Reluctant first bishop had multiple struggles in Pittsburgh

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - Updated: 2:51 pm

By Paul Dvorchak

The Diocese of Pittsburgh began on Aug. 8, 1843, as Father Michael O’Connor (1810-1872) was appointed its first bishop.

He was Irish-born, Rome-educated and hierarchically connected. Born in County Cork, Michael O’Connor studied at Rome’s Urban College of the Propaganda Fidei, earning a doctor of divinity degree. He was ordained in 1833, and in 1839 he joined the faculty of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.

In 1841, he was appointed pastor of St. Paul Parish in Pittsburgh and vicar general of the western half of the Diocese of Philadelphia, which encompassed the western half of Pennsylvania. This same area became the newly erected Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1843.

He later served as the founding bishop of Erie, from 1853-1854. He then returned to Pittsburgh and resigned his post to become a Jesuit in 1860. He died at Woodstock College in Maryland in 1872.

Bishop O’Connor reluctantly accepted the leadership of Pittsburgh, but he brilliantly steered and nurtured the diocese in its formative years. His accomplishments were many. He helped develop Catholic education. He guided the founding of the first hospital in western Pennsylvania, and he was responsible for bringing different religious orders of men and women to live and serve the ethnic populations that were just beginning to immigrate in large numbers to the United States.

He strongly backed the temperance movement, and began the Pittsburgh Catholic, one of the first Catholic newspapers in the United States, with its first issue on March 16, 1844. Bishop O’Connor did all this while overseeing the spiritual welfare of Catholics in western Pennsylvania. Within the hierarchy, he was respected and influential. He was consulted on the creation of other American dioceses and the naming of their bishops. Bishop O’Connor also was influential in the formulation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

During Bishop O’Connor’s episcopate, he had to struggle with many forces, chief among them the anti-Catholic bigotry of American nativism. Anti-Catholicism was ingrained in this land from the earliest years of its settlement. Even in William Penn’s religiously tolerant Pennsylvania, no one could hold office without taking an oath denying the Real Presence.

In Pittsburgh, however, there is no evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry in the first half of the 1800s. But, as the number of Catholics increased with the rising number of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, nativist bigotry came to the fore. In 1850, Joseph Barker was a street preacher arrested for inciting anti-Catholic riots in the city. He was so popular that he was elected mayor of Pittsburgh while still in jail.

When Bishop O’Connor started the Pittsburgh Catholic, it became his primary instrument of communication. Pittsburgh, during O’Connor’s time, had many newspapers, both secular and religious. All newspapers were politically aligned, and the Pittsburgh Gazette, the forerunner of today’s Post-Gazette, was aligned with the Whig Party that later became the Republican Party. It was politically expedient for the Republican Party and the Gazette to be opposed to Bishop O’Connor and the Catholic Church.

The bishop had conflicts within the church as well as struggles from without. He occasionally quarreled over policy with Benedictine Father Boniface Wimmer, the influential German-born abbot of St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe. The bishop also was criticized by diocesan clergy for his frequent travels outside the region — and for the naming of his brother as an administrator in the diocese. But eminent church historian John Gilmary Shea deemed Bishop O’Connor one of the glories of the American church.

Most Catholics in Pittsburgh then were Irish, but the second-largest group of Catholic immigrants came from Germany. German Catholics had their own parish, St. Philomena, in what is now Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The Redemptorist order staffed the parish, and Father John Neumann served as its pastor from 1844-1847. Father Francis Xavier Seelos served as Father Neumann’s assistant. Father Neumann was declared a saint in 1977, and Father Seelos was beatified in 2000.

The pre-eminent social issue was slavery. The Catholic Church in the United States followed roughly the sentiments of the rest of the population. Those in the North were opposed to slavery; those in the South favored the practice. Almost all Northern Catholic bishops favored the gradual emancipation of the slaves and not immediate abolition. Many American bishops and religious orders owned slaves despite anti-slavery decrees from the Vatican. Bishop O’Connor and the Pittsburgh Catholic distinguished themselves for being consistently anti-slavery.

In the United States in the mid-19th century, slavery was an already established fact. Catholics were a distrusted minority, and, with the increase of immigrants, an increasingly hated minority. Northern immigrants saw freed slaves as competition for jobs. The economy of the Southern states, including Maryland, the seat of early Catholic America, depended on slave labor.

In the Colonial period, Capuchins, Jesuits and Ursuline nuns in Louisiana owned slaves. The Jesuits and Capuchins used slave labor on their farms. After Father William F.X. O’Brien left Pittsburgh, he became involved in an effort to procure a slave for Archbishop James Whitfield of Baltimore (1828-1834). So, it appears that even though the teaching of the popes was opposed to the enslavement of human beings, American Catholics went their own individual ways.

Yet the Pittsburgh Catholic in 1849 argued: “If there be a social evil that includes extensive and galling wrong to thousands — nay millions, that evil is negro slavery even as it exists in these United States. This, we believe, is admitted by all — in these quarters.”

Further evidence of Bishop O’Connor’s attitude toward African-Americans can be inferred from his priestly ministry after he resigned as bishop of Pittsburgh. After becoming a Jesuit, Bishop O’Connor helped organize the first African-American Catholic parish in the United States — St. Francis Xavier in Baltimore. In 1871, he ensured the permanency of the Baltimore church by persuading the Jesuits to transfer St. Francis Xavier Parish to the Josephites, whose mission was to serve African-Americans.

Next month: The Diocese of Pittsburgh is split in two.

Dvorchak, retired former director of St. Joseph House of Hospitality, is a local historian, and member of the Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Word of God Parish in Swissvale.

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