John England (bishop)

John England (September 23, 1786 in Cork – April 11, 1842 in Charleston, South Carolina) was the first Catholic Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.

Early life

John England was educated in Cork, and later entered St. Patrick's, Carlow College, 31 August, 1803. In his nineteenth year he began to deliver catechetical instructions in the parish chapel and zealously instructed the soldiers in garrison at Cork. He also established a female reformatory together with male and female poor schools. Out of these schools grew the Presentation Convent. He was ordained priest in Cork, 10 October, 1809, and was appointed lecturer at the cathedral. Wherever he preached people thronged to hear him. Pending the opening of the Magdalen Asylum he maintained and ministered to many applicants. In the same year he published the "Religious Repertory", established a circulating library in the parish of St. Mary, Shandon, and attended the city jail. In the elections of 1812 he fearlessly exerted his influence, maintaining that, "in vindicating the political rights of his countrymen, he was but asserting their liberty of conscience". In the same year he was appointed president of the new diocesan College of St. Mary, where he taught theology.

In 1814 he vigorously assailed the Veto measure. Next to O'Connell's his influence was the greatest in the agitation which culminated in Catholic Emancipation. To help this cause he founded "The Chronicle" which he continued to edit until he left Ireland. in 1817 he was appointed parish priest of Bandon. (The bigotry and prejudice of this city at that time may be conjectured from the inscription over its gates: "Turk, Jew or Atheist may enter here, but not a Papist.") In spite of the prejudices which he found there, he soon conciliated men of every sect and party.


He was consecrated Bishop of Charleston at Cork, 21 September, 1820, and refused to take the customary oath of allegiance to the British Government, declaring his intention to become a citizen of the United States as soon as possible. He arrived in Charleston 30 December, 1820. Conditions were most uninviting and unpromising in the new diocese, which consisted of the three States of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. The Catholics were scattered in little groups over these States. The meagre number in Charleston consisted of very poor immigrants from Ireland and ruined refugees from San Domingo and their servants. In 1832, after twelve years of labour, Bishop England estimated the Catholics of his diocese at eleven thousand souls: 7500 in South Carolina, 3000 in Georgia, and 500 in North Carolina. South Carolina was settled as a royal province by the Lords Proprietors, who brought with them the religion of the Established Church, and it was only in 1790 that enactments imposing religious disabilities were expunged from the constitution of the new State. Religious and social antecedents and traditions, and the resultant public opinion, were unfavourable, if not antagonistic, to the growth of Catholicism. The greatest need was a sufficient number of Catholic clergy. This sparsely settled section, with scattered and impoverished congregations, had not heretofore attracted many men of signal merit and ability. Bishop England faced these unfavourable conditions in a brave and determined spirit. The day after his arrival he assumed formal charge of his see, and almost immediately issued a pastoral and set out on his first visitation of the three States comprising his diocese. No bishop could be more regular and constant in these visitations. He went wherever he heard there was a Catholic, organized the scattered little flocks, ministered to their spiritual needs, appointed persons to teach catechism, and wherever possible urged the building of a church. During these visitations he preached in halls, court houses, State houses, and in Protestant chapels and churches, sometimes at the invitation of the pastors. When in Charleston he preached at least twice every Sunday and delivered several courses of lectures besides various addresses on special occasions. He successfully advocated before the Legislature of South Carolina the granting of a charter for his diocesan corporation, which had been strongly opposed through the machinations of the disaffected trustees. In 1826 he delivered, by invitation, an eloquent discourse before the Congress of the United States. It was the first time a Catholic priest was so honoured. He was chiefly instrumental in having the First Provincial Council of Baltimore convened, and pending this, formulated a constitution for his diocese defining its relations to civil and canon law. This was incorporated by the State and adopted by the several congregations. He also organized conventions of representative clergy and laity in each of the States in his diocese, to meet annually. In 1840 these were merged into one general convention. He held a synod of the clergy, 21 November, 1831, and in 1832 established a seminary and college under the name of "The Philosophical and Classical Seminary of Charleston", hoping with the income from the collegiate department to maintain the seminary. Notwithstanding his many and varied duties he devoted himself to this institution as teacher of classics and professor of theology. Organized bigotry soon assailed it, reducing the attendance from one hundred and thirty to thirty; but he continued and it became the alma mater of many eminent laymen and apostolic priests. In the words of Chancellor Kent, "Bishop England revived classical learning in South Carolina". In 1822 he organized and incorporated a Book Society to be established in each congregation, and in the same year his indefatigable energy and zeal led him to establish the "United States Catholic Miscellany", the first distinctively Catholic newspaper published in the United States. It continued to be published until 1861 and is a treasury of instructive and edifying reading. He also compiled a catechism and prepared a new edition of the Missal in English with an explanation of the Mass. He was an active member of the Philosophical Society of Charleston, assisted in organizing the Antiduelling Society, and strenuously opposed Nullification in a community where it was vehemently advocated. His intense loyalty to his faith led him into several controversies which he conducted with a dignity and charity that commanded the respect of his opponents and elicited touching tributes from some of them at his death.

