St. Mary's Seminary & University

Remembering Cardinal James Gibbons

Portrait of Cardinal James Gibbons taken around 1920

Coat of Arms of Cardinal James Gibbons. This is the second coat of arms used by Cardinal Gibbons. It was commissioned in 1910 and designed by Pierre de Chaignon La Rose. It displays the coats of arms of the Archdiocese of Baltimore on the left and the Gibbons family of Ireland on the right with the addition of the escallop shell to symbolize St. James the Apostle, the Cardinal’s baptismal patron. His motto, Emitte Spiritum Tuum (Send forth Thy Spirit; Ps. 103:30), reflected his devotion to the Holy Spirit.

About the Exhibit

The 100th anniversary of the death of Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s ninth and longest serving archbishop, was observed on March 24, 2021. On such an occasion, it is only appropriate to look back on the career of this extraordinary churchman and leader of Maryland’s Catholic community, whose priestly ministry began at the start of the U.S. Civil War and ended 60 years later in the aftermath of the First World War and a global pandemic.

Items Highlighted in Exhibit

The items included in this exhibit are found in the archives represented in two of our holdings: the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Associated Sulpicians of the United States.

Brief Biography

James Gibbons was the fourth surviving child born to Irish immigrants Thomas Gibbons and Bridget Walsh in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 23, 1834. He was baptized at the Cathedral (now Basilica) of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where some forty years later he returned to assume his duties as the ninth archbishop of Baltimore. The decision of his parents to move back to Ireland when James was still a child placed the family in the country on the eve of the Great Hunger. Little is known of the difficulties the Gibbons family endured, but the father was able to provide for his family through the grocery he operated in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. His premature death led to the family’s return to the United States in 1853, this time settling in New Orleans. There the young James was employed as a clerk until he discerned his vocation to the priesthood. He received his training under the Sulpician Fathers at St. Charles’ College and High School (1848-1969) and St. Mary’s Seminary & University (est. 1791) and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Baltimore on June 30, 1861.

Depiction of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, c. 1820, at the time it was dedicated. It was the first cathedral constructed for the Archdiocese of Baltimore (est. 1789) and served as the seat of Cardinal Gibbons during his nearly 44 years as archbishop. It was also the church from which Cardinal Gibbons was baptized, ordained to the priesthood, and buried.

His first assignment was to St. Patrick’s Church (est. 1792) in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, at that time a predominately Irish parish located near the harbor from which so many earned their living. He was soon moved to nearby St. Brigid’s Church (1854-2019) in Canton, which included visiting the families of St. Lawrence O’Toole Church (now Our Lady of Good Counsel; est. 1859) in Locust Point. He also volunteered to be a chaplain at Fort Marshall and Fort McHenry, both in Baltimore, where he ministered to the Union and Confederate soldiers who were either stationed or imprisoned at the forts during the Civil War. In 1865 he became secretary to Abp. Martin J. Spalding (1810-1872) where, among his other duties, he helped prepare for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866). He was nominated for the newly-created vicariate apostolic of North Carolina at the Council and was installed in 1868, making him the youngest bishop in the world. Four years later he was appointed the fourth bishop of Richmond, while still remaining Vicar Apostolic of North Carolina. In May 1877 he was named coadjutor to Abp. James R. Bayley (1814-1877) and succeeded him as the ninth Archbishop of Baltimore on October 3, 1877, an office he held for the next forty-three years until his death in 1921.

Cardinal Gibbons outside of the Archbishop’s Residence on North Charles Street. The block on which the residence stands had become a favorite spot for rollerskating among children of the neighborhood. Many had memories of seeing “our cardinal” out on his daily walk around the city. One of these children later wrote as an adult: “I shall never forget my first impression … as he came down the street with long, graceful strides, swinging his Irish walking stick. He was erect and trim in his clerical black with the rim of his scarlet zuchetto visible under his soft black hat.” [Ruth W. Dodson, “Memories of Old Baltimore: Skaters Meet Their Cardinal,” Baltimore Sun, April 1, 1966.] Others recalled going over to speak with him, while a few were even allowed to hold onto the hem of his coat so that they could be pulled along.

