Title: Father Edward McGlynn and the Dr. McGlynn Monument Association
Predominant Dates: 1887-1921
Arrangement: I. Writings about and by Father McGlynn; II. Documents Pertaining to the Anti-Poverty Society and McGlynn Memorial Meetings; III. Photographs and Cartoons; and, IV. Documents Pertaining to the Dr. McGlynn Monument Association.
Religious reformers were among the many groups of people inspired by the ideas of Henry George and who actively participated in the movement to tax land values at the turn of the twentieth century. New York City’s Father Edward McGlynn represents one such figure.
Born in New York City on September 27, 1837, McGlynn’s upbringing was an immigrant success story. In 1827, both of McGlynn’s parents left Donegal, Ireland for New York, to start a new life and raise a family. McGlynn’s father, Peter, worked as a building contractor and left a sizable inheritance for his wife Sarah and their 11 children when he suddenly died in 1847. All 11 children attended public grammar school and several, including Father McGlynn, also enrolled at the Free Academy, which later became the College of the City of New York: the nation’s first free public institution of higher education.
In 1851, at the age of 13, Father McGlynn entered the Urban College of the Propaganda in Rome where he earned a Doctor of Theology in 1859. He was ordained on March 14, 1860 and returned to New York shortly thereafter where he became assistant pastor at St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue. During the American Civil War, McGlynn served in a military hospital near Central Park.
Throughout the 1860s, McGlynn participated in the Academia and began to earn a reputation as an independent thinker and social radical. The Academia consisted of a small network of priests who met regularly to advance their religious education and discuss pressing issues facing the Catholic Church. The leanings of the group were distinctively liberal. Many members supported the abolition of slavery, the use of the vernacular in liturgy, and expressed doubts about the doctrine of papal infallibility. Some even opposed mandatory celibacy for priests. The group disbanded in the 1870s.
In addition to his participation in the Academia, McGlynn’s stance on public education also contributed to his reputation as a social radical. Educated in public schools, McGlynn considered them one of the nation’s “chief glories” and unlike his ecclesiastic authorities, did not share the belief that public schools bred Protestantism. McGlynn expressed such views in the pages of the popular monthly, The North American Review.
Towards the end of the Civil War, McGlynn became assistant to Father Jeremiah Cummings of St. Stephen’s Church, originally located on Madison Avenue. Under Father Cummings, a family friend of the McGlynn’s, St. Stephen’s boasted one of the largest memberships of any parish—approximately 25,000—and a world famous choir. Following Father Cummings death in 1865, McGlynn became head priest of St. Stephens.
McGlynn’s Conversion to the Single Tax
Father McGlynn and Henry George first met in 1882 at the height of the Irish Land League’s popularity in the United States. Led by Fenian activist Michael Davitt (1846-1906), the League formed in the wake of the 1879 Famine to lobby Parliament for comprehensive land reform in Ireland. In 1882, McGlynn ignored a direct order from Cardinal John McCloskey, the Archbishop of New York, not to speak at Land League rally in Cleveland.
Unlike his superiors, McGlynn believed the situation in Ireland as well as the acute poverty and inequality that plagued America’s urban centers required the direct involvement of organized religion and that involvement required something more than the provision of charity. McGlynn recalled his state of mind on the eve of his first meeting with George:
I began to feel life made a burden by the never ending procession of men, women, and little children coming to my door begging not so much for alms as employment, not asking for food, but asking for influence and letters of recommendation…And I felt that no matter how much I might give them…I could accomplish nothing. I began to ask myself ‘Is there not Remedy? Is this God’s order that the poor shall be constantly becoming poorer in all our large cities, the world over?
McGlynn found such remedy in the single tax. McGlynn was particularly drawn to the spiritual substance of George’s message and its basis in Christian principles. Within days of their meeting, McGlynn pledged himself to the campaign for land reform.
The Excommunication of Father McGlynn
In 1886, McGlynn played an active role in George’s campaign for mayor of New York City. And despite direct orders from Archbishop Michael Corrigan not to, on October 1, 1886, McGlynn delivered the closing address to a crowd of more than 2,000 who had gathered at Chickering Hall for George’s official nomination. Corrigan believed George’s ideas and McGlynn’s political activism undermined Church doctrine and practice, which he explained in a Pastoral Letter published November 1886.
