Cardinal James Gibbons

Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921)

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Archbishop of Baltimore and cardinal. James Gibbons was born July 23, 1834 to Irish immigrants Thomas Gibbons and Bridget Walsh in Baltimore, Maryland. Gibbons’ family returned to Ireland in 1839, where his father operated a grocery in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. His father’s death in 1847 led to the family’s return to the United States in 1853, this time settling in New Orleans. There the young James was employed as a clerk until he discerned his vocation to the priesthood.

He received his training under the Sulpician Fathers St. Charles’ College (1848-1969), Ellicott City, Maryland, and St. Mary’s Seminary (est. 1791), Baltimore, and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Baltimore on June 30, 1861. He was appointed the first pastor of St. Brigid’s Church, a predominately Irish parish in the Canton section of Baltimore. He also began to visit Forts Marshall and McHenry at this time to minister to the Union and Confederate soldiers who were either stationed or imprisoned there during the Civil War.

In 1865 he became secretary to Archbishop Martin John Spalding (1810-1872) where, among his other duties, he helped prepare for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866). He was nominated for the newly created vicariate apostolic of North Carolina at these meetings and was installed as vicar in 1868. He served in the position until 1872 when he was appointed the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Richmond. In May 1877 he was named coadjutor to Abp. James Roosevelt Bayley of Baltimore (1814-1877) and succeeded him as the ninth Archbishop of Baltimore on October 3, 1877, an office he held for the next forty-four years until his death in 1921.

Highlights of his career include attending the First Vatican Council, 1870-1871, presiding over the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, and his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 1886. He was the recognized leader of the U.S. Catholic Church during the years he served as Archbishop of Baltimore and is credited with doing much to improve relations between the Catholic community and larger society through his involvement in civic affairs and associations with leaders of other religious denominations. Towards the end of his life, he was looked upon as a revered national figure whose opinion was sought on both domestic and international issues.

Gibbons was also the author of a number of books, including Faith of Our Fathers (1876), an apologetical work that enjoyed widespread success among Catholic and non-Catholic audiences. His most famous work, however, was a letter he penned in defense of the Knights of Labor in 1887, which averted condemnation of the popular labor union by the Holy See. In defending the right of laborers to organize, this letter marked an important turning point in the relationship between leadership of the U.S. Catholic Church and laborers. This letter is also credited as Pope Leo XIII’s inspiration for writing Rerum Novarum (1891), one of the most significant papal encyclicals of the past two centuries.