Fr. Sylvester Malone: Famed for Love of America and Ecumenicism

When Fr. Sylvester Malone died Dec. 29, 1899, almost at the very end of the century, it signaled the end of an era not only for the Catholic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn but also for the entire neighborhood. A beloved and respected figure among all local residents, Fr. Malone (pictured left) had been an outspoken voice for the many ideals that defined his life, and suddenly that moral voice was gone and people of all nationalities and faiths realized that a giant had passed from the earth. His hard-won respect among the local Protestant clergy was especially great and rather unusual.

Dr. John Coleman of the All Souls Universalist Church commented: “Father Malone was a noble-hearted man. He was honest in the positions he took. I have always regarded him as a conspicuous and useful member of the Catholic Church.” ( The New York Times, Dec. 30, 1899, Page 8) The famous Reverend Dr. Storrs from Plymouth Church said of Malone: “I knew Father Malone for a great many years and held him in high and affectionate regard. … Father Malone, while never in the least compromising in his convictions regarding his own church, recognized freely the good influence and work of other communions. (Ibid., Page 8) The respect that Protestants showed Malone and his church was won and not at all freely given.

Father Malone’s time as pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church spanned an amazing fifty-five year period and witnessed a complete transformation in the perception and treatment of Catholics. At the end of Malone’s life, Catholics were part of the mainstream of Brooklyn life, a large, powerful group sewn into the very fabric of Brooklyn life. There were Catholic businessmen, educators, and politicians, but this had not always been so and many of the achievements of the Catholic community were the result of years of patient work by Fr. Malone to defeat anti-Catholic bigotry.

Fr. Malone was born in Trim, County Meath, in 1821. He grew up in the Boyne Valley, not far from the famed Hill of Tara and only 20 miles from Dublin. In those years, Irish Catholics were second-class citizens, despite being a huge majority of the population.

(Right: "The Yellow Steeple," Trim, Co. Meath.)

As a Catholic, Malone was fortunate to receive an education from the Protestant Carroll Brothers who ran a local academy. At the academy, Protestant and Catholic children learned together and Malone made friends with many of his Protestant classmates and these friendships were to create lifelong respect for all Christians that allowed Malone to develop a sincere ecumenism at a time when few Christian clergymen were able to bridge the chasm that separated Protestants and Catholics.

In 1836, his father passed away and the 15-year old Malone must have realized that his future prospects in Ireland were limited. Like many of his generation, America seemed to be a land where a young Irishman could realize his potential. In 1838, Fr. Andrew Byrne of St. James Church in Manhattan went to Ireland to recruit young men for the priesthood. He met the 17-year-old Malone, who impressed him with his piety, intelligence, and capacity for organization. Byrne offered Malone the chance to come to America and study for the priesthood and Malone gladly accepted his offer. Malone left the next year, arriving in Philadelphia.

America in general, and Philadelphia in particular, was not very receptive to Irish-Catholic immigration, especially to those who hoped to build a strong Catholic church on its shores. Irish-Catholics were often regarded as Papists, devoid of the independence of mind required to become strong citizens and dangerous members of a disloyal fifth column. Malone met one of the giants in the American Catholic hierarchy, Bishop John Hughes, who would later become Cardinal Hughes. Both Hughes and Malone were determined to build the Catholic Church in America in the face of fierce bigotry and prejudice. Bishop Hughes advised Malone to enter St. Joseph’s Seminary in Jefferson County New York, which he did.

(Left: Bishop John Hughes)

The following year, the seminary would move to Rose Hill on the campus of Fordham University, where Hughes would complete his training for the priesthood. Malone was ordained on August 15, 1844, a difficult period for the rapidly growing church in America. It was a period when the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party held strong political and economic power in America. The Know-Nothings were often zealous anti-Catholics who preached a message of bigotry and intolerance toward Catholic immigrants. In the same year as Malone’s ordination, two Catholic churches in Philadelphia were burned down, and there were anti-Catholic riots in the city.

Malone was sent by the church to one of the areas that were most notorious for its anti-Catholic bigotry – Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which then was a hotbed of Nativist sentiment and a stronghold of the Know-Nothings. The small Catholic community lived in the shadows, rightly afraid of the potential