Father James Ignatius Mullon was one of those extraordinary priests in an extraordinary time. He was pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in New Orleans from 1834 to 1866. Fr. Mullon was born in 1793 in Derry, Ireland. He came to the U.S. with his parents when very young. His first parish was in Cincinnati, before coming to New Orleans.
At St. Patrick’s in New Orleans, he conducted 53 baptisms in 1835. That number increased to 163 in 1840 and then to 337 in 1845. The Irish population was booming and the new Father was ready for it. The church itself was a mess. Construction of St. Patrick’s started in 1835, but the tower started leaning in the soft soil. The parties agreed to take the dispute to arbitration. The construction company balked. James Gallier, an Irish architect, was called in. He succeeded in getting the church completed.
See pictures of the St. Patrick’s church here.
Paying for the brick church became difficult. The parish tried to take out a mortgage. The church tried selling pews, but that did not raise enough money. The trustees took out bonds secured by the mortgage.
This was a time of significant strife for the Catholic faith. It would have been very embarrassing if the newest church and the only church serving Irish immigrants failed.
By 1834, the debt load on the church had risen to $56,000. By one estimate, that would amount to $620,000 in 2019 dollars. Fr. Mullon was excluded from these financial decisions by the trustees of a corporation responsible for the financing. The church could not pay the interest on the bonds. One of the bond holders sued and won. The sheriff sold the pews for non-payment of the interest. Other bondholders and note holders began to press for payment.
In 1842, Fr. Mullon formed the Church Debt Paying association. Its members paid 25 cents each week. Fr. Mullon’s “two bits a week” association paid for the improvements to the interior of the church. But, the overwhelming notes and bonds remained outstanding.
In 1845, the sheriff seized the church for sale. Later, that year the bishop, Antoine Blanc assumed the debt for $40,000. The Bishop saved the church.
Fr. Mullon was a friend of Jews and Protestants, at a time when such friendships were rare. He also owned two slaves. It is easy to judge the Father now. But, we do not know the circumstances of his slave ownership. It was not unheard of for persons of good-will to purchase slaves for positive reasons, such as keeping slave families together or close by. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson purchased two slaves for those very reasons. Starting in 1837, Fr. Mullon let the German Catholic immigrants use the church. He was a friend to theater people. The father was a forceful, eloquent speaker. He generally had standing room only when he said Mass. Many non-Catholics attended his Mass.
Fr. Mullon did not support St. Patrick’s Day parades. He believed those parades only caused censure and criticism. The Irish were handy targets for the nativists. Fr. Mullon would say Mass and then urge his flock to go home and eat a good dinner with family on St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1837, the bishop invited Fr. Mullon to deliver the homily at St. Louis Cathedral to mark the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans The solemn Pontifical Mass was attended by legislators, judges, and civic officials. Fr. Mullon took the opportunity to lambast the nativist sentiment then growing. He criticized the “anti-American principles” of the Nativists. This drew the attention of the Nativists. In 1839, Fr. Mullon looked in on a meeting of the Native American Association at the elegant St. Charles hotel. He was surprised to see a friend there. He asked his friend what drew him there. When he heard the response, Fr. Mullon told him that if he joined the Native American party, their friendship would end.
Fr. Mullon stood up to the Know Nothings. The American party members were known as Know Nothings. It was a nativist party which opposed immigration, especially Irish Catholic immigration. In 1854, there were riots, mob brawls and beatings between the Know Nothings and the Irish. The Irish were generally on the losing end of these fights. These Nativist sentiments likely kindled for Fr. Mullon memories of the severe sectarian strife in Ireland. In 1854, a large group of Irish left the St. Mary’s market, the center of the Irish neighborhood, marched down the street toward St. Patrick’s. On the way they met a mob of Know Nothings. A large brawl broke out. Fr. Mullon deplored the violence erupting across the city. But, St. Patrick’s church was never harmed.
When the Civil war broke out, the father blessed many banners and flags as the Irish troops marched off to war. Fr. Mullon strongly endorsed the Southern cause.
Fr. Mullon did not care for the Yankee occupation. The Union authorities ordered that prayers for the Confederates in churches cease. The churches, instead, must substitute prayers for the Union forces. Fr. Mullon exploded in the pulpit, excoriating this attack on religion and conscience. Gen. Butler summoned Fr. Mullon. Fr. Mullon eventually substituted silent prayer.
Another time, Gen. Bultler summoned the priest and accused him of refusing to bury a Union soldier. Fr. Mullon replied that he would be happy bury the entire Union army, including Gen. Butler, whenever the opportunity would arise.
Gen. Butler had ordered that all church bells be sent up north to be melted down and turned into cannon balls. Fr. Mullon told the general to come and get the great bell – if he dared. Gen. Butler liked Fr. Mullon. He said the feisty priest was the bravest man he had ever met.
Many of the Federal troops on duty in New Orleans were Irish Catholics. And, back in Massachusetts, Gen. Butler had been a politician who relied on support from Irish voters. So, the Federals generally left Fr. Mullon alone.
Fr. Mullon passed away in 1866. It was the end of an era. His body lay in state for two days in the church. He was laid to rest in the church in a tomb which he himself had built.
Charles Dufour, ed., St. Patrick’s of New Orleans, 1833-1958 (New Orleans: A.P. Laborde & Sons 1958), p. 63-75.
Chester G. Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1997), p. 174.