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The funeral procession of Archbishop John Carroll in December 1815, was, as one Baltimore paper reported, a site to behold.
“We have never witnessed a funeral procession where so many of eminent respectability and standing among us followed the train of mourners,” it noted. “Distinctions of rank, of wealth, of religious opinion were laid aside in the great testimony of respect to the memory of the man.”
The man in question was born 80 years earlier, on January 8, 1735, to an Irish immigrant and an American heiress of English descent. Educated largely at a school for English Catholics in Europe, Carroll entered the Jesuits at 18, became a priest 14 years later, and remained in Europe, traveling and teaching, until he was almost 40.
The suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 finally brought Carroll back to his native Maryland, where he was soon drawn into the struggles of the fledgling movement for American independence, as well as the struggles of the fledgling Catholic Church in America.
In the years that followed, as a friend of both George Washington and Ben Franklin, Carroll worked to guarantee religious liberty for Catholics and helped secure the Constitution’s prohibition of religious tests for public office. Likewise, as the first American bishop and archbishop, he helped lay the foundation for the future of the Church in America. Credit for the first American cathedral (the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore), the first American seminary (St. Mary’s in Baltimore), and the first American Catholic college (Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.) all goes to Carroll.
Known for his intellect, energy, piety, and preaching (some Protestants even attended his Masses just to hear his homilies), Carroll helped quell early waves of anti- Catholicism in the newly founded United States, while still strengthening the faith of his flock.
The spectacle of his funeral procession was thus a fitting tribute to a man whose contributions to both country and Church endure to this day.