Highlights of his career include attending the First Vatican Council (1869-1970), presiding over the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), elevation to the College of Cardinals (1886), the founding of The Catholic University of America (1889), participation in the papal conclave of 1903 that elected Pope Pius X, and the organization of the National Catholic Welfare Council (1919) (today known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). He was the recognized leader of the U.S. Catholic Church during the years he served as Archbishop of Baltimore and is credited with doing much to improve relations between the Catholic community and larger society through his involvement in civic affairs and associations with leaders of other religious denominations. One historian noted that Cardinal Gibbons’ greatest skill was not as an orator or writer, but as a diplomat. Time and again over the course of his career, Church and political leaders, which included Popes and U.S. Presidents, turned to him for counsel and help with intermediating matters that required his discretion and deft touch. The esteem in which he was held was reflected in the civic demonstration that was held in honor of his golden jubilee to the priesthood and silver jubilee as a cardinal in 1911. Religious leaders and representatives from across federal, state, and local governments, including the sitting U.S. President, William Howard Taft, and former President Theodore Roosevelt, were counted among the over 20,000 people who had gathered in Baltimore to celebrate the occasion. 

Civic demonstration held in Baltimore in honor of Cardinal Gibbons’ golden jubilee to the priesthood and silver jubilee as a cardinal, June 6, 1911.

Cardinal Gibbons on the steps of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary viewing one of the impromptu parades held in Baltimore to celebrate Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

Cardinal Gibbons was also the author of five books, including The Faith of Our Fathers (1876), a Catholic apologetical that enjoyed widespread success among Catholic and non-Catholic audiences. It is acknowledged to be one of the most successful works of this genre written in the English language and remains in print today. His most famous work, however, was a memorial written in defense of the Knights of Labor (1887) which prevented condemnation of the country most popular labor union by the pope and upheld for the first time the right of U.S. Catholics to organize and join labor unions. The letter helped to inspire Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), a papal encyclical that addressed how the forces of urbanization and industrialization had impacted Western Society. It is recognized as one of the most significant papal encyclicals of the past two centuries and as a foundational document of modern Catholic social teaching.

Cover page from the 100th edition of The Faith of Our Fathers by Cardinal James Gibbons published in 1917.

First page of the memorial written on behalf of the Knights of Labor, 1887. [English translation published in the Moniteur de Rome and included in Allen S. Will’s Life of James Cardinal Gibbons (Baltimore: John Murphy Company, 1911), pp. 151-61.]

Cardinal Gibbons died peacefully in his 87th year on Holy Thursday of 1921. Tributes poured in from around the world and dignitaries representing nearly every nation assembled in Baltimore to join Church leaders, representatives of federal, state, and local governments, and the faithful of the Archdiocese to attend the funeral Mass held on March 31 at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The pomp and ceremony of the service was unlike anything seen before in this country for a Catholic bishop. It was reported that over 125,000 people viewed his body while it lay in state and thousands lined the streets near the Basilica to watch the procession for his funeral. At the request of the Governor of Maryland and the Mayor of Baltimore, all activity was to stop for one minute when the funeral Mass began at 10AM as a sign of respect.

Crucifix held by Cardinal James Gibbons while he lay in state. 

Funeral Mass of Cardinal James Gibbons at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, March 31, 1921.

Ticket to the funeral Mass of Cardinal James Gibbons with a mourning badge.

A tribute from Pope Benedict XV best summarized his significance to the U.S. Catholic community: “Cardinal Gibbons, excellent priest, learned master, vigilant pastor, was an exemplary citizen…. His memory, therefore, must be cherished with profound veneration not only by every Catholic, but also every citizen of the United States of America.”


Further Reading

John Tracy Ellis. Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 2 vols. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1952.

Thomas W. Spalding. The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.