On this day in 1789, Pope Pius VI appoints John Carroll bishop of Baltimore, making him the first Catholic bishop in the United States.
Carroll was born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1735. His mother came from a wealthy family and had been educated in France. At age 13, Carroll sailed for France in order to complete his own education at St. Omer’s College in French Flanders. At age 18, he joined the Society of Jesus, and after a further 14 years of study in Liege, he received ordination as a priest at age 34. Pope Clement XIV’s decision in 1773 to dissolve the Jesuit order, however, ended Carroll’s European career.
Three years after Carroll’s return to Maryland, the need to make allies of French Catholics in Canada created an opportunity for him to join a Congressional delegation dispatched to negotiate with the Canadians. Benjamin Franklin served on the same delegation, and although the mission failed, Franklin proved an excellent ally to Carroll. In 1784, Franklin recommended to the papal nuncio in Paris that Carroll assume the position of Superior of Missions in the United States of North America, which removed American Catholics from the authority of the British Catholic hierarchy. In this role, as bishop and ultimately as the first archbishop in the United States (1808), Carroll oversaw the creation of leading Catholic institutions in the new nation, including the nation’s first Catholic university (Georgetown University, founded in 1789) and cathedral (Baltimore Basilica, built in 1806).