Roman Catholic Cardinal James Gibbons, champion of labor and advocate of the separation of church and state, was born to Irish immigrants in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 23, 1834. Not long after his birth, Gibbons’ ailing father moved the family back to Ireland at his doctor’s suggestion. After his father’s death in 1847, Gibbons’ mother decided to move her family back to the United States. On their harrowing journey, their boat was shipwrecked in the Bahamas, but the family eventually reached its destination of New Orleans in 1853.
In 1857, Gibbons entered St. Mary’s Seminary, the oldest seminary in the United States, to study for the priesthood. (St. Mary’s was founded in 1791 by the Sulpicians, a community of diocesan priests that originated in France in 1641; its sole mission is to educate fellow priests.) He was ordained in Maryland in 1861. During the Civil War he served as a volunteer chaplain at Fort McHenry and Fort Marshall. He next spent nine years as a missionary in the South where he interacted with many different types of people. These formative experiences led to his famous exposition of Catholic doctrine, Faith of Our Fathers.
Gibbons was esteemed within the Catholic Church and was appointed to positions of increasing importance. He became vicar apostolic of North Carolina at the age of thirty-two and bishop of Richmond in 1872. In 1877 he was appointed coadjutor to the archbishop of Baltimore and titular archbishop of Ionopolis (Janopolis). Five months later, following the death of the archbishop of Baltimore, Gibbons became the head of the oldest archdiocese in America.
On June 30, 1886, Pope Leo XIII named Archbishop Gibbons the second American cardinal. (The first American cardinal, Archbishop John McCloskey, was named by Pope Pius IX in 1875.) Gibbons became the first chancellor of the Catholic University of America External in 1889.
An ardent proponent of American civic institutions, Cardinal Gibbons frequently lauded democracy, calling the U.S. Constitution the finest instrument of government ever created. In his communications with church leaders in Rome, he and “the Americanizers” championed the benefits of the separation of church and state. After the Canadian branch of the Knights of Labor was declared incompatible with the Roman Catholic faith, Gibbons convinced the pope to support the laborers.
Gibbons was known to several presidents. He was a frequent visitor to the Cleveland White House. President William Taft honored Gibbons for his contributions at his 1911 golden jubilee celebration of his ordination as a priest. In 1917, President Theodore Roosevelt hailed Gibbons as the most venerated, respected, and useful citizen in America.
Consecrated in 1821 and designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States is a beautiful example of the classic Revival style.
- Search Today in History on Catholic to find more features on the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, such as the founding of the colony of Maryland and the inauguration of Patrick Francis Healy as president of Georgetown University. Also search on the names of other religious groups to find features on significant events in the history of these groups in America, such as the establishment of the first Jewish community and the first synagogue in America; William Penn’s founding of the first Quaker colony in America; Roger Williams’ championship of freedom of worship and his founding of the Rhode Island colony; and Brigham Young’s establishment of the Mormon community in Utah.
- Search on Catholic church, Catholic missionary, cardinal, or priest, to find items in the Digital Collections related to the history of Catholicism in the United States. See, for example, a Catholic Church, Manzanar Relocation Center in Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar..
- Learn more about the early history of Catholics in America, as well as the history of other religious persuasions in this country. See “America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century,” part of the online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historical American and Engineering Record//Historic American Landscapes Survey includes many photographs of the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States and the first Catholic seminary founded in the United States as well as photos and drawings of Fort McHenry.
- View two films from the collection Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film in which Cardinal Gibbons makes a brief appearance during President Roosevelt’s 1918 Liberty Loan campaign in Baltimore.
- Find an Irish song to sing. Search on Irish in California Gold: Northern California, Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell, Historic American Sheet Music External, or in the Performing Arts digital collections.