Ellis, John Tracy
ELLIS, JOHN TRACY
Priest, pre-eminent historian of the American Catholic community, teacher, writer; b. Seneca, Ill., July 30, 1905; d. Washington, D.C., Oct. 16, 1992. The eldest of two sons of Elmer L. Ellis and Ida Cecilia (née Murphy), Ellis' father owned the local hardware store and was Methodist, his mother was a housewife and Catholic; his brother Norbert (1913–53) continued the family business.
Ellis' early training was local: at St. Patrick's Elementary School (1911–19); Seneca High School (1919–21), and at St. Viator Academy (1921–23) in Bourbonnais, Ill. In 1927 he graduated magna cum laude from St. Viator College with a B.A. in English literature. Recipient of a Knights of Columbus Fellowship, he attended The Catholic University of America (1927–30) where he studied under Peter guilday, majoring in medieval history. His master's thesis "Anti-Papal Legislation in Medieval England 1066–1377" (1928) was expanded into his doctoral dissertation and published as his first book (1930). In the spring term of 1942, Ellis audited courses in American history at Harvard University as part of his preparations to teach American Catholic history.
His first teaching post was at his alma mater St. Viator College (1930–32) where as a layman he taught histotory. The next two years (1932–34) found him at the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn. He returned to Washington, D.C., to study for the priesthood and during this period began his long and fruitful career teaching at The Catholic University of America (1935–64). From 1964 to 1976 he was Professor of Church History at the University of San Francisco. He returned to the Catholic University as Professorial Lecturer in church history (1976–89). He taught summer school at Catholic institutions of learning throughout the United States, and held numerous lectureships: e.g., University of Chicago as Walgreen lecturer (1955), North American College in Rome (1967, 1974–76), Brown University (1967), University of Notre Dame (1970), Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley (1970–71), Gregorian University (1974–75), St. Thomas University—Angelicum (1976), and The Catholic University of America as the first Catholic Daughters of the Americas' visiting professor (1976).
Writings and Influence. A prolific writer, Ellis has published over 150 books, articles, and pamphlets, and over 250 minor works such as book reviews, forewords to books, encyclopedia articles, obituary notices, letters to editors, and reports as secretary of the American Catholic Historical Association. In addition, the archives of The Catholic University of America contain over 100 of his unpublished sermons, commencement addresses, and interviews. A dozen or so books constitute his principal writings. The first three reflect his movement from medieval [Anti-Papal Legislation in Medieval England [1066–1377] (1930)], to modern European [Cardinal Consalvi and Anglo-Papal Relations, [1814–1824] (1942)], to American church history [The Formative Years of The Catholic University of America (1946)]. These were followed by his major work in two volumes based on over three years of extensive archival research The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834–1921 (1952), which was reissued in a condensed version in 1963 and reprinted in 1987. His survey of the history of the Catholic Church in America that originated in the Walgreen Lectures, American Catholicism (1956), was revised in 1969 and has remained for many years one of the principal textbooks in its field. Ellis' admiration for John Lancaster Spalding, bishop of his native diocese, that had earlier led him to write a book on the founding of The Catholic University of America in which this bishop played a significant role, later resulted in a study of this bishop's educational views: John Lancaster Spalding: First Bishop of Peoria, American Educator (1961). A collection of about 20 essays on historical and educational themes was published as Perspectives in American Catholicism (1963). A projected multi-volume history of the Catholic Church in America never progressed beyond Catholics in Colonial America (1965). His life-long interest in priestly formation resulted in two major studies: Essays in Seminary Education (1967) and a lengthy article in his edited volume The Catholic Priest in the United States: Historical Investigations (1971). As important aids to scholars he published A Select Bibliography of the History of the Catholic Church in the United States (1947) which was revised as A Guide to American Catholic History (1959), and once again revised with Robert Trisco and republished in 1982. Ellis' other major study tool was his Documents of American Catholic History (1956), revised in 1962, expanded to two volumes in 1967, and to three in 1987.
Ellis' approach to the writing of church history followed no set method or school of interpretation. His predilection, however, was for biography, for organizing his accounts of the past around the life of a prominent churchman. Although never the subject of one of his own biographies, John Henry Cardinal Newman was a major source of inspiration to him over the years and he strove to imitate the power and beauty of his prose and his total dedication to truth. Ellis' Commitment to Truth (1966) set forth eloquently his own ideals of honesty and integrity. His insistence on including in his accounts the historically relevant faults and mistakes of churchmen won Ellis both admirers and critics.
