John McCloskey was born March 10, 1810 in Brooklyn, New York two years after his parents immigrated from Ireland.
He was baptized on May 6, 1810, at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.
At that time Brooklyn did not yet have a Catholic church, so the family would row across the East River to Manhattan to attend Mass.
The 11-year-old McCloskey, after a brief visit with Rev. John Dubois, entered Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in September 1821. As a student at Mount St. Mary’s, he was described as having “won the admiration and esteem of his teachers and the respect and love of his college-mates by the piety and modesty of his character, his gentleness, and sweet disposition, the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into his studies, and his prominent standing in class.”
In a dramatic event during the spring of 1827, McCloskey was attempting to drive a team of oxen drawing a heavy load of logs when the wagon overturned and he was buried under the logs for several hours. After being discovered and taken to the house, he was completely blind and unconscious for several days. Although he regained his eyesight he tired easily and was generally in poor health throughout the rest of his life. During his convalescence, however, McCloskey decided upon a vocation to the priesthood and later returned to Mount St. Mary’s in September 1827 for his seminary training.
On January 12, 1834, McCloskey was ordained a priest for the Diocese of New York by Bishop Dubois, at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
He thus became the first native New Yorker to enter the diocesan priesthood.
From August 1837 to March 1844, McCloskey served as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village.
On November 21, 1843, McCloskey was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of New York and Titular Bishop of Axieri by Pope Gregory XVI.
McCloskey was named the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Albany by Pope Pius IX on May 21, 1847.
At the time of his arrival, the Upstate New York diocese covered 30,000 square miles, containing 60,000 Catholics, 25 churches, 34 priests, 2 orphanages, and 2 free schools.
During his tenure, he increased the number of parishes to 113 and the number of priests to 84, and established three academies for boys and one for girls, four orphanages, fifteen parochial schools, and St. Joseph’s Provincial Seminary in Troy.
Following the death of Archbishop Hughes in January 1864, McCloskey was widely expected to be named his successor.
Distressed by the rumors, he wrote to Cardinal Karl von Reisach of the Congregation for the Propaganda of the Faith, objecting, “I possess neither the learning, nor prudence, nor energy, nor firmness, nor bodily health or strength.”
Nevertheless, he was appointed the second Archbishop of New York on May 6, 1864 and installed on August 27.
McCloskey participated in the First Vatican Council from 1869 to 1870, and voted in favor of papal infallibility despite his feelings that such a declaration was “untimely.”
Then McCloskey became the first American Cardinal-Priest of S. Maria sopra Minerva by Pope Pius IX on March 15, 1875.
The news of his elevation was well received by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and was viewed as a sign of the growing prestige of the United States.
The new Cardinal McCloskey declared,
“Not to my poor merits but to those of the young and already vigorous and most flourishing Catholic Church of America has this honor been given by the Supreme Pontiff. Nor am I unaware that, when the Holy Father determined to confer me this honor he had regard to the dignity of the See of New York, to the merits and devotion of the venerable clergy and numerous laity, and that he had in mind even the eminent rank of this great city and the glorious American nation.”
Following the death of Pope Pius IX in February 1878, McCloskey left for Rome but arrived too late to participate in the papal conclave, which elected Pope Leo XIII. The new Pope bestowed the red hat upon him on March 28, 1878.
When Thomas Ewing Sherman, son of the famed Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, expressed his desire to become a Jesuit to his father, the elder Sherman wrote a letter to McCloskey in 1879 telling him to dissuade his son from such a course of action. However, the Cardinal encouraged the boy in his vocation after visiting with him.
In response, General Sherman condemned Cardinal McCloskey in a St. Louis, Missouri newspaper in offensive terms and accused him of robbing him of a son.
When pressed for comment by the newspaper’s editor, Cardinal McCloskey simply replied: “General Sherman’s letter was marked ‘personal and confidential.'”
Cardinal McCloskey’s last major public appearance was in January 1884 for the Golden Jubilee celebration of his priestly ordination, for which Leo XIII sent him a jeweled chalice.
Throughout 1885, Cardinal McCloskey suffered from bouts of fever, intense pain, loss of sight, and a recurrence of malaria that aggravated what appeared to be signs of Parkinson’s disease.
Within a few months, he was hospitalized and later died October 10, 1885 at the age of 75.
His funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 25, 1885; during the eulogy, Archbishop James Gibbons described him as “a kind father, a devoted friend, a watchful shepherd, a fearless leader and, above all, an impartial judge.”
Now WE know em