|James Cardinal Gibbons is especially linked to the Basilica. He ordained more than 2,400 to the priesthood in the Basilica sanctuary. He extended the sacristy in 1879, the sanctuary in 1890, completed the formal crypt for the Archbishops of Baltimore in 1900 and built the bridge connecting the Archbishop’s Residence to the Basilica in 1917. Today, he stands out as one of the great churchmen of America. He wrote Faith of Our Fathers, a defense of American Catholics in Protestant America in reaction to the inequities of the strong 19th century Nativist movement. Later, as spokesman for the Catholic Church in America, he gained the respect of Americans of all faiths by being the first public figure to speak out against unfair working conditions during our industrial revolution.
Gibbons’ parents had come to the United States in about 1829 but returned to Ireland in 1837. After his father’s death in 1847, the family returned to the United States, establishing their residence in New Orleans. There, James worked in a grocery store until being inspired by a Redemptorist retreat to become a priest. In 1855 he entered St. Charles College; and in 1857, St. Mary’s Seminary, both in Baltimore. On June 30, 1861, he was ordained by Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Baltimore. For six weeks Gibbons was assistant at St. Patrick’s parish, then appointed first pastor of St. Brigid’s. There he served as a chaplain for Fort McHenry during the Civil War.
In 1865 Archbishop Martin John Spalding summoned Gibbons to be his secretary and help prepare for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. At the council the assembled fathers, at Spalding’s prompting, recommended Gibbons for the vicariate apostolic of North Carolina, whose creation they also recommended. Named titular bishop of Adramyttium on March 3, 1868, Gibbons was raised to the episcopacy by Spalding on August 15, 1868, the youngest of more than a thousand bishops in the Catholic world.
The vicariate, the entire state of North Carolina, had fewer than seven hundred Catholics. Gibbons made a number of converts, but finding the apologetical works available inadequate for their needs, he determined to write his own; Faith of our Fathers would prove the most popular apologetical work written by an American Catholic. At Vatican Council I, where he was also the youngest bishop, he voted in favor of papal infallibility. In January 1872, Gibbons was named administrator of the Diocese of Richmond, one of Archbishop Spalding’s last requests; and on July 30, he was named Bishop of Richmond, retaining his charge of North Carolina. In Richmond his principal task was providing teachers for his schools. At the wish of Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Baltimore, he was named Bayley’s coadjutor with right of succession on May 25, 1877. Upon Bayley’s death on October 3, 1877, Gibbons became archbishop of the Premier See.
In 1884 the Archbishop of Baltimore was chosen by the pope to preside over the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, a gathering for which Gibbons initially showed little enthusiasm. The council, however, produced the most comprehensive body of legislation for the Catholic Church in America. On June 7, 1886, Gibbons was made a cardinal, the second American so honored. On March 17, 1887, he received the red hat in Rome, and a week later at his titular church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, he delivered a stirring sermon in praise of his native land and its political principles.
Gibbons, in his more than 40 years as Archbishop, played the role of spokesman of the Catholic Church in America splendidly. His public utterances commanded increasing attention. His presence at important national events, usually to deliver the invocation, was given even greater coverage in the press. Gibbons developed a warm friendship with several presidents, especially Theodore Roosevelt. For the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 1911, business in the nation’s capital practically came to a halt so that almost every politician of note could come to Baltimore to pay their respects.
A part of Gibbons’ popularity derived from the works he authored. Faith of Our Fathers (1876) was published many times. Also widely read were Our Christian Heritage (1889), Ambassador of Christ (1896), Discourse and Sermons (1908), and A Retrospect of Fifty Years (1916). He contributed a number of essays to such much-read journals as the North American Review and Putnams’ Monthly. His style was simple but compelling. Protestant Americans looked often to Gibbons for an explanation of the Catholic position on contentious issues.
Gibbons exercised considerable power in the American Church. As ranking prelate he presided over the annual meetings of archbishops that began in 1890. He also presided over the transformation of the National Catholic War Council into the National Catholic Welfare Council in 1919. He came to enjoy the power he seemed to win effortlessly. In 1914 he raised strong objections to the rumors that the nation’s capital would be detached from his archdiocese. He refused to have a coadjutor. He also enjoyed remarkable health until a few days before his death on March 24, 1921, at the age of eighty-seven years.