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Hennessy, John
(August 20, 1825–March 4, 1900)

–third bishop and first archbishop of Dubuque—was born in County Limerick, Ireland, the son of William and Catherine (Meaney) Hennessy, who were farmer After a rudimentary education in the local schools, John continued his education at a number of private schools, with special emphasis on mastering Latin and Greek. He studied for a short time at All Hallows College, a missionary seminary in Dublin.

    In 1847, the worst year of the Irish famine, John accepted the invitation of the archbishop of St. Louis to join his diocese. After further theological study in Missouri, Hennessy was ordained to the priesthood on November 1, 1850. For the next 16 years he worked as a pastor, missionary, professor, and seminary administrator. In 1859 he traveled to Rome as the archbishop's personal representative to the Vatican.

    In 1860 Hennessy returned to Missouri and became pastor of the church in St. Joseph, where he played an important part in dissipating local tension during the Civil War. While he was pastor of this important parish, Hennessy learned of his appointment as the third bishop of Dubuque.

    After his installation in September 1866, he began a 33-year tenure as the Catholic leader of a diocese that initially included all of Iowa. In 1869 Hennessy returned to Rome to attend the First Vatican Council, and came back to Iowa in 1870 by way of Ireland, where he visited his extensive family.

    After his return, Bishop Hennessy traveled west by railroad to learn about the Catholics in his diocese. Numerous farming communities of Catholics had sprung up across the state. Some were ethnically mixed, some Irish, and a few Bohemian (Czech), but the majority were German.

    As was the case for many Irish-born prelates, Hennessy was challenged to find enough priests for these congregations. He attracted some priests from Irish seminaries, and first- and second-generation Irish American priests were more numerous. A few Czech priests responded to Hennessy's call, but the supply of German-speaking priests fell short of the need.

    Hennessy struggled with this challenge for the next 10 years. Finally, in 1880 and 1881 he traveled to Europe in search of seminarians and priests for his diocese. His appeals for assistance also contributed to the Vatican's decision to divide the state into two dioceses, with Dubuque taking the northern 55 counties and Davenport receiving the southern 44 counties running across Iowa from east to west.

    The bishop's pastoral visits to Catholic communities in the diocese became frequent in the 1880s. He consecrated a continuing succession of new churches and schools, but the overriding purpose of most visits was to confer the sacrament of confirmation on thousands of new Catholics. Yet Dubuque County remained the heart of the diocese during Hennessy's time. Over 20 percent of all the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1900 lived in that one county.

    The growth of the diocese in the Hennessy years led to its elevation to the level of archdiocese in 1893, and Hennessy became its first archbishop, a fitting tribute to his achievements as a church leader. Of particular importance was Hennessy's success in Catholic education. When he became bishop in 1866, there were only 29 Catholic schools in the entire state; by the time of his death in 1900, there were 187 Catholic primary schools in the 55 counties that made up his archdiocese. Hennessy also was responsible for establishing and supporting several orders of sister-teachers who staffed many of these parish schools. In 1873 he reestablished Catholic higher education in Dubuque with the opening of Columbia College, an institution that continues as Loras College.

    Hennessy was a member of a generation of Irish-born bishops who dominated the leadership of the Catholic church in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. To a man, they were ardent in their support of their country, their church, and their congregations. Most important, they shepherded the assimilation of foreign-born Catholics in their adopted country.
Sources There is no formal biography of John Hennessy, and all of his papers were destroyed before his death. The principal source of information on him is Souvenir Booklet, Silver Jubilee, Rt. Rev. John Hennessy, D.D., Bishop of Dubuque (1891).
Contributor: William E. Wilkie