Window on the Past:
A Savior of History

By Ray Cavanaugh, Contributor

John Gilmary Shea preserved much of the existing knowledge of the beginnings of American Catholicism.


Considering the Irish-American influence on U.S. Catholicism, it makes sense that someone of Irish descent – John Gilmary Shea – undertook to preserve much of the existing knowledge of the beginnings of American Catholicism. A prolific writer and dogged rescuer of rare manuscripts, Shea became known as the “father of American Catholic history.” At this point, however, his name receives rather little attention.

Shea was born in New York City on July 22, 1824. His mother came from an established New England family of part-Irish lineage, and his father was a native of County Limerick who emigrated to the U.S. at age 25 and later served as principal of the Columbia College grammar school in New York City. In this same school, the younger Shea received his early education. A sickly youth, those who knew him well “realized that only the greatest care would carry him to mature manhood,” wrote Peter Guilday in his book John Gilmary Shea: Father of American Catholic History, 1824-1892.

Too frail to partake in sports, Shea gravitated to reading and at a young age evinced a strong interest in Catholic history. In his early teens, he took a job as a clerk for a Spanish merchant in order to learn the Spanish language. He then wrote a biography of Cardinal Alvarez Carrillo de Arbornoz, which saw publication in the Young People’s Catholic Magazine. Shea later attended and graduated from St. John’s College (now known as Fordham University).

As he continued to pursue his interest in Catholic history, he studied law and gained admittance to the New York State bar in 1846. Two years later, though, he entered the Society of Jesus. Upon entering the Society, he discarded his given middle name, Dawson, and adopted the middle name of Gilmary (“servant of Mary”). He would retain this new name for the rest of his life, even though he left the Jesuits in 1852, having realized that his primary vocation was neither as a priest nor as a lawyer, but as a historian.

Shortly after becoming a layman again, he married one Sophie Savage in 1854. They proceeded to have two daughters, who would eventually assist their father as research aides in his historical endeavors. The same year Shea married, he published his History of the Catholic Missions Among the Native American Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854, which explored the efforts made by French, Spanish, and English-speaking priests.

When Shea’s historical career began, U.S. Catholic history was largely untouched terrain, and most American Catholics had little to no knowledge of the historical progress of the Church in their country. Worse yet, materials related to the Church in early America were being discarded, either out of ignorance of their value or, in some cases, due to anti-Catholic sentiment.

Shea – who wrote an editorial calling on Catholic institutions to use more care with their oldest manuscripts – safeguarded many preciously obscure records, thereby facilitating the survival of information on early American Catholicism.

He also authored many religious textbooks for schoolchildren and helped illuminate the efforts made by Catholics in the American Revolutionary War. Furthermore, he founded the U.S. Catholic Historical Magazine, the stated purpose of which was “to tell the story of the early struggles of priest and faithful, of heroic effort and often of heroic death.” Additionally, he served as editor for such publications as Sadlier’s Catholic Almanac and the Catholic News.

Both Fordham and Georgetown universities awarded Shea honorary degrees, and he was the first ever recipient of the Laetare Medal, which the University of Notre Dame awards each year to a member of the Catholic laity who exemplifies excellence of work and character. Upon receiving this medal in 1883, he declared, “What I have done is little, terribly little, in comparison to the work that lies untouched.” Modest in public, he remained a quiet, reclusive and almost cloistral figure, as related by his biographer, Guilday, who adds of Shea: “his was a life with the past rather than with the present.”

Some intensity in the present was needed, however, for him to undertake his extensive works on the past, most notably his four-volume History of the Catholic Church in the United States. In the preface to the first volume, he admitted his recurring regrets at having attempted such a colossal endeavor.

Though it exhausted him in his final years and went unfinished at the time of his death, Shea’s magnum opus would inform and inspire many thousands of Catholics, be they priests, nuns, or laypersons. His works were influential but not very lucrative for him. In fact, most of his steady pay came from editing popular, non-Catholic magazines, and even this income could prove insufficient, as he twice had to sell his library in order to alleviate financial hardship.

In January 1889, while entering an elevator in Manhattan, the 64-year-old Shea slipped, injuring his left kneecap and rupturing a ligament. He never fully recovered from this accident, and amid his otherwise declining health, he knew he was racing against mortality in the effort to complete his mammoth History. The race ended on February 22, 1892, when he died at age 67 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On his deathbed, he had worked out an agreement with Georgetown University, which acquired his library in exchange for some financial assistance to his surviving family. This library, along with a collection of the historian’s correspondence and manuscripts, is currently found in the university library’s special collections division.

Despite his cautious and dedicated research, Shea’s works are not flawlessly accurate, though his errors often resulted from his being unable to access all the necessary source materials. Whatever his shortcomings, they were not due to a lack of objectivity: he pursued the historical truth wherever it took him, even if it forced him to reveal something undesirable about the Church. He also omitted some items that many in the Church accepted as fact but which he deemed as unhistorical.

On some occasions, Shea incurred criticism from priests who felt his works were not sufficiently pro-Church. As much as he valued his religion, when it came to his vocation, the primary bias was pro-history.


This article was published in the January / February 2019 issue of Irish America.  ♦

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