John Carroll

John Carroll (1735-1815) was the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in America. He designed the organization of the American Catholic Church, encouraged its educational activities, and emphasized its compatibility with democracy.

John Carroll was born in Upper Marlborough, Md., on Jan. 8, 1735, to Daniel Carroll, a wealthy merchant and landowner, and Eleanor Darnall Carroll. When he was 12 years old, John entered a Jesuit school in Maryland; in 1748 he went to Europe to continue his studies. He first attended St. Omers in France and then became a novice at the Jesuit college in Liège, Belgium, where he eventually taught. During this period he was ordained.

Carroll returned to America in 1774. Although he was a member of the colonial aristocracy, Carroll was active in behalf of the Revolutionary cause and the fledgling republic. In 1776 the Continental Congress asked him to join the Committee to Canada, consisting of his cousin Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, and Benjamin Franklin, in its effort to persuade the Canadians to revolt against England. The mission failed and Carroll returned to Philadelphia with the ailing Franklin, who remained his lifelong friend. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were among the many prominent men who welcomed his counsel. He worked to integrate his Church into the life of the country, urging that the liturgy be read in the vernacular and offering prayers for officials and the government.

Instrumental in obtaining religious tolerance for Catholics, Carroll worked to preserve the Church property which had belonged to the Jesuits before the order was disbanded. In 1784 he was appointed Supreme of Missions. Pius VI named him bishop of Baltimore in 1789, a post he accepted because he was convinced that an American bishop was needed.

Carroll's goal was to unify the disparate elements in the Church. In 1791 he called the first national synod for the purpose of coordinating the work of the clergy. Irish, German, French, and Spanish priests were jealous and distrustful of each other. The laity was even more seriously fragmented, for control of Church property was in the hands of lay trustees, who were not willing to use the property for the benefit of all Catholics. Carroll insisted that this practice be changed. By 1810 four additional sees had been created—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Ky. After Carroll consecrated the bishops, they worked out a pattern for uniformity of Catholic discipline. These regulations and those Carroll laid out at the synod of 1791 were the first canon law in the United States.

Carroll supported the establishment of parochial schools, academies, religious orders, and secular schools. Catholic colleges were established at Georgetown (1788) and Baltimore (1799). He was president of the board of trustees of St. John's College at Annapolis, Md. He died in Baltimore on Dec. 3, 1815.

Further Reading on John Carroll

Theodore Maynard, The Story of American Catholicism (1960), contains substantially sound information on Carroll, but there is little documentation. John Tracy Ellis, Catholics in Colonial America (1965), supplies additional detail and more documentation. Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Experience: An Interpretation of the History of American Catholicism (1967), contains numerous references to Carroll, but Greeley makes no attempt to be objective and there is no documentation. John Tracy Ellis, ed., Documents of American Catholic History (2 vols., 1956; 2d ed. 1962; rev. ed. 1967), is the best source for Carroll's statements.

Additional Biography Sources

Shea, John Dawson Gilmary, History of the Catholic Church within the limits of the United States, New York: Arno Press, 1978, c1886-1892.