Bishop John Connolly

On February 6th 1825 the John Connolly, the second bishop of New York died. Born in Slane parish about 1750 Bishop Connolly was the first bishop to take control of the new diocese of New York. It is possible that the Connolly family lived at Monknewtown where there is an old gravestone with the family name dating to the 1700s.

 He attended the Dominican school in Drogheda later joining the order. Ordained a priest in 1774 he became professor of theology and agent of the Irish bishops in Rome. When the French captured Rome Connolly managed to save the Irish college and its library from being plundered.

He was named as bishop of New York in succession to Bishop Concanen who had wanted Connolly to be bishop in the first place. Bishop Concanon spent two years trying unsuccessfully to get passage to America when he died in 1810. Connolly was consecrated in Rome in November 1814 but did not reach New York until a year later. Napoleon had imposed restrictions of the travel of British citizens. Connolly visited Ireland on his way to New York. On November 24, 1815, the good ship Sally sailed into New York harbour after a voyage of 67 days from Dublin. The trip had taken so long that many thought the vessel had been lost at sea. One of the passengers was an elderly Irishman who had caught a bad cold during the late autumn crossing of the North Atlantic. The Shamrock, the Irish newspaper in New York, misspelled his name as John Connoly and this elderly gentleman suffering from a cold began his work in his new diocese.

Bishop Connolly was 68 years of age when he was appointed the second Bishop of New York. He had lived his entire priestly life in Rome and had three times heroically refused to swear allegiance to Napoleon. His experience, however, was almost entirely academic and his knowledge of the United States was woefully limited.

The diocese then included all New York and part of New Jersey with only four priests to serve the whole diocese, nearly twice the size of Ireland. Today this same area comprises two archdioceses, nine dioceses, 2,000 churches, 6,000 priests and more than 10 million Catholics. The Irish comprised the largest segment of the Catholic community, followed by the French (both from France and Haiti), Germans, African-Americans, and lesser numbers of Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, English and native-born Americans. Connolly faced heavy debts on the two existing churches in New York and chronic shortages of funds and priests. He travelled long distances on horseback, over one thousand miles to the Irish emigrants building the Erie canal.

Despite his advance age Bishop Connolly erected thirteen churches, founded an orphan asylum and introduced the Sisters of Charity.

Bishop Connolly was interred in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in February of 1825 after a wake in St. Peter’s Church attended by 30,000 mourners. Some years later, his body was removed from its tomb to make room for a deceased layman whose family had influence with the trustees of the Cathedral parish. The bishop’s body was placed in a vault and forgotten until 1976 when it was discovered during a major renovation of the building. His body was re-interred in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral at the direction of Cardinal Cooke.