His Eminence James Gibbons
The fourth of six children, James Gibbons was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Thomas and Bridget (née Walsh) Gibbons. His parents were from Tourmackeady, County Mayo, Ireland, and settled in the United States after moving to Canada. After falling ill with tuberculosis in 1839, his father moved the family to his native Ireland, where he believed the air would benefit him. There, Thomas operated a grocery store in Ballinrobe and young James received his early education. His father died in 1847, and his mother returned the family to the United States in 1853, settling in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Gibbons decided to pursue Holy Orders after attending a sermon given by Paulist co-founder, Clarence Walworth. In 1855, he entered St. Charles College in Ellicott City. After graduating from St. Charles, he entered St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1857. He suffered a severe attack of malaria during his time at St. Mary's, leaving his state of health so poor that his superiors almost considered him unsuitable for ordination.
On June 30, 1861, Gibbons was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Francis Kenrick of Baltimore.
He then served as a curate at St. Patrick's Church in Fells Point for six weeks before becoming the first pastor of St. Brigid's Church in Canton. In addition to his duties at St. Brigid's, he assumed charge of St. Lawrence Church in Locust Point and was a chaplain for Fort McHenry in the Civil War, during which he supported the Union despite having been born and largely raised in the South.
In 1865, Gibbons was made private secretary to Archbishop Martin John Spalding. He helped prepare for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in October 1866. At Spalding's prompting, the Council fathers recommended both the creation of an apostolic vicariate for North Carolina and the nomination of Gibbons to head it.
In 1899, Pope Leo XIII sent Gibbons a letter, known by its first words in Latin Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, concerning new opinions on virtue, nature and grace, religious life and other matters, with regard to so called "americanism".
On March 3, 1868, Gibbons was appointed Apostolic Vicar of North Carolina and Titular Bishop of Adramyttium by Pope Pius IX. He received his episcopal consecration on the following August 15 from Archbishop Spalding, with Bishops Patrick Neeson Lynch and Michael Domenec, CM, serving as co-consecrators. At age 34, he was one of the youngest Catholic bishops in the world and was known as "the boy bishop."
Gibbons became a popular American religious figure, gathering crowds for his sermons on diverse topics that could apply to Christianity as a whole. He was an acquaintance of every president from Andrew Johnson to Warren G. Harding and an adviser to several of them.
In 1886, Gibbons was created a cardinal, becoming the second American to attain that rank in the Catholic Church. Gibbons advocated the creation of The Catholic University of America and served as its first Chancellor upon its creation in 1887. He participated in the 1903 conclave, but arrived late to the 1914 conclave.
Gibbons advocated for the protection of labor, an issue of particular concern because of the many Catholics who were being exploited by the industrial expansion of America's urban East coast at the turn of the century. He was once quoted as saying, "It is the right of laboring classes to protect themselves, and the duty of the whole people to find a remedy against avarice, oppression, and corruption." Gibbons had a key role in the granting of Papal permission for Catholics to join labor unions.
In his later years he was seen as the public face of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and on his death was widely mourned. He is famous for his support of the labor movement in the United States, and for the numerous schools named after him. Mencken, who reserved his harshest criticism for Christian ministers, wrote, in 1921 after the Gibbons' death, "More presidents than one sought the counsel of Cardinal Gibbons: he was a man of the highest sagacity, a politician in the best sense, and there is no record that he ever led the Church into a bog or up a blind alley. He had Rome against him often, but he always won in the end, for he was always right."