Ellis' influence on the field of American church history was also exercised through his teaching. For over 30 years he guided the work of doctoral students at The Catholic University of America. At least a dozen of these have gone on to publish important books in the field of American Catholic history.
By his numerous sermons, public addresses, essays, interviews, and letters to the editor, Ellis gained stature as one of the principal spokesmen of the Catholic community in America. The most important of these addresses was his "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life" (1955) which had a wide circulation and stirred at times a heated debate over the extent and reasons why the American Catholic community has produced so few intellectuals.
Priestly Career. Simultaneous with this academic career was Ellis' life as a priest. In 1934 he joined the Diocese of Winona and began his studies for the priesthood at the Sulpician Seminary (now Theological College) in Washington, D.C. On June 5, 1938, Bishop Francis M. Kelly ordained him a priest at the College of St. Teresa in Winona. On returning to Washington he took up residence (1938–41) in the home of Msgr. Fulton J. sheen whom he had served previously as personal secretary. In 1947 he became the first priest incardinated into the newly-formed Archdiocese of Washington. On December 5, 1955, he was named a domestic prelate of Pope Pius XII. Over the years he has assisted nearby parishes or the cathedral on weekends and gained a reputation as an eloquent preacher. Although invited by Robert E. Tracy, Bishop of Baton Rouge, to serve as peritus at the Second Vatican Council, he declined. Ellis served the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as chairman of the Sub-committee on History of the Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry (1967–71) and as a member of the Sub-committee on History for the Observance of the Bicentennial (1973–76). In 1988 he was named honorary protonotary apostolic by John Paul II. James Cardinal Hickey presided at his funeral Mass in the National Shrine on Oct. 20, 1992, and Msgr. Thomas Duffy preached the sermon "A Priestly Ministry to the Truth." Ellis was buried in Seneca, Illinois. His rare combination of frankness, courtesy, and deep dedication to the Church helped to make him a personal friend and advisor to many prelates.
Bibliography: For a comprehensive bibliography of Ellis' works (1923–85) see m. a. miller, Studies in Catholic History in Honor of John Tracy Ellis, eds. n. h. minnich, et al. (Wilmington, Del. 1985) 674–738. Life and career. j. t. ellis, Faith and Learning: A Church Historian's Story (Lanham, Md. 1988); "Reflections of an Ex-Editor," Catholic Historical Review 50 (1965) 459–474; "Fragments from My Autobiography, 1905–1942," Review of Politics 36 (1974) 565–591; "The Catholic University of America, 1927–1979: A Personal Memoir," Social Thought 5 (1979) 35–62; Catholic Bishops: A Memoir (Wilmington, Del.1984). e. c. bianchi, "A Church Historian's Personal Story: An Interview with Monsignor John Tracy Ellis," Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 92 (1981) 1–42. g.e. sherry, interviews with Ellis, Our Sunday Visitor 72 (Feb. 5,1984), 4–5; 76 (May 3, 1987) 8–9. g. g. higgins, "John Tracy Ellis, RIP: A Well-Ordered Life," Commonweal 119 (Nov. 6,1992) 5–7. t. j. shelley, "In Memoriam: John Tracy Ellis (1905–1992)," America 167 (Nov. 7, 1992), 340; "The Young John Tracy Ellis and American Catholic Intellectual Life," U.S. Catholic Historian 13 (1995) 1–18. Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 104 (1993) 1–18. Historical method. j. d. thomas, "A Century of American Catholic History," U. S. Catholic Historian 6 (1987) 25–49, especially "Eclectic Church History: John Tracy Ellis," 41–48. j. t. ellis, A Commitment to Truth (Latrobe, Penn. 1966); "The Ecclesiastical Historian in the Services of Clio," Church History 38 (1969) 106–120. Current state of American Catholic intellectual life. d. liptak and t. walch, "'American Catholics and the Intellectual Life': An Interview with Monsignor John Tracy Ellis," U. S. Catholic Historian 4 (1985) 188–194. h. w. bowden, Church History in an Age of Uncertainty: Historiographical Patterns in the United States, 1906–1990 (Carbondale, Ill. 1991).
[n. h. minnich]