By Sean Ryan - 25 June, 2017
The memory of the first Catholic Archbishop of New York was honoured with a Blue Plaque in his native county this week.
Born in Co. Tyrone to a poor farming family on 24 June 1797, John Joseph Hughes grew up to become the leading cleric of his day in the United States. He was the fourth bishop and first archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, serving from 1842 until his death in 1864.
The third son of seven children, Hughes began his life in the townland of Annaloughan near Augher. He emigrated to America at the age of 20 in 1817, working as a gardener in Mount St Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
In 1826 Hughes was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Conwell at St Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia, serving as curate at St Augustine’s Church in that city, where he founded the Catholic Herald newspaper.
Twelve years later, he arrived in New York and was appointed administrator of the diocese before being consecrated bishop in what is now known as the Old Cathedral of St Patrick in 1842. When New York was made an archdiocese in 1850, he became archbishop. He lectured to Congress, and was praised by Abraham Lincoln for his support of the Union during the American Civil War.
While Bishop of New York, he was involved in numerous projects. On his 44th birthday in 1841, he founded St John’s College, which is now known as Fordham University, the first Catholic institution of higher education in the northeastern US.
Partly because of a lack of funds, he described it as a “daring and dangerous undertaking”, and yet it thrived. Within a few years, it became a Jesuit institution, and in 2016 celebrated its 175th anniversary. The Archbishop made numerous return visits to Ireland and famously preached at St Macartan’s Cathedral in Monaghan in 1846.
He is best known for his work in founding St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. On 15 August 1858, he laid the cornerstone of the new uptown cathedral on Fifth Avenue before a crowd of 100,000.
Archbishop Hughes died at the age of 66 from Bright’s Disease on 3 January 1864. His remains were initially interred in the Old Cathedral, but 19 years later they were transferred to their final resting place under the altar of the new cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which he never lived to see completed.
In a statement this week the Ulster History Circle, which erects Blue Plaques to men and women of achievement, said it would be commemorating his birth with the erection of a Blue Plaque in St Macartan’s Church in Augher in Co. Tyrone.
Paying tribute, the Circle said in a statement: “On the 220th anniversary of his birth the Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate Archbishop Hughes with a Blue Plaque at the very place in his native parish where he returned to preach in 1846.” The plaque was erected by the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Dr Eamon Martin.
The Blue Plaque is the second major memorial to Archbishop Hughes. In 2015 a bust of Archbishop Hughes sculpted by Rowan Gillespie was dedicated and blessed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. It was produced as part of the Irish Giants series and stands on top of a four-metre column in Lower Manhattan near the Old Cathedral. Aside from his name and dates, it simply states: “Immigrant”.