Matthews, William

views updated


The first native American ordained in the U.S.; b. Port Tobacco, Md., Dec.16, 1770; d. Washington, D.C., April 30, 1854. He was descended from one of Maryland's earliest colonial families and was related on his mother's side to Abp. Leonard neale of Baltimore. As a youth he was sent to Liège, Belgium, to begin classical studies. Matthews taught briefly at Georgetown College, Washington, D.C.; in 1797 he entered St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, and was ordained (March 1800) by Bp. John Carroll. After missionary work in southern Maryland, he was named (1804) pastor of St. Patrick's Church, Washington.

During his long career Matthews ably combined the roles of priest, public-minded citizen, educator, and philanthropist. Although not a Jesuit, he was named vice president (1808) and president (1809) of Georgetown College. He was cofounder of Washington's first permanent public library (1811) and became its president (1821), a position he held for 13 years. During Matthews's presidency the library moved into permanent quarters and substantially increased its holdings. From 1813 to 1844 he served also as a trustee of Washington's public-school system. In 1821 the Washington Catholic Seminary (Gonzaga College) was established by the Jesuits on land adjacent to St. Patrick's and donated by Matthews. But the seminary project failed, and the school was reorganized for the instruction of young men who came from prominent families. Ever interested in the plight of the orphan, Matthews established St. Vincent's Female Orphan Asylum "to produce intellectually and emotionally mature young women who could occupy a place of dignity in the community" (Durkin, 109). He was a prime mover also in the foundation of Visitation Girls' School, to which he gave $10,000, and he bequeathed $3,000 to the establishment of St. Joseph's Orphan Home for Boys.

Because of his background, Matthews was acquainted with Washington's elite and knew personally A. Jackson, D. Webster, H. Clay, and R. B. Taney. In 1828 he was named administrator of the Diocese of Philadelphia, Pa., and it was thought that he would succeed Henry Conwell as bishop of the see. However, Matthews was reluctant to leave Washington, so he pleaded with Rome and was relieved of the Philadelphia assignment.

Bibliography: j. t. durkin, William Matthews: Priest and Citizen (New York 1963).

[j. q. feller]

About this article

Matthews, William

Updated About content Print Article