America's Catholic Founding Fathers

by Chris Canniff

Chris is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus and a Senior Staff Columnist.


In the summer of 1776, fifty-six noble statesmen dipped their quills into iron gall ink and declared the peoples of this nation to be free. Unsurprisingly, only one of the signers was a Catholic, Maryland’s Charles Carroll.


Born into an aristocratic plantation family, Charles Carroll was not initially interested in politics, and civil law barred him from public office anyway because of his Roman Catholic faith. Nevertheless, he and his family were powerful and prominent people in the colonies because of their immense wealth.

After a Jesuit education both in America and in Europe, Carroll managed vast tracts of agricultural lands, but as the colonial conflicts with the crown escalated in the 1770s, Carroll became a vocal supporter of American independence. He published a series of pseudonymous writings in The Maryland Gazette under the name of “First Citizen,” a title initially used by the Roman Emperor Augustus as a rejection of the title of king. When Carroll's identity was revealed, his notoriety rapidly increased, and he became known for his gentlemanly restraint and sophisticated articulation when espousing the American cause for liberty.


Carroll was elected to a few committees organized by patriots who were planning to take actions against the British authorities. And on July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress. The text of the Declaration of Independence had been approved two days prior, and he soon signed the document as Charles Carroll of Carrollton in order to distinguish himself from his father who was known as Charles Carroll of Annapolis.


In the years after the Revolutionary War, Carroll served as a member of the Maryland State Senate as well as the United States Senate. After retiring from public life in 1801, he still remained fairly involved in the affairs of the burgeoning nation.


Dying in November 1832 at age 95, Charles Carroll no longer only held the distinction of being the lone Catholic, but also became the longest-lived and last surviving of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.


Charles Carroll was related to the Most Reverend John Carroll, first Archbishop of Baltimore (their fathers were first cousins). John Carroll was the first bishop in the United States. He had initially joined the Jesuits, but upon the order’s suppression by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, he returned to Maryland from his European seminary teaching position and worked as a secular priest.


In 1776, John was recruited by the Continental Congress to travel to Quebec along with Benjamin Franklin and his cousin Charles to seek the aid of the French-speaking, Catholic populace. The trip was unsuccessful.


Carroll came to prominence in 1784 when a curial official working in Paris met Benjamin Franklin, who was serving there as an American ambassador. Franklin had praised John Carroll, and the curate thus recommended to His Holiness Pope Pius VI that Carrol be promoted. The Pontiff named Carroll “Superior of the Missions in the thirteen United States of North America.”


Four years later, the 26 Catholic priests in the U.S. acknowledged the need for a bishop, and in a truly American spirit, they requested permission from Rome to elect one of their own. In a vote of 24 to 2, John Carroll was chosen as Bishop of Baltimore; the vote was duly approved by Pius VI shortly thereafter.


As such, Carroll oversaw many Catholic firsts for the new country such as the founding of the first Catholic college (Georgetown University), the convening of the first diocesan synod, and the construction of the first Catholic cathedral (Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).


During his nearly thirty-year episcopacy, the Catholic population flourished, and in April 1808 Pope Pius VII raised the See of Baltimore to the rank of archdiocese with suffragan sees in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, KY. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the U.S. was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the formation of these dioceses.


Archbishop Carroll passed away in 1815 at the age of 80. He is the namesake of several Catholic schools, including one of BC's sister schoolsthe Jesuit-run John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.


The stories of these two early Catholic Americans reveal how much the faithful contributed to the founding of our country and how much work there was to be done for the Faith in the early days of our republic. And now, I leave you today with a prayer written by Archbishop Carroll in 1791, in which he prays for the prosperity of our land which holds so much promise for humanity:


We pray Thee, O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.


We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.


We pray Thee, O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality.


Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.


We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.


We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.


Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy 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 Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.




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