April 11 – American Hero of the Seal of Confession

April 9, 2018

Antony Kohlmann

Anthony Kohlmann, S.J., President of Georgetown, 1817-1820. From Georgetown University Library Archives.

Educator and missionary, b. 13 July, 1771, at Kaiserberg, Alsace; d. at Rome, 11 April, 1836. He is to be ranked among the lights of the restored Society of Jesus, and among its most distinguished members in America, where he spent nearly a quarter of a century of his laborious life. At an early age he was compelled by the troubles of the French Revolution to go to live in Switzerland, where at the college of Fribourg he completed his theological studies and was ordained priest. Soon after, in 1796, he joined the Congregation of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart. With them he laboured zealously for two years in Austria and Italy as a military chaplain. From Italy he was sent to Dillingen in Bavaria,, as director of an ecclesiastical seminary, then to Berlin, and next to Amsterdam to direct a college established by the Fathers of the Faith of Jesus, with whom the Congregation of the Sacred Heart had united (11 April, 1799). The Society of Jesus in Russia having been recognized (1801) by Pope Pius VII, Father Kohlmann joined it and entered the novitiate at Dunébourg on 21 June, 1803. A year later, in response to a call for additional workers in the United States, he was sent to Georgetown, D.C., where he was made assistant to the master of novices, and went on missionary tours to the several German congregations in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Portrait of America’s first Bishop and Archbishop, John Carroll. Painted by Rembrandt Peale.

Affairs in the Church in New York having gone badly, Bishop Carroll picked him out as the person best qualified to introduce the needed reforms and to restore order, and with his fellow Jesuits, Benedict Fenwick and four scholastics, James Wallace, Michael White, James Redmond, and Adam Marshall, he took charge there in October, 1808. It was a time of great commercial depression in the city owing to the results of the Embargo Act of 22 December, 1807. The Catholic population, he states in a letter written on 8 November, 1808, consisted “of Irish, some hundreds of French and as many Germans; in all according to the common estimation of 14,000 souls”. Such progress was made under his direction that the cornerstone of a new church, old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the second church erected in New York City, was laid on 8 June, 1809. He started a classical school called the New York Literary Institution, which he carried on successfully for several years in what was then a suburban village but is now the site of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In April, 1812, he also started a school for girls in the same neighbourhood, in charge of Ursuline nuns who came at his instance for that purpose from their convent at Cork, Ireland.

Old Saint Peter’s Church, 1785, in Manhattan, New York.

About the same time Father Kohlmann became the central figure in a lawsuit that excited national interest. He had been instrumental in having stolen goods restored to a man, who demanded in court that the priest should reveal from whom he had received them. Father Kohlmann refused to do this, on the ground that his information had been received under the seal of confession. The case was taken before the Court of General Sessions, where after a trial the decision rendered by De Witt Clinton was given in his favour. Its principle was later embodied in the State law passed on 10 December, 1828, which enacted that “No minister of the Gospel or priest of any denomination whatsoever shall be allowed to disclose any confession made to him in his professional character in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practices of such denomination.” To a report of the case when published Father Kohlmann added an exposition of the teachings of the Church on the Sacrament of Penance. (Sampson, “The Catholic Question in America”, appendix, New York, 1813.) The book excited a long and vigorous controversy with a number of Protestant ministers, and was followed in 1821 by another learned work, “Unitarianism, Theologically and Philosophically considered”, in which Father Kohlmann replied to the assertions of Dr. Jared Sparks and other Unitarian leaders.

Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of DeWitt Clinton, a politician and naturalist who served as United States Senator and the sixth Governor of New York.

New York had no bishop as yet, the first appointed having died in Italy before he reached his see, and Father Kohlmann governed as administrator for several years. In 1815, expecting the early arrival of the second bishop (Connolly), he returned to the college of his order at Georgetown, D. C., as master of novices, and in 1817 became superior. In 1824, when Leo XII restored the Gregorian University to the direction of the Society of Jesus, Father Kohlmann was summoned to Rome to take the chair of theology, which he filled for five years. One of his pupils then was the subsequent Pope Leo XIII; another became later Archbishop of Dublin, and the first Irish cardinal (Paul Cullen). Leo XII and Gregory XVI both held Father Kohlmann in the highest esteem, and had him attached as consultor to the staffs of the College of Cardinals and several of the important Congregations, including that of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, of Bishops and Regulars, and of the Inquisition. The last part of his life he spent as a confessor in the church of the Gesù, where during the Lenten season of 1836 he overtaxed himself and brought on an attack of pneumonia that ended his career.

SHEA, The Catholic Church in the U. S. (New York 1856); BAYLEY, A Brief Sketch of the Early History of the Catholic Church in the Island of N. Y. (New York. 1870); FINOTTI, Bibliog. Cath. Am. (New York, 1872); FARLEY, History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (New York 1908); U. S. Cath. Hist. Soc., Hist. Records and Studies, I (New York, 1899), pt. i ; The Catholic Family Almanac (New York, 1872).

THOMAS F. MEEHAN (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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