By Timothy Walch
The year was 1881 and the Vatican was searching for a man to lead the new Diocese of Davenport. As had been the practice in other dioceses, the pope turned to the FBI!
Not the Federal Bureau of Investigation — a different FBI — the “Full Blooded Irish.” For more than a century, the Vatican regularly selected earnest young priests of Irish heritage to take the helm of new dioceses in America.
Davenport was no different. As the number of Iowa Catholics increased in the 1870s, the Vatican divided the Diocese of Dubuque (which later became an archdiocese) and created a new diocese from the lower half of the state’s 99 counties with a bishop located in Davenport.
The Vatican appointed Father John McMullen, an Irish immigrant then serving in Chicago, to lead the new diocese. Born in County Down in January 1832, he was the sixth of 12 children of James and Alicia McMullen. In 1833, the family migrated to Canada and began an odyssey that led them from Quebec and Ontario to New York and on to Illinois in little more than 10 years.
After an education in Chicago and Rome, John McMullen was ordained a priest in 1858 and began a tumultuous career as a writer, educator, pastor and administrator before his appointment as bishop in 1881. Arriving in Davenport in July, he focused his early energy on visiting parishes and other Catholic institutions and establishing what is today St. Ambrose University.
His tenure was brief — less than two years. Never in good health, Bishop McMullen died July 4, 1883. He was only 51 years old and beloved in the community. It was important, therefore, that Rome choose his successor wisely.
This time the Vatican turned to an Irish American. Born of Irish parentage in Pennsylvania, Henry Cosgrove migrated with his parents to Dubuque in 1845. After a seminary education in Missouri and Iowa, he was ordained in 1857. At the time of Bishop McMullen’s death, Father Cosgrove was the Vicar General of Davenport — the bishop’s right hand man.
Father Cosgrove was installed as bishop in July 1884 and provided stable, steady leadership for the next 23 years. Not given to public speaking, he was nevertheless an ardent advocate of diocesan institutions that aided immigrants and others in need. In that sense, he reflected the values of his Irish heritage.
One social issue that compelled Bishop Cosgrove to speak out was abstinence from strong drink. Alcoholism, often called the “Irish curse,” was sustained by a multitude of saloons in communities across the diocese. Deeply concerned, Bishop Cosgrove called for a crusade to control these institutions.
Bishop Cosgrove turned 70 years old in 1903 and was in declining health. To assist him, the Vatican turned once again to the FBI. Father James Davis, a son of County Kilkenny, was a popular choice to serve as coadjutor bishop. When Bishop Cosgrove died at the end of 1906, Bishop Davis became the third Bishop of Davenport.
Over the next two decades, Bishop Davis proved to be the best man to serve southeast Iowa in turbulent times. He saw the diocese grow and be divided with the establishment of the dioceses of Sioux City in 1902 and Des Moines in 1911. He weathered periods of anti-Catholicism, the trials of World War I and the turbulence of the “Roaring Twenties.” In all his efforts, Bishop Davis drew strength from his Irish roots.
In selecting a successor to Bishop Davis in 1926, the Vatican took a different tack. No more FBI. The pope selected Father Henry Rohlman, a priest of German heritage, who was succeeded by men of diverse ethnic heritage. The importance of being Irish as a credential for episcopal leadership in Davenport had passed into history.
So how are we to assess these three men — Bishops McMullen, Cosgrove and Davis — and their ties to Ireland? Their roots were important but did not define them. They were good men, sensitive to the needs of all Catholics in the diocese without regard to ethnicity. As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, we toast the Irish heritage that shaped their American values and express gratitude for their service.
(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)