African Americans

In 1830 he established in Charleston the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy "to educate females of the middling class of society; also to have a school for free colored girls, and to give religious instruction to female slaves ; they will also devote themselves to the service of the sick". Subsequently their scope was enlarged, and branch houses were established at Savannah, Wilmington, and Sumter. In 1834 he further promoted education and charity by the introduction of the Ursulines. In 1835 Rt. Rev. William Clancy arrived from Ireland as the coadjutor of Bishop England, but, after a year's dissatisfied sojourn, he requested and obtained a transfer to another field. Bishop England had originally asked for the appointment of the Rev. Dr. Paul Cullen, then rector of the Irish College, Rome (afterwards the first Irish cardinal), as his coadjutor.

A striking phase of Bishop England's apostolic character was manifested in his spiritual care of the negroes. He celebrated an early Mass in the cathedral for them every Sunday and preached to them at this Mass and at a Vesper service. He was accustomed to deliver two afternoon sermons; if unable to deliver both, he would disappoint the rich and cultured who flocked to hear him, and preach to the poor ignorant Africans. In the epidemics of those days he exhibited great devotion to the sick, while his priests and the Sisters of Mercy volunteered their services in the visitations of cholera and yellow fever. His personal poverty was pitiable. He was known to have walked the streets of Charleston with the bare soles of his feet to the ground. Several times the excessive fatigue and exposure incurred in his visitations and ministrations prostrated him, and more than once he was in danger of death. Twice he visited Hayti as Apostolic Delegate. In 1823 he was asked to take charge of East Florida and, having been given the powers of vicar-general, made a visitation of that territory.


In the interests of his impoverished diocese he visited the chief towns and cities of the Union, crossed the ocean four times, sought aid from the Holy Father, the Propaganda, the Leopoldine Society of Vienna, and made appeals in Ireland, England, France, Italy, wherever he could obtain money, vestments, or books. After Easter, in 1841, he visited Europe for the last time. On the long and boisterous return voyage there was much sickness, and he became seriously ill through his constant attendance on others. Though very weak, notwithstanding, on his arrival in Philadelphia, he preached seventeen nights consecutively, also four nights in Baltimore. With his health broken and his strength almost exhausted, he promptly resumed his duties on his return to Charleston, where he died.

Most of his writings were given to the public through the columns of the "United States Catholic Miscellany", in the publication of which he was aided by his sister. His successor, Bishop Reynolds, collected his various writings, which were published in five volumes at Baltimore, in 1849. A new edition, edited by Archbishop S.B. Messmîr of Milwaukee, was published at Cleveland in 1908.

Bishop England High School, founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1915, was named in his honor.


* John England, "The Works of the Right Reverend John England, First Bishop of Charleston", edited by Sebastian G. Messmer, Archbishop of Milwaukee (7 vols., 1908).
* Peter K. Guilday, "The Life and Times of John England, First Bishop of Charleston, 1786-1842" (2 vols., 1927, reprinted 1969).
* Dorothy Grant, "John England" (1949).
* Thomas T. McAvoy, "A History of the Catholic Church in the United States" (1969).


* [ "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic"] website, Library of Congress (2003)

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