Number 3 of my series on great Jesuits of American history.
A year before the colonies won their fight for independence, John McElroy first saw the light of day in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, Ireland on May 11,1782. At this time English imposed penal laws meant that Irish Catholics were treated like helots in their own land. The great Edmund Burke described the penal laws well:
“For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
As a result of these laws McElroy could receive little education in Ireland. Ambition and a thirst for knowledge caused him, like many Irish Catholics before and since, to emigrate to the US, landing on our shores in 1803. He became a bookkeeper at Georgetown College, studying Latin in his off hours. In 1806 he joined the Jesuits as a lay brother, but his intelligence and his industry quickly marked him down to his Jesuit superiors as a candidate for the priesthood. Ordained in 1817 , for several years he served at Trinity Church in Georgetown, until being transferred to Frederick, Maryland, where, during the next twenty-three years, with the boundless energy which was his hallmark, he built Saint John’s Church, a college, an orphan’s asylum, and the first free schools in Frederick. He was then transferred back to Trinity in Georgetown where he remained for a year until the Mexican War began.
I have detailed in a post here how Father McElroy and Father Anthony Rey, both Jesuits, were chosen to be the first Catholic priests to be appointed as chaplains in the United States Army. In 1886 after his death the reminiscences of Father McElroy were published of what occurred:
“In a few days, the two Fathers called on the Secretary of War for instructions how to proceed. He (Mr. Marcy) received us very affably, expressed his desire that we should visit the President, and ordered his chief clerk to prepare letters for the Commanders of different posts to facilitate our journey; besides he requested me to give him my views of what he should expect while with the Army, which I sent him a little later in writing and which he embodied, almost transcribed, in his despatch to General Taylor. The Secretary introduced us to the President, who received us with great kindness and regard; he expressed a hope that our mission would be one of peace; that we carried not the sword, but the olive branch, that our mission would be a refutation of the erroneous opinions held in Mexico, that the United States warred against their religion, etc. He continued to state very frankly the great desire he had to bring their matters of dispute to an amicable conclusion.
“As neither of us could speak Spanish I proposed to the President the propriety of associating with us a third clergyman who was familiar with the language. He very promptly adopted my suggestion and told the Secretary to embody that in his despatch to the General-in-Chief, where it will be found.
Father McElroy went to war at a rather advanced age, 64, especially at a time when most men and women were fortunate if they lived to fifty, but, as he did everything in his long life, he performed his duties with immense energy. Assigned to the base camp of General Taylor’s army at Matamoros, he spent a year tending to the wounded and victims of yellow fever, saying Mass and giving the Last Rites and hearing confessions. He was frequently mentioned in military despatches and praised in the highest terms for his untiring efforts. In May of 1847, worn out and sick, he was discharged from the Army and assigned to the large Saint Mary’s parish in Boston, the first Jesuit to be a pastor in that town.
One might have expected that at his age, and after his grueling experiences as a chaplain during the war, that Father McElroy’s thoughts would now be turning to his retirement. Far from it. He believed that Boston needed a Jesuit college which could provide an inexpensive education to the Irish immigrants swarming into Boston. “Our youth must be preserved in their faith, well grounded in the principles of their religion and trained up in the practice of it. To this, a liberal, scientific education must be added to qualify them to act their part creditably in that sphere in which, by Divine Providence, they are to walk.”
In 1853 Father McElroy saw his opportunity. He found a spot close to downtown and purchased it with a down payment of $13,000.00 and a mortgage on the remaining $46,000.00 of the purchase price. However, in order for the college to be built changes in zoning laws had to be implemented. Years of negotiations came to naught when the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings came to power and refused to grant the necessary change of the zoning. Father McElroy was able to have his money for the purchase refunded, but at 75 his goal of a college for the Irish immigrants was still just a dream.
Nothing daunted, he began again. Finding suitable land in Boston’s South end, he purchased it for $50,000.00, with the city government endorsing the sale, the Know-Nothings having been tossed out through the ballot box.
Ground was broken in Spring 1858 with Father McElroy and the Bishop of Boston wielding the ceremonial shovels. Within two years the building housing Boston College and the adjacent Church of the Immaculate Conception were completed. Classes began in the Fall of 1864 with 22 students. Like Moses, Father McElroy saw the promised land but did not enter into it. In 1863 he decided it was time to retire, his dream of Boston College having been realized. In retirement he remained active in pastoral work and leading retreats throughout the nation. His sight failing, he spent his last years in Frederick, Maryland. When he died at 95 on September 12, 1877 he was the oldest Jesuit in the world. He didn’t waste a minute God gave him.