Statue of Father John Carroll in front of Healy Hall inside the front gates of Georgetown University, sculpted by Jerome Connor. Wikimedia/public domain

Meet the first American bishop

The history of the Church in the United States could not be told without the contributions of Bishop John Carroll

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Who is Bishop John Carroll? We certainly don’t hear much about him today, but he was the first bishop of the United States, the father of American Catholicism and a highly regarded patriot of the American Revolution. Father Carroll has been credited with influencing the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Because of his skills in planning and organizing the Church in America, some Church historians have given him the title “Spiritual Hannibal.” He was instrumental in establishing Catholic schools such as Georgetown University and St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, and he encouraged St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to begin the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland. But these achievements only begin to tell the story of this man, singled out by God to further the Gospel in the new frontiers of America.

Holy Man and Patriot

Born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1735, at age 13 he was sent to Europe for Catholic schooling because, at that time, Catholic schools or teachings did not exist, nor were permitted, in the 13 colonies. In 1761, he was ordained a Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. Within the next four years, the Jesuits were suspended by Pope Clement XIV (r. 1769-74) and Carroll returned to Maryland, where he found extreme anti-Catholic sentiment prevailing throughout much of the colonies. Many colonies did not allow public Masses, prohibited Catholics from holding governmental office and mocked Catholic beliefs. Sixteen thousand people were Catholics, less than 2% of the total population.

The same year that Father Carroll returned from Europe, British Parliament, under the rule of King George III, passed the Quebec Act, which approved the practice of Catholicism in Canada. This British effort was designed to ensure the alliance of the French Canadians in the event of a conflict with the colonies. The majority of colonists wanted nothing to do with this act or King George. The threat of the king extending the Quebec Act to the colonies was among the factors that caused the Americans to break from England. They proclaimed: “No King, No Papacy.”

This was the environment in which Father John Carroll found himself during the late 1700s. Despite the condemnation of his faith, he was able to hold American Catholics together and, at the same time, find ways to support the cause of the colonies. He was successful both in being true to Rome and to the land he loved.

Father Carroll was from a well-off and influential Catholic family; his cousin Charles was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. John Carroll became widely known and was well respected before and after the American Revolution.

In February 1776, the Continental Congress wanted the Canadians to ally themselves with the Americans in the forthcoming war against England. A small group of men was dispatched to encourage the Canadians; this group was led by Benjamin Franklin and included John Carroll. The mission was not a success, but Father Carroll and Franklin became well acquainted and their relationship would later lead to Franklin recommending Carroll as the head of the Catholic Church in America, a recommendation he made to the papal nuncio of France.

From the early founding of America, Catholic missions in the new land were under the jurisdiction of the Vatican Congregation Propaganda Fide (now the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) and overseen by the vicar apostolic in London. Following the Revolutionary War and appealing to the pope, the colonial mission became independent from the London vicar apostolic and, in 1784, Carroll was named Superior (Prefect Apostolic) of the Mission in the Thirteen United States of America with the power of confirmation. He was responsible for some 25,000 geographically separated Catholics.

Independence and Church Growth

Gaining independence from England, the new nation began to expand, especially to the West, and there was the need for additional Catholic parishes and priests. This expansion thrived during the French Revolution (1787-99) as many priests left France for America; they would help fill the need for priests in the new settlements. Also, under Bishop Carroll’s auspices, St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore began training priests in 1791 with the first ordination two years later. Priests from outside the United States, and guided by Bishop Carroll, would continue to spread the Gospel and act as both missionaries and pastors in the following century and beyond.

In 1789, the Catholic clergy asked the U.S. Congress if they would object to a Catholic bishop in the new republic. Receiving no objection, the clergy petitioned the pope for such action. Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-99) took the unprecedented step of asking the United States priests to elect their own bishop. Twenty-four of 26 priests selected Father Carroll and on Nov. 6, 1789, Pope Pius elevated him to bishop. On that same date, the pope established the Diocese of Baltimore, the only diocese in America and one that covered more than 3 million square miles with upward of 40,000 Catholics.

Carroll was consecrated as bishop in 1790, and 18 years later he became the first archbishop in America. By the time he became archbishop, there were four more dioceses: Philadelphia; Boston; Bardstown, Kentucky; and New York all organized under the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Bishop Carroll, possessing the inspired gifts of wisdom and vision, was able to harmonize the different ethnicities populating the United States, including Dutch, Spanish, French, Irish and English, and gave much energy to catechizing Native Americans. His first synod in 1791 sought unity among the priests ministering to all these different peoples.

Carroll’s Character

Reading a historical account or biography of Bishop Carroll, it is easy to fit him among our nation’s Founding Fathers, in the manner of Washington and Franklin. While such a characterization has merit, it should not detract from his role as father of the American Catholic Church. He was a pious man who gave himself to the organization of Christ’s holy Catholic Church in the United States.

Elizabeth Ann Seton was a friend of Bishop Carroll, and her biography by Agnes Sadlier (“Elizabeth Ann Seton,” D&J Sadlier & Co.) provides a fitting tribute to Carroll’s character: “He had governed the American Church since the year 1784, first as Prefect Apostolic, then as Bishop, and finally as Archbishop. When he began his pastoral rule, he found the Church poor, persecuted and unorganized; he left it full of vitality, and the spirit of progress, with several Bishops, a numerous body of clergy, a population almost doubled in numbers, and possessing convents, colleges and a seminary. Long and arduous had been the labor of this mighty toiler in the Lord’s vineyard, and the vines were loaded with rich fruit, when the Master called him to his rest.” He died on Dec. 3, 1815.

In recent times, Bishop Carroll has been accused of owning and even trading a slave(s) during his lifetime. Whether or not this flaw is the deciding factor, he has never been considered for sainthood, his cause for canonization never opened.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.


Prayer for our the Newly Formed Government of the United States

Bishop John Carroll composed the following prayer in November 1791, asking the Holy Spirit to assist the president of the United States, provide divine wisdom for the Congress and the newly formed government of the United States. He asked that the prayer be prayed in every parish. It is still read in parishes and is applicable today:

“We pray, O almighty and eternal God, who through Jesus Christ has revealed thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church, being spread throughout the world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of your name.

“Finally, we pray to you, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of your servants departed, who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives and friends; of those who, when living were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech you, a place of refreshment, light and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, Amen.”


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