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Viewpoints: Remembering Buffalo’s first Catholic bishop, John Timon, ‘a great and good man’

By Dennis Castillo
Special to The News

On April 23, 1867, a funeral procession 3 miles long made its way to St. Joseph Cathedral. It bore the body of John Timon, first Catholic Bishop of Buffalo. Flags throughout the city were at half-staff and the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser commented that there had not been such a turnout since the remains of President Abraham Lincoln passed through Buffalo, estimating the crowd at 100,000.

The 70-year-old Timon died on April 16. The Buffalo Courier called Timon “a great and good man” and noted that his death “will be received with regret by people of all religious creeds in Buffalo.” The obituary in the Buffalo Morning Express noted: “Few will leave behind them so many grand monuments of charity.”

The funeral featured eight bishops and two archbishops. Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis told the congregation that, although Timon was dead, he still spoke to his flock in the cathedral that he built and where he would be laid to rest, as well as the hospital and numerous social service institutions he established.

Easter Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of Bishop Timon’s death. It is an opportunity to reflect on how his legacy of service continues to benefit the people of Western New York.

John Timon was born on Feb. 12, 1797, in Conewago, Pa., the son of James and Eleanor Timon, Irish immigrants from County Cavan. Eleanor was pregnant when they emigrated, so although he was conceived in Ireland, Timon was American-born. James Timon was a businessman who moved the family first from Pennsylvania to Baltimore, then Louisville, before settling in St. Louis in 1820.

It was in St. Louis that John Timon discerned a vocation to the priesthood. There he met the Rev. Felix De Andreis. De Andreis was a Vincentian priest, a member of the religious order founded by St. Vincent de Paul, who was noted for his devotion to the poor and is the Catholic Church’s patron saint for charities. Fortunately for Buffalo, Timon fully embraced this commitment to help those in need.

Timon began his studies for the priesthood in 1822 at St. Mary’s of the Barrens, the Vincentian frontier seminary outside of St. Louis. During the summers, seminarians did missionary work. Timon’s companion on these trips was John Marie Odin, future archbishop of New Orleans. During their summer vacation of 1824, Odin and Timon traveled 1,200 miles through Missouri and Arkansas, wading through swamps and sleeping under the open sky.

Timon was ordained a priest on Sept. 23, 1826, and rose rapidly in the Vincentian order. In 1835, an American province was created and Timon was made its superior. After Texas became independent in 1836, Timon was sent on a diplomatic mission to the new republic. There he showed his administrative and diplomatic skills in reorganizing the Catholic Church and establishing good relations with the new government.

The one experience that most influenced Timon occurred in Selma, Mo., in 1831. Timon was approached by a Protestant who explained that his mother-in-law was dying. Timon agreed to come and comfort her, joining the family gathered around her death bed. To everyone’s surprise, the woman requested instructions in the Catholic faith. When Timon finished, she asked to be baptized. Surprised by what he regarded as an act of providence, Timon baptized her and then administered the last rites. She died peacefully two hours later. Eventually the whole family became Catholic. This experience taught Timon that every act was an opportunity for evangelization and that mission work was the highest calling of the priesthood.

Bishops in New York, Vincennes and St. Louis wanted Timon as their assistant and successor, but he refused. When the Diocese of Buffalo was established in 1847 by Pope Pius IX, however, Timon agreed to be its first bishop. Why? In Buffalo he would not be an assistant, but the man in charge. Also, he would be starting virtually from scratch, which appealed to his missionary spirit. The new diocese comprised the 20 westernmost counties of New York, including Rochester. In this vast territory there were just 46,000 Catholics in 16 parishes, served by 16 priests, four schools and one orphanage.

From the beginning, Timon planned to establish Catholic charitable agencies to meet the city’s most pressing social needs. He started with health care. While the Buffalo medical community debated for years whether a hospital was necessary, Timon went ahead, recruited six Sisters of Charity from Baltimore, and founded Sisters Hospital in 1848.

