John England (September 23, 1786, Cork, Ireland – April 11, 1842, Charleston, South Carolina) was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina. England served as a priest in Cork, where, before being appointed to Charleston, he was very active in the movement for Catholic Emancipation.

John England
Bishop of Charleston
Bishop John England.jpg
Bishop John England
ChurchCatholic Church
In officeSeptember 21, 1820–
April 11, 1842
SuccessorIgnatius A. Reynolds
OrdinationOctober 10, 1809
Personal details
BornSeptember 23, 1786
Cork, Ireland
DiedApril 11, 1842 (aged 55)
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.

Early lifeEdit

John England was born in Cork, Ireland, and initially pursued a career in law. He entered the office of a distinguished barrister, where he studied for two years.[1]

In 1786 entered St. Patrick's, Carlow College on August 31, 1803. In his nineteenth year he began to deliver catechetical instructions in the parish chapel and zealously instructed the soldiers of the militia at Cork.[1] He also established a female reformatory together with male and female poor schools. Out of these schools grew the Presentation Convent. In 1808, while yet a seminarian, he was appointed Director of the Theological School at Cork. He was ordained a priest in Cork, 10 October 1809, and was appointed lecturer at the North Chapel and chaplain of prisons.[2] Wherever he preached people thronged to hear him. Pending the opening of the Magdalen Asylum he maintained and ministered to many applicants.[3]

In the same year he published the "Religious Repertory", established a circulating library in the parish of St. Mary, Shandon, and attended the city jail. In the elections of 1812 he fearlessly exerted his influence, maintaining that, "in vindicating the political rights of his countrymen, he was but asserting their liberty of conscience". In the same year he was appointed president of the new diocesan College of St. Mary, where he taught theology.[3]

In 1814 he vigorously assailed the Veto measure. Next to O'Connell's his influence was the greatest in the agitation which culminated in Catholic Emancipation. To help this cause he founded "The Chronicle" which he continued to edit until he left Ireland. in 1817 he was appointed parish priest of Bandon. (The bigotry and prejudice of this city at that time may be conjectured from the inscription over its gates: "Enter here Turk Jew or Atheist, Every man except a Papist", the Irish-Catholic ripost being even better "The man who wrote this wrote it well, For the same is writ on the Gates of Hell"). In spite of the prejudices which he found there, he soon conciliated men of every sect and party.[3]


An early photograph of England

He was consecrated Bishop of Charleston at Cork, 21 September 1820,[4] in the parish church of St. Finbar's in Cork. He refused to take the customary oath of allegiance to the Crown, declaring his intention to become a citizen of the United States as soon as possible. He embarked from Belfast and arrived in Charleston 30 December 1820. Conditions were most uninviting and unpromising in the new diocese, which consisted of the three States of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. The Catholics were scattered in little groups over these States.

The meagre number in Charleston consisted of very poor immigrants from Ireland and ruined refugees from San Domingo and their servants. In 1832, after twelve years of labour, Bishop England estimated the Catholics of his diocese at eleven thousand souls: 7500 in South Carolina, 3000 in Georgia, and 500 in North Carolina. South Carolina had been settled as a royal province by the Lords Proprietors, who brought with them the religion of the Established Church, and it was only in 1790 that enactments imposing religious disabilities were expunged from the constitution of the new State.

Religious and social antecedents and traditions, and the resultant public opinion, were unfavourable, if not antagonistic, to the growth of Catholicism. The greatest need was a sufficient number of Catholic clergy. This sparsely settled section, with scattered and impoverished congregations, had not heretofore attracted many men of signal merit and ability. Bishop England faced these unfavourable conditions in a brave and determined spirit. The day after his arrival he assumed formal charge of his see, and almost immediately issued a pastoral. He then set out on his first visitation of the three States comprising his diocese.[4]

Bishop England went wherever he heard there was a Catholic, organized the scattered little flocks, ministered to their spiritual needs, appointed persons to teach catechism, and wherever possible urged the building of a church. During these visitations he preached in halls, court houses, State houses, and in Protestant chapels and churches, sometimes at the invitation of the pastors. When in Charleston he preached at least twice every Sunday and delivered several courses of lectures besides various addresses on special occasions. He successfully advocated before the Legislature of South Carolina the granting of a charter for his diocesan corporation, which had been strongly opposed through the machinations of the disaffected trustees. Bishop England was instrumental in the founding of an Anti-Dueling Association.[1]

In 1826 he delivered, by invitation, an eloquent discourse before Congress, it was the first time a Catholic priest was so honoured.[5] He was chiefly instrumental in having the First Provincial Council of Baltimore convened, and pending this, formulated a constitution for his diocese defining its relations to civil and canon law.

This was incorporated by the State and adopted by the several congregations. He also organized conventions of representative clergy and laity in each of the States in his diocese, to meet annually. In 1840 these were merged into one general convention. He held a synod of the clergy, 21 November 1831, and in 1832 established a seminary and college under the name of "The Philosophical and Classical Seminary of Charleston", hoping with the income from the collegiate department to maintain the seminary.

Notwithstanding his many and varied duties he devoted himself to this institution as teacher of classics and professor of theology. Organized bigotry soon assailed it, reducing the attendance from one hundred and thirty to thirty; but he continued and it became the alma mater of many eminent laymen and apostolic priests. In the words of Chancellor Kent, "Bishop England revived classical learning in South Carolina".

In 1822 he organized and incorporated a Book Society to be established in each congregation, and in the same year his indefatigable energy and zeal led him to establish the "United States Catholic Miscellany", the first distinctively Catholic newspaper published in the United States.[4] It continued to be published until 1861. He also compiled a catechism and prepared a new edition of the Missal in English with an explanation of the Mass. He was an active member of the Philosophical Society of Charleston, assisted in organizing the Antiduelling Society, and strenuously opposed Nullification in a community where it was vehemently advocated. His intense loyalty to his faith led him into several controversies which he conducted with a dignity and charity that commanded the respect of his opponents and elicited touching tributes from some of them at his death.

African AmericansEdit

In 1830 he established in Charleston the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy "to educate females of the middling class of society; also to have a school for free colored girls, and to give religious instruction to female slaves ; they will also devote themselves to the service of the sick". Subsequently their scope was enlarged, and branch houses were established at Savannah, Wilmington, and Sumter. In 1834 he further promoted education and charity by the introduction of the Ursulines. In 1835 Rt. Rev. William Clancy arrived from Ireland as the coadjutor of Bishop England, but, after a year's dissatisfied sojourn, he requested and obtained a transfer to another field. Bishop England had originally asked for the appointment of the Rev. Dr. Paul Cullen, then rector of the Irish College, Rome (afterwards the first Irish cardinal), as his coadjutor.

A striking phase of Bishop England's apostolic character was manifested in his spiritual care of African Americans. He celebrated an early Mass in the cathedral for them every Sunday and preached to them at this Mass and at a Vesper service. He was accustomed to deliver two afternoon sermons; if unable to deliver both, he would disappoint the rich and cultured who flocked to hear him, and preach to the poor. In the epidemics of those days he exhibited great devotion to the sick, while his priests and the Sisters of Mercy volunteered their services in the visitations of cholera and yellow fever. His personal poverty was pitiable. He was known to have walked the streets of Charleston with the bare soles of his feet to the ground. Several times the excessive fatigue and exposure incurred in his visitations and ministrations prostrated him, and more than once he was in danger of death. In 1832 he was appointed Apostolic Delegate to Haiti.


England operated in a heavily Protestant city. During the 1820s-1830s, he defended the Catholic minority against nativist prejudices. In 1831 and 1835, the bishop established free schools for black girls and boys. In 1835, riled by the propaganda of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a mob raided the Charleston post office and the next day turned its attention to England's school for 'children of color.' Alerted, England led Charleston's Irish Volunteers to protect the school. Yet soon after this, when all schools for 'free blacks' were closed in Charleston, England acquiesced, thus divorcing Catholicism in Charleston from abolitionism.[6]


In the interests of his impoverished diocese he visited the chief towns and cities of the Union, crossed the ocean four times, sought aid from the Pope, the Propaganda, the Leopoldine Society of Vienna, and made appeals in Ireland, England, France, Italy, wherever he could obtain money, vestments, or books. In 1841, he visited Europe for the last time. On the long and boisterous return voyage there was much sickness, and he became seriously ill through his constant attendance on others. Though very weak, notwithstanding, on his arrival in Philadelphia, he preached seventeen nights consecutively, also four nights in Baltimore. With his health broken and his strength almost exhausted, he promptly resumed his duties on his return to Charleston, where he died.

Most of his writings were given to the public through the columns of the United States Catholic Miscellany, in the publication of which he was aided by his sister. His successor, Bishop Reynolds, collected his various writings, which were published in five volumes at Baltimore, in 1849. A new edition, edited by Archbishop S.B. Messmîr of Milwaukee, was published at Cleveland in 1908.

Bishop England High School, founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1915, was named in his honor.



  • Carey, Patrick. An Immigrant Bishop: John England's Adaptation of Irish Catholicism to American Republicanism, Yonkers: U.S. Catholic Historical Society, 1982. 236 pp.
  • Peter K. Guilday, The Life and Times of John England, First Bishop of Charleston, 1786-1842 (2 vols., 1927, reprinted 1969).
  • Dorothy Grant, John England (1949).
  • Thomas T. McAvoy, A History of the Catholic Church in the United States (1969).

Primary sourcesEdit

  • John England, The Works of the Right Reverend John England, First Bishop of Charleston, edited by Sebastian G. Messmer, Archbishop of Milwaukee (7 vols., 1908).

External linksEdit

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Bishop of Charleston
Succeeded by
Ignatius A. Reynolds

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "John England" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.