board for use during the school day but retained as a center for religious instruction before and after the public school hours. His American critics charged him with violating the principle of separation of Church and State and also accused him of weakening the strong position of Catholic education recommended by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. So heated did the controversy on this subject become that the archbishop felt it necessary to go to Rome to explain his position. Investigation revealed that the plan he advocated was already operating successfully in ten American dioceses. Rome decided to allow the program to continue, but criticism of it did not subside. It is noteworthy that the Faribault Plan bears striking resemblance to the Shared Time plan, which has since been advanced by Catholic and public school administrators in many American communities.

When the hierarchy of the U.S. decided at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) to establish a Catholic university for the U.S., Bps. John Lancaster SPALDING of Peoria, Ill., and John Joseph KEANE of Richmond, Va., became the leaders in subsequent efforts to build and staff the institution that eventually came to be called The CATH OLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, Washington, D.C. In their zealous efforts to this end Spalding and Keane were ably assisted by Ireland, who was convinced that such a national Catholic center was both necessary and possible. Approval of the Holy See for this new institution was finally granted on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1887, largely through the persuasive efforts of Ireland and Keane, who had gone to Rome in 1886 as the representatives of the American hierarchy to seek such approval. Throughout his life Ireland retained a strong active interest in the Catholic University.

In his own archdiocese his efforts on behalf of Catholic education were equally vigorous. In 1885 he founded the College of St. Thomas. In 1894 he opened the St. Paul Seminary, built and endowed by James J. Hill, the famous empire builder. Ireland personally supervised the selection of a distinguished faculty for the new seminary, as well as the selection of its library collection. In his private letters, Ireland often recorded his conviction that a holy and learned clergy was essential for the advance of the Church. This explains his tireless efforts to secure for his seminary the best faculty he could assemble from Europe and the U.S. A corollary of his interest in priests was his strong desire to create new dioceses in the upper Middle West and to recommend holy and able priests as bishops in these new jurisdictions. Still unsurpassed in American history is the event of May 19, 1910, when Ireland acted as the chief consecrator for six bishops in the chapel of the St. Paul Seminary.

Labor and Racial Questions

The closing decades of the 19th century marked the difficult beginnings of the American labor movement. One prominent association of workmen was known as the KNIGHTS OF LABOR. In 1884, at the request of the archbishop of Quebec, the Holy See included the Knights among those conspiratorial and ritualistic secret societies prohibited to Catholics. At first most American prelates, aware that Catholics counted heavily in the leadership and the rank and file of the Knights of Labor and convinced that the condemnation was ill-advised, took the position that the decision applied to Canada and not the U.S. Then, foreseeing a possibly disastrous alienation of Catholic workingmen, the archbishops of the U.S., at their meeting in October 1886, decided to try to secure from the Holy See a formal statement of toleration of the Knights. This delicate mission was entrusted to Ireland, who was in Rome on other business. The outcome of the negotiations remained uncertain until a memorial, drawn up and signed by Cardinal Gibbons, was presented Feb.20, 1887 by Ireland to the prefect of the Congregazione de Propaganda Fide and was favorably received. There is little doubt that Ireland had much to do with the framing of this decisive document and therefore deserves to share with Gibbons the credit for this vitally important step in the Catholic Church's largely successful efforts to retain the allegiance of the laboring class in the U.S. Writing in the North American Review of October 1901, Ireland gave a definitive statement of his views of the rights of labor to organize for its own protection at the same time that he reminded labor of the corresponding rights of management and of owners of private property.

On the subject of racial equality, Ireland was consistent and unequivocal. In 1890 he stated:

There is but one solution of the problem, and it is to obliterate absolutely all color line. Open up to the Negro as to the white man, the political offices of the country, making but one test, that of mental and moral fitness. Throw down at once the barriers which close out the Negro merely on account of his color from hotel, theater, and railway carriage. Meet your Negro brother as your equal at banquets and in social gatherings. Give him, in one word, and in full meaning of the terms, equal rights and equal privileges, political, civil, and social?. I know no color line, I will acknowledge none?. The time is not distant when Americans and Christians will wonder that there ever was a race prejudice.

Other Contributions

Although Ireland's allegiance to the Republican party and his defense of its policies on occasion drew criticism, the results also earned him the friendship and favor of many political leaders. In 1898 the Holy See asked him to intercede with Pres. William McKinley to try to avert the impending Spanish-American War. Although his diplomatic negotiations with McKinley were not successful, Ireland was recognized both by Rome and by the president as the spokesman for the Church in these discussions. At the end of the war the archbishop was appointed by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to serve on the commission that negotiated between the U.S. and the Vatican a settlement for the friars' lands in the Philippine Islands. Among the many occasions on both sides of the Atlantic, when Ireland's presence added prestige to an already important event, was that of May 8, 1899, when, as the official guest of the French government, he preached the sermon in the cathedral of Orl?ans honoring the 470th anniversary of the raising of the siege of that city by St. JOAN OF ARC. A year later he returned to France at the request of President McKinley and presented to the French people, in the name of the U.S., a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette. In return Ireland was invested with the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Although Ireland's vigorous administration of the affairs of the Church earned for him many critics at home and abroad, a careful review of his pronouncements on such varied topics as nationalism, education, race relations, labor, science, technology, temperance, the missions, Church and State, liberal arts, patriotism, international affairs, citizenship, and social work lead to the conclusion that events subsequent to his death have for the most part confirmed his opinions and validated his predictions. Moreover, his courageous and farsighted leadership in the metropolitan Province of St. Paul helped to make it a recognized center of Catholic culture and influence.

Bibliography: J. IRELAND, "The Catholic Church and the Saloon," North American Review 159 (1894) 498?505; "Personal Liberty and Labor Strikes," ibid. 173 (1901) 445?453. J. H. MOYNIHAN, The Life of Archbishop John Ireland (New York 1953). T. O'GORMAN, "The Educational Policy of Archbishop Ireland," Educational Review 3 (1892) 462?471. J. P. SHANNON, "Archbishop Ireland's Experiences as a Civil War Chaplain," American Catholic Historical Review 39 (1953) 298?305; Catholic Colonization on the Western Frontier (New Haven 1957). T. T. MCAVOY, "Americanism, Fact and Fiction," American Catholic Historical Review 31 (1945) 133?153. J. M. REARDON, The Catholic Church in the Diocese of St. Paul (St. Paul 1952). F. J. ZWIERLEIN, Life and Letters of Bishop McQuaid, 3 v. (Rochester 1925?27). P. H. AHERN, The Catholic University of America, 1887?1896 (Washington 1949). C.J. BARRY, The Catholic Church and German Americans (Milwaukee 1953). H. J. BROWNE, The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor (Studies in American Church History 38; Washington 1949). J. T. ELLIS, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons 2 v. (Milwaukee 1952). J. IRELAND, The Church and Modern Society (St. Paul 1896).


First published in New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967).  New York: McGraw Hill.

SHANNON, J. P. "Ireland, John" New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 549-552. 15 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Thomson Gale.