The opening of Sisters Hospital was providential because in 1849, Buffalo suffered a second outbreak of cholera. Mortality had been high in the 1832 choleric epidemic due to the lack of a hospital. Thanks to Sisters Hospital, the mortality rate dropped from 52 percent in the previous outbreak to 38 percent, saving many lives.

Timon also wanted to provide for deaf-mute children, a group often overlooked. He persuaded the St. Louis community of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet to assume this ministry. In 1857, St. Mary’s School for the Deaf was founded.

There were many orphans after the 1849 cholera epidemic, so Timon turned his attention to their needs. He increased the number of orphanages in the diocese to three, one for girls and two for boys. Of the male institutions, one was an orphanage proper and the other was a “protectory” for troubled youth. These would be the foundation upon which the Rev. Nelson Baker built Our Lady of Victory Services.

The most serious problem Timon faced was “trusteeism” at St. Louis Church in Buffalo. Trusteeism was the attempt of lay people to operate a parish independent of the local bishop.

St. Louis was controlled by German parishioners, who did not want any Irish at their parish, including the bishop. They also wanted to beautify the church rather than contribute to social services that did not benefit “their” people.

Timon opposed this separatist view. He believed that wealthier congregations should support the bishop’s charitable efforts to benefit the entire community. It was not until 1856 that the conflict was resolved.

Like his strategy in social services, Timon’s educational policy focused on what the community needed most. As a result, Timon did not devote much effort in building parochial schools. If there were no anti-Catholic materials in the public school curriculum, he would not establish a parochial school. Instead, Timon concentrated his efforts on higher education. In 1847, Buffalo had only one high school and one college, which was, in fact, a medical school.

Timon recruited numerous religious orders with expertise in education. These included the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, the Jesuits, the Franciscans and the Christian Brothers. They established St. Bonaventure University, Niagara University, Canisius College and High School, Nardin Academy, Holy Angels and St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. Two seminaries were also founded as part of colleges, Christ the King and Our Lady of the Angels.

When only one-third of American dioceses had one seminary, Buffalo had two. Other dioceses averaged one Catholic college, but by 1870 Buffalo had three.

Timon built St. Joseph Cathedral to demonstrate that Catholics were a part of the community. Therefore, it was located downtown, as a neighbor to St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The cost was $150,000 and in 1849, Timon went to Europe for assistance. He collected $14,000, including $2,000 from Pius IX. At the Munich Exposition, he was struck by the beauty of three stained-glass windows commissioned by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Timon boldly told Ludwig that the windows would look great in his planned cathedral. Startled by the bishop’s directness, the king agreed to donate them.

Timon appealed to the general public when work was halted for lack of funds. Many Protestants, including then President Millard Fillmore, contributed. A fundraising drive in Mexico raised another $4,000.

When several homes along Lake Erie were destroyed by a storm, Timon turned the still-unfinished cathedral into a shelter for the victims. On July 1, 1855, four years after construction had begun, St. Joseph Cathedral was dedicated. Fourteen bishops, 100 priests and 3,000 people took part in the ceremony.

In 1865, Timon gave last rites to a Sister of Charity dying from the infectious disease erysipelas and, while doing so, caught the illness himself. He did not die immediately, but his health suffered and he never fully recovered.

Bishop Timon performed his last service on Palm Sunday, 1867, in St. Joseph Cathedral and became seriously ill afterward. By Monday evening, it was apparent that he was dying. Bishop Lynch of Toronto and Bishop Farrell of Hamilton were telegraphed and they arrived on Tuesday to give last rites. Timon died at 8:40 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16, 1867.

By the time of his death, Timon had left Buffalo as one of the best-equipped dioceses in the country, capable of dealing with the needs of its entire population, Catholic and non-Catholic. Today, 150 years later, the people of Western New York continue to benefit from his legacy of service.

Dennis A. Castillo, Ph.D., is professor of church history at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.

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