John Joseph Hughes, prelate of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, is born in the hamlet of Annaloghan, near Aughnacloy, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland on June 24, 1797.
Hughes is the third of seven children of Patrick and Margaret (née McKenna) Hughes. He and his family suffer religious persecution in their native land. He is sent with his elder brothers to a day school in the nearby village of Augher, and afterwards attends a grammar school in Aughnacloy. The family emigrates to the United States in 1816 and settles in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Hughes joins them there the following year.
After several unsuccessful applications to Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, he is eventually hired as a gardener at the college. During this time he befriends Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, who is impressed by Hughes and persuades the Rector to reconsider his admission. Hughes is subsequently admitted as a regular student of Mount St. Mary’s in September 1820.
On October 15, 1826, Hughes is ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Henry Conwell at St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia. His first assignment is as a curate at St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, where he assists its pastor by celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, preaching sermons, and other duties in the parish.
Hughes is chosen by Pope Gregory XVI as the coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of New York on August 7, 1837. He is consecrated bishop at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on January 7, 1838 with the title of the titular see of Basilinopolis, by the Bishop of New York, John Dubois, his former Rector.
Hughes campaigns actively on behalf of Irish immigrants and attempts to secure state support for parochial schools. Although this attempt fails, he founds an independent Catholic school system which becomes an integral part of the Catholic Church’s structure at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), which mandates that all parishes have a school and that all Catholic children be sent to those schools. In 1841, Hughes founds St. John’s College in New York City which is now Fordham University.
Hughes is appointed Apostolic Administrator of the diocese due to Bishop Dubois’ failing health. As coadjutor, he automatically succeeds Dubois upon the bishop’s death on December 20, 1842, taking over a diocese which covers the entire state of New York and northern New Jersey. He is a staunch opponent of Abolitionism and the Free Soil movement, whose proponents often express anti-Catholic attitudes. Hughes also founds the Ultramontane newspaper New York Freeman to express his ideas.
Hughes becomes an archbishop on July 19, 1850, when the diocese is elevated to the status of archdiocese by Pope Pius IX. As archbishop, he becomes the metropolitan for the Catholic bishops serving all the dioceses established in the entire Northeastern United States. To the dismay of many in New York’s Protestant upper-class, Hughes foresees the uptown expansion of the city and begins construction of the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Street, laying its cornerstone on August 15, 1858. At the request of President Abraham Lincoln, Hughes serves as semiofficial envoy to the Vatican and to France in late 1861 and early 1862. Lincoln also seeks Hughes’ advice on the appointment of hospital chaplains.
Hughes serves as archbishop until his death. He is originally buried in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, but his remains are exhumed in 1882 and re-interred in the crypt under the altar of the new cathedral he had begun.