Second bishop of Philadelphia, Pa.; b. County Derry, Ireland, c. 1745; d. Philadelphia, April 22, 1842. He studied for the priesthood in the Irish College at Paris, where his family had a burse. After ordination, Conwell served in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, where he was vicar-general for 21 years. Normally he would have succeeded to that see, but the veto question, involving the alleged right of the civil government to veto papal appointments, was then being debated in Ireland. To ensure its choice for so crucial a post, the Holy See chose Dr. Patrick Curtis, who was uncommitted on this delicate issue. Conwell was offered a see in Madras, India, or that of Philadelphia in the U.S. Evidently unaware of the troubles then rife in Philadelphia, he accepted the latter appointment and was consecrated in London on Sept. 24, 1820.
Unacquainted with conditions in the U.S. and more than 70 years old, Conwell was installed in trustee-ridden Philadelphia, vacant for six years and previously refused by at least three candidates. The new bishop's most immediate problem was with Irish-born Rev. William hogan, who had entered Philadelphia without any dimissorial letters and had ingratiated himself with the trustees of St. Mary's Cathedral. When he was suspended, the trustees became his champions and caused a schism that continued even after Hogan, discredited by civil suits, left Philadelphia in August 1824.
Conwell's difficulties with trusteeism were aggravated when he invited back to Philadelphia William har old, OP, whom his predecessor had dismissed for favoring the trustees. When Harold again proved recalcitrant, Conwell suspended him. Finally Rome intervened and had Harold transferred out of the diocese. The aged bishop also erred when he signed the notorious pact of Oct. 9, 1826, yielding to St. Mary's trustees the right of vetoing his appointment of pastors. When the agreement was rejected by both the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and Leo XII, the bishop humbly read his retraction in public.
Meanwhile, Conwell had been "invited" to Rome, but, alleging summer heat as an excuse, he did not sail. He was then ordered to Rome by Cardinal Bartolomeo Cappellari, Prefect of Propaganda, who arranged for the doting bishop to reside there permanently. However, the unstable bishop soon returned to the U.S. without permission, thereby incurring an automatic suspension. After the bishops attending the Provincial Council of Baltimore (1829) had interceded for him, Conwell was permitted to stay in Philadelphia, but his coadjutor, Bp. Francis Kenrick, was given full jurisdiction. For some years, the senile prelate made Kenrick's administration difficult, causing anxiety in Philadelphia and Rome. Conwell's last years were spent in total blindness and seclusion.
Bibliography: j. l. j. kirlin, Catholicity in Philadelphia (Philadelphia 1909). h. j. nolan, The Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kenrick (Catholic University of America, Studies in American Church History 37; Washington 1948). p. w. carey, People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Demoncracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame 1987).
[h. j. nolan]