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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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John Hennessy, Dubuque's first archbishop
196 Bluff. Photo courtesy: Old House Enthusiasts' Club House Tour, 2005

HENNESSY, John. (Bulgaden, County of Limerick, Ireland, Aug. 20, 1825--Dubuque, IA, Mar. 4, 1900). The son of William and Catherine (Meaney) Hennessy, who were farmers, John Hennessy was educated in local schools and then at private schools with an emphasis on Latin and Greek. He was a student for a short time at All Hallows College, a missionary seminary In Dublin. (1)

In 1847 during the worst year of the Irish famine, Hennessy accepted the invitation of the archbishop of St. Louis to move to the United States. He studied for the priesthood at St. Vincent's Seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Carondelet Seminary near St. Louis. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis on November 1, 1850. (2)

Father Hennessy was assigned to parish work in New Madrid, Missouri and then St. Peter's in Gravois. He then served as a seminary professor and then president at Carondelet. In 1858 he was sent to the Holy See as a representative of Archbishop Kenrick. It was in Rome, Italy that he learned of his appointment as the third bishop of Dubuque on April 24, 1866 by Pope Pius IX. He was consecrated and installed in ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL on September 16, 1866 by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of Saint Louis. (3) The principal co-consecrators were Bishops John Martin Henni of Milwaukee and James Duggan of Chicago. Bishop Hennessy attended the First Vatican Council in Rome from 1869–70. He also took a prominent role in the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. (4)

The diocese Hennessy served included all of the present state of Iowa. In his travels west to survey his congregation, Hennessy found that farming communities of Catholics had developed across the state. Irish priests were attracted from Irish seminaries where first- and second-generation Irish American priests were numerous. Bohemian priests also responded to Hennessy's call, but German-speaking priests were scarce. He dealt with the problem for ten years and finally traveled to Europe in 1880 and 1881 in the hopes of finding seminarians and priests.

Bishop Hennessy received many priests from Germany and Ireland, and in 1873 founded St. Joseph's College and Theological Seminary in Dubuque. Existing parishes were systematically divided, and he directed his energies especially to Christian education. Wherever possible schools were built, and sacrifices were made that every Catholic child should be educated by Catholic teachers. Considerable and continued opposition was offered by some Catholics, not only for economic reasons, but also because they considered the program an attack on the public schools. The wisdom of the bishop was shown by the prosperous condition of the parochial schools, which at the time of his silver Jubilee showed 12,257 pupils enrolled. (5) Bishop Hennessy's plan for a system of free schools for Catholics was elaborate, but failed.

Much more success for his educational plans came from his attention to attracting congregations of religious orders of women and ensuring the construction of their motherhouses in or near Dubuque. These included the motherhouse of the SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM). By 1890 they had moved into the city on a prime site above the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. The first two buildings of MT. ST. JOSEPH COLLEGE had been completed and enough other schools to closely link the order with education. Sisters of the Visitation of Mary, Sisters of Mercy, SISTERS OF THE THIRD ORDER OF ST. FRANCIS OF THE HOLY FAMILY (OSF), SISTERS OF THE PRESENTATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (PBVM), and the order he created the ORDER OF SISTERS OF THE HOLY GHOST. He only failed to acquire the Sisters of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration which located in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (6)

The need of a college for the training of future priests remained. Bishop Hennessy began with classes held in his own residence. These were later moved to MOUNT ST. BERNARD SEMINARY south of the city. The availability of the former residence of Judge Pollock on Julien Avenue proved too attractive to ignore until Bishop Hennessy was able to purchase an historical building on West 14th. This had been constructed by Bishop Mathias LORAS to be a hospital.

In 1873 classes opened at the seminary with only six students. Enrollment quickly grew; a new building was constructed in 1878 with others to be constructed to the west. The formation of LORAS COLLEGE was underway.