That same month, Corrigan suspended McGlynn for his continued participation in George’s campaign and wrote to Pope Leo XIII for guidance on how to handle the obstinate priest. In December 1886 the Pope summoned Father McGlynn to Rome. Citing personal reasons, McGlynn refused the summons. In response to his failure to report to Rome, Archbishop Corrigan permanently suspended McGlynn’s licence to preach and ordered a replacement priest to lead St. Stephen’s Church.
St. Stephen’s parishioners, who adored Father McGlynn, protested Corrigan’s decision. An organization of nearly 5,000 parishioners and McGlynn supporters formed to protest his dismissal, campaign for his reinstatement, and raise funds to provide financial support to their beloved priest during his suspension. They also organized an effective strike on January 17, 1887 when McGlynn’s replacement, Father Arthur Donnelly, was scheduled to take over. That day, the building engineer refused to turn on the heat, the choir refused to sing, and the collection officers refused to perform their duty.
Without a formal church of his own, Father McGlynn found a surrogate in the Anti-Poverty Society, which he co-founded with George on March 26, 1887. In May 1887, Pope Leo XIII once again summoned McGlynn to Rome. This time, McGlynn refused the summons on the grounds that the Pope had no authority to require the presence of an American priest in Rome. On July 4, 1887, McGlynn was excommunicated.
The Re-Communication of Father McGlynn
McGlynn’s excommunication did not dampen support among American Catholics for Henry George or the renegade priest. The Anti-Poverty Society continued to flourish and George’s newspaper, The Standard helped keep the single tax and the campaign for land reform alive in the United States and elsewhere.
In November 1887, Corrigan wrote the Holy See and urged them to place Progress and Poverty on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Catholic Church. While the Pope approved Corrigan’s request, he forbade the Archbishop from publicly advertising the decision fearing that the move would generate more, not less, interest in George’s theories. The Pope also informed Corrigan of a new Encyclical he was preparing that would clarify the Church’s position on matters of land reform and the growing unrest among the world’s working classes. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum (On New Things).
Although the new Encyclical made no mention of George, Progress and Poverty, or the single tax, many read it as a direct rebuttal of the land reformers’ ideas and believed it sounded the final word in the case of Father McGlynn and the place of religious leaders in matters of social and political reform. Among the document’s main messages included a reaffirmation that private property in land did not violate Catholic doctrine and a reminder to Catholics of their spiritual duty to help the poor and less unfortunate through the provision of charity.
Confident that the Encyclical justified his actions leading to McGlynn’s excommunication, in November 1891, Corrigan issued, with the Pope’s approval, a letter that specified the parameters under which the St. Stephen’s priest could be reinstated into the Church. Among those conditions included that McGlynn apologize to the Archbishop and Holy See, recant his statements regarding the single tax, and quit the Anti-Poverty Society. McGlynn publicly rejected Corrigan’s ultimatum in an open-letter published November 22, 1891 in the New York Tribune.
Tired of the continued publicity of the Corrigan-McGlynn controversy, in 1892, Pope Leo XIII allowed a panel composed of university professors of theology and a papal delegate to revisit the grounds for McGlynn’s excommunication. The panel found nothing in McGlynn’s conduct or statements that warranted excommunication and recommended his immediate reinstatement to the clergy. On December 25, 1892, Father McGlynn delivered mass for the first time since his excommunication.
Death and Legacy
McGlynn remained active in the single tax movement after his reinstatement. In 1894 he was assigned to lead St. Mary’s parish in Newburgh, NY where he remained until his death from kidney disease on January 7, 1900. Father McGlynn is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, which then served as the principal cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York.
Shortly after his death, his supporters held several “memorial meetings” to honor McGlynn and his work on behalf of the single tax and social justice. In 1901, the Dr. McGlynn Monument Association was formed to raise money to erect a life-size bronze statue of their beloved priest. Completed in 1920, the statue currently stands in the non-denominational Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
[Adapted from Alexandra W. Lough, “The Single Tax and the Social Gospel” in “The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” PhD diss. (Brandeis University, 2013)]