Shea, John Dawson Gilmary

views updated


Historian; b. New York City, July 22, 1824; d. Elizabeth, N.J., Feb. 22, 1892. His father, James Shea, emigrated from Ireland to New York City to become principal of the Columbia College grammar school,

which John attended, and a leader in local Democratic politics. His mother, Mary Ann (Flannigan) Shea, was from an old Boston family and a descendant of Nicholas Upsall, who came to America with Gov. John Winthrop in 1630. Shea early evidenced an interest in Catholic history; he obtained work with a Spanish merchant in order to acquire a knowledge of the language, and at the age of 14 he published a biography of Cardinal Alvarez Carrillo de Arbornóz in the Young People's Catholic Magazine (1838). Although he turned to the study of law and was admitted to the New York bar (1846), Shea continued his interest in Catholic history with a number of articles in the U.S. Catholic Magazine. He joined the Society of Jesus (1848), taking the name Gilmary; he studied at St. John's College, Fordham, N.Y., and St. Mary's College, Montreal, Canada, until 1852, when he left the Society to resume his historical work. His Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi Valley (1852) brought favorable notice from non-Catholic scholars and launched a career during which he wrote or edited more than 250 titles. His articles appeared in popular Catholic serials, notably the Catholic World, the American Catholic Quarterly Review, and the Boston Pilot, and also in popular encyclopedias.

In 1854 he married Sophie Savage and thereafter engaged in numerous endeavors to support his family. He contracted with publishing firms for such well received school histories as A General History of Modern Europe (1854), An Elementary History of the U.S. (1855), and The Catholic Church in the U.S. (1856). He contributed also to Justin Winsor's noted history, acted as historiographer of the Archdiocese of New York, and served as editor of D. and J. Sadlier's General Catholic Directory and Almanac (185990), of the Historical Magazine (185965), and of the Catholic News (188992). None of this interfered with his labor in American Catholic history. His early interest in Catholic missions among the natives led in 1854 to the History of the Catholic Missions among the Native American Tribes of the U.S., 15291854 and to the 26-volume Cramoisy Series of Jesuit explorations in North America (185787). His reputation as an authority on the Native Americans was advanced by his editing of the 15-volume Library of American Linguistics (186074), a collection of grammars and dictionaries. Shea's great work, however, was his four-volume History of the Catholic Church in the U.S. (188692), on which he was working at his death.

Shea's research received some support from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., whose centennial history he wrote in 1891, and from the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. Nevertheless, he failed to win an appointment at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and there was little market for his works in Catholic schools and colleges. He was a pioneer in his work, arousing interest as cofounder and first president of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society (1884) and laboriously collecting the sources for future historical research. He left a large collection of Americana and a tradition of careful scholarship, reliability, and bibliographical diligence. Recognition of his primary position in American Catholic historiography came from Fordham and Georgetown, which gave him honorary degrees, and from the University of Notre Dame, Ind., which awarded him its Laetare medal (1883).

In addition to the works already mentioned. Shea's best-known books include his Hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the U.S. (1886), as well as Early Voyages up and down the Mississippi (1861), The Operations of the French Fleet under Count de Grasse (1864), a translation of P. F. X. Charlevoix's History and General Description of New France 6 v. (186672), The Life of Pius IX (1877), The Catholic Churches of N.Y.C. (1878), The Catholic Church in Colonial Days (1883), and The Story of a Great Nation (1886).

Bibliography: r. j. purcell, Dictionary of American Biography, ed. a. johnson and d. malone (New York 192836) 17:5051. p. k. guilday, John Gilmary Shea: Father of American Catholic History, 18241892 (New York 1926). j. d. thomas, "A Century of American Catholic History," U.S. Catholic Historian 6 (Winter 1987) 2549.

[j. l. morrison]