Hennessy had hopes that the diocese over which he ruled would be divided. In this regard, he worked with his vicar, Reverend John Brazill, the pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Des Moines. They considered a north-south division with Des Moines the see city of the new diocese with Rev. Brazill as its bishop. The city of Davenport, however, already had a growing Catholic school system and a large parcel of land located on the site of St. Anthony Church. Bishop Hennessy had tried to equalize the land issue by selling his vicar a large portion of the St. Ambrose Parish property. When the decision was made to split the Dubuque diocese east-west, Bishop Hennessy had to sue for repossession of the St. Ambrose land. (7)

In December, 1892 a council of bishops of the See of St. Louis had among its business the issue of raising the diocese of Iowa to that of a metropolitan See and the elevation of Bishop Hennessy to archbishop. (8) On June 15, 1893, Pope Leo XIII accepted the suggestion and gave to the the Diocese of Dubuque to the status of an archdiocese with Bishop Hennessy becoming the first Archbishop of Dubuque. The Ecclesial Province of Dubuque included the dioceses of Davenport, Omaha, Wichita and Sioux Falls. (9)

An advocate of Catholic education, Hennessy served from 1866 through 1900, a period of strong anti-Catholic feeling in Dubuque and nationwide. Upon his arrival in Dubuque, Hennessy found twenty-seven priests, thirty churches, two schools and seven sisters. In August 1890 at a retreat for priests, he again insisted on the establishment of a parochial school wherever there was a resident priest in the diocese. He also announced his intention of establishing a community of the ORDER OF THE HOLY CROSS, Sisters specially trained for teaching who would staff the new schools. (10) By 1891 under his guidance there were 203 priests, 319 churches, 615 sisters, and over 135 parochial schools attended by 16,257 students. A census bulletin in 1891 showed Dubuque had 303 church organizations and 319 edifices--more than any one archdiocese or diocese in the United States. (11)

Mortuary chapel. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

In 1903 at the request of Archbishop Hennessy a mortuary chapel was built beneath ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL. Archbishop Hennessy, who died before the project was completed, is buried there along with Bishop Mathias LORAS Bishop Clement SMYTH, Archbishop Francis J.L. BECKMAN, Archbishop Henry P. ROHLMAN, and Archbishop Raymond Etteldorf. Archbishops can choose whether to be buried in the chapel. The last burial was that of Archbishop James J. BYRNE. Renovations made to the chapel in 1958 included lighting behind stained-glass windows to create the image of a place above ground. (12)

In 1891 Bishop Hennessy was the largest single landowner along Main Street with over 400 feet in frontage. (13) Upon his death, Archbishop Hennessy left an estate of $700,000. (14) He left the Sisters of the Visitation the property upon which their academy stood and in respect for the number of young sisters who had died of TUBERCULOSIS he forgave the order the financial debts owed to him. He made a bequest of $50,000 for the construction of a theological seminary; $3,000 to the Sisters of St. Francis for their ST. MARY'S ORPHAN HOME, $5,000 for the planned foundation of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for the reformation of wayward girls, and $2,500 to the ST. VINCENT DE PAUL SOCIETY for their work in the archdiocese. The remainder of the estate was to be divided equally between the Catholic University of America and the Sisters of the Holy Ghost. (15)

Historians have been frustrated by the fact that Archbishop Hennessy chose to to burn all his records, personal and private. (16)

Ribbons worn by ushers at the services for Archbishop Hennessy. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding



1. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008

2. Ibid.

3. Riehl, Christian (Director of Publication), Archdiocese of Dubuque 1837-2012, Published by Éditions du Signe, 2011, p.33

4. Hudson

5. Ibid.

6. Riehl, p. 23

7. Riehl, p. 30

8. "Archdiocese of Dubuque," Catholic Answer to Explain & Defend the Faith, Online: http://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/archdiocese-of-dubuque

9. "Bishop Hennessy's Elevation," Dubuque Daily Herald, December 15, 1892, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18921215&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

10. Hudson

11. "Parochial Schools," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 30, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900830&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. Hudson

13. Lyons, Erica, " 'Founding Fathers Lie in Mortuary Chapel," Telegraph Herald, February 11, 2019, p. 3

14. "Views on Granite Paving," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 8, 1891, p 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910508&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

15. Gallagher, Mary Kevin B.V.M. Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Dubuque, Iowa: Archdiocese of Dubuque Press, 1987

16. Riehl, Christian (Director of Publication), Archdiocese of Dubuque 1837-2012, Published by Éditions du Signe, 2011, p.33