Gibbons: a devoted populist

November 26, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

If as many people strolled Charles Street with James Cardinal Gibbons as claimed to have done so, the man would have spent his whole life going up and down the sidewalk.

Although the legendary afternoon walks of Baltimore's first cardinal provided exercise and pleasure, more than a little church business got done as well.

"The Lithuanians are fond of telling the story that that's how they got St. Alphonsus," said the Rev. Michael Roach, a priest at St. Peter the Apostle on Hollins Street and a teacher of church history at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmittsburg.

"Near the end of World War I, the German Redemptorist [priests] at St. Alphonsus were keeping to their German customs and [Gibbons] didn't approve. One day, he was walking along Charles Street with the excellent Lithuanian pastor John Lietuvnikas and asked the priest if he'd like a bigger church. Of course, Father Lietuvnikas said yes and Cardinal Gibbons told him: 'We'll see what we can do.' "

After this, the Germans weren't long for St. Alphonsus.

The story speaks to the cardinal's devotion to the nation his parents adopted after sailing here from Ireland in 1830.

In the New World, he became the classic trans-Atlantic middle man -- artfully making America understandable to the Vatican while working hard to make the Roman Catholic Church palatable for the mostly Protestant United States.

"He was an 'Americanist' -- not for holding onto the ethnic business at all," said Father Roach. "He was very clearly for bringing immigrants into American society."

The American society in which James Gibbons was ordained two months after the start of the Civil War did not include bridges across or tunnels below the Patapsco River.

As a young priest, he often celebrated Mass for Irish Catholics on both sides of the channel -- at St. Brigid's parish in Canton and again at the mission of St. Lawrence O'Toole in Locust Point, now Our Lady of Good Counsel.

Along with the stevedores, hustlers, cannery workers and housewives of his day, Father Gibbons spent a few pennies every Sunday to ride a ferry across the harbor to break bread with the faithful.

On the Southside, he was a volunteer chaplain at Fort McHenry and -- in between work, prayer, walks and meals -- permitted himself the indulgence of two cigars a day.

"He was charming," remembered Josephine Shehan, who received her first Holy Communion from Cardinal Gibbons about 1910. "When we were young children at school, if we were anywhere near the grounds of the [Basilica], he would stop and ask about us, ask what class we were in."

In this gentle way -- along with a talent for persuading the wealthy to put their money where their faith was and then using that money for the poor -- he became a populist hero even before making cardinal in 1887.

When department store giant Thomas J. O'Neil died in 1919, the Irish immigrant-turned-American millionaire left a fund for a new Baltimore cathedral to his personal friend, Cardinal Gibbons. The money eventually grew to $14 million and in 1954 it was used to build the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Of his leadership style, Cardinal Gibbons said, "[It is] a masterly inactivity with a vigilant eye."

He befriended and counseled Presidents William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt and on the 50th anniversary of his ordination, much of official Washington traveled to Baltimore to honor him. And he became known worldwide, particularly in his defense of labor unions, for which he won ecclesiastical support.

In Baltimore -- where thousands knelt on Cathedral Street for his Holy Week funeral in 1921 -- James Gibbons would always be the local boy who made good.

"When most Catholics think of the cardinal in Baltimore," Father Roach said, "it always means Gibbons."

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