Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

"A Great and Lasting Beginning": Bishop John Mcmullen's Educational Vision and the Founding of St. Ambrose University

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

"A Great and Lasting Beginning": Bishop John Mcmullen's Educational Vision and the Founding of St. Ambrose University

Article excerpt

Catholic education surfaces as a focus and concern in every age of the U.S. Catholic experience. This article examines the struggles in one, small Midwestern diocese surrounding the establishment and advancement of Catholic education. Personal rivalries, relationship with Rome, local politics, finances, responding to broader social challenges, and the leadership of clergy were prominent themes then, as they are now. Numerous historical insights detailed here help to explain the abiding liberal character of Catholicism in the Midwestern United States.


In the spring of 1882, Bishop John McMullen, who had been in the new Diocese of Davenport for about 6 months, met with Father Henry Cosgrove, the pastor of St. Marguerite's (later Sacred Heart) Cathedral. "Where shall we find a place to give a beginning to a college?" McMullen asked. Cosgrove's response was immediate: "Bishop, I will give you two rooms in my school building." "All right," McMullen said, "let us start at once" (The Davenport Democrat, 1904; Farrell, 1982, p. iii; McGovern, 1888, p. 256; Schmidt, 1981, p. 111).

McMullen's desire to found a university was not as impetuous as it may have seemed. Like many American Catholic leaders in the 19th century, McMullen viewed education as a way for a growing immigrant Catholic population to advance in their new country. Catholic education would also serve as a bulwark against the encroachment of Protestant ideas that formed the foundation of public education in the United States. And finally, Catholic higher education would educate future lay Catholic leaders for both church and society, and provide for an American-trained clergy to serve Catholic parishes. From 1861 to 1866, as president of St. Mary of the Lake University in Chicago, McMullen had worked to make that institution a means to achieve those goals. But when it was abruptly closed in 1866, his vision was shattered. Now, as Bishop of Davenport, he had the authority and the opportunity to begin again to realize his vision (Gleason, 1995; Hassenger, 1967; O'Brien, 1994; Power, 1958; Rudolph, 1990).


John McMullen was born on January 8, 1832, in Ballynahinch, County Down, Ireland, the sixth of 12 children of James and Alice McMullen (Clarke, 1888; McGovern, 1888; Shea, 1886; Starr, 1884). The next year James McMullen and his family left Ireland and moved first to Megantic County in southern Quebec, Canada, and then, after 3 years to Prescott, Ontario, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. But a fire soon destroyed their house, so James McMullen sold the land, and in early 1837, moved his family across the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, New York. Here young John McMullen began to attend the local public school and quickly developed a love of learning; he even refused to go out to recess, preferring to spend the time reading. Young John attended public school only because there was no Catholic parish or school in the community. To remedy this situation, James McMullen's neighbors sent him to New York City to ask Bishop John Hughes for a priest to serve the growing Catholic community at Ogdensburg.

In 1843, James McMullen moved his family once again, this time to Joliet, Illinois. Here the McMullens became members of St. Patrick Parish and on Christmas Day, 1843, John McMullen made his first communion (Cathedral of the Holy Name, 1949). Within a year, however, the McMullens moved to Chicago, where James became a hotel keeper (The Iowa Messenger, 1883b). Once in Chicago, young John became an altar boy at St. Mary's Cathedral. It was there that he first met the new Bishop of Chicago, William Quarter (Starr, 1883). Born in Ireland, Quarter had studied at St. Patrick's Seminary, Maynooth, and finished his education at Mount St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained in 1829 and served in parishes in New York. In 1843, he was named the first bishop of the new diocese of Chicago which encompassed the entire state of Illinois (Code, 1964). …

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