Homilist remembers Bishop Spalding for education, religious freedom influences

Canon J. J. Flattery of Danville recalls the life and accomplishments of the Diocese of Peoria's first bishop, John Lancaster Spalding, during his homily at the Founder's Day Mass on Aug. 25. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

One hundred years after his death, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding was again inspiring Catholics gathered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

A re-telling of the life and accomplishments of the Diocese of Peoria’s first bishop provided the bulk of the homily at the Founder’s Day Mass celebrated at the cathedral on Aug. 25, a century after Bishop Spalding died at the age of 76.

“Education was always at the center of all of his endeavors,” said Canon J. J. Flattery, a senior priest of the diocese living in Danville who has a passion for history. “For him, Catholic schools were essential.”

Bishop Spalding, who guided the diocese from 1877 to 1908, is credited with establishing the Catholic school system in the diocese. There were 61 parochial schools in the diocese 25 years into his episcopacy. He also played a major role in the drafting of the first Baltimore Catechism, and had a key role in the founding of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“Our own John Tracy Ellis perhaps best took the measure of John Lancaster Spalding in his short biography when he gave him the title, ‘American Educator,’” said Canon Flattery.

“Our own John Tracy Ellis perhaps best took the measure of John Lancaster Spalding in his short biography when he gave him the title, ‘American Educator,’” said Canon Flattery.


Bishop Spalding’s roots in America ran deep, with Canon Flattery calling the Spaldings one of “two great English Catholic families that contributed so much to God and country in America.” The other family was the Carrolls of Maryland, whose lineage includes a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first person to be consecrated bishop in the United States.

The Spalding family eventually settled in Kentucky, where Bishop Spalding was born and raised as the eldest of nine children. His uncle was Bishop Martin John Spalding.

Canon Flattery said both the Carrolls and the Spaldings continued a legacy of religious freedom carried by their ancestors in 1634 aboard ships called the Ark and the Dove to the new English colony of Maryland.

“Today as we remember the life of this outstanding American Educator and celebrate the restoration of this great cathedral, let us thankfully remember the legacy of the Ark and the Dove — our religious freedom now embedded in our Constitution,” said Canon Flattery.


Canon Flattery asked the assembly to consider the task ahead of Bishop Spalding when he arrived in Peoria in 1877.

“Imagine the young bishop, just shy of his 37th birthday, sitting down at his desk with a map of his diocese covering some 17,000 square miles. . . . He had a horse, a buggy, and a nearby train. The roads were often mired in mud. There was no electricity in his house or church. No telephone on his desk. Quite a different world.”

The U.S. in the late 19th century also had “deep and pervasive” anti-Catholicism, with political parties formed to outlaw and destroy the Catholic Church in America.

“Such were the circumstances facing the new bishop and his flock,” said Canon Flattery. “But Bishop Spalding had a vision for the diocese and beyond that would guide him across the years,” he added, “a vision for a better America not only for the Catholics of his diocese but for all Americans,” one highlighted by Catholic education and the rights of women and workers.

“He felt the church was most responsible when it was actively involved in social concerns,” said Canon Flattery.

At the close of his homily, Canon Flattery saluted all past bishops of the Diocese of Peoria by name and offered Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC — who supervised the restoration of the cathedral Bishop Spalding had dedicated in 1889 — the wish for a long life, “ad multos annos.”

Bishop Jenky thanked Canon Flattery for his moving words.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here for a full text of the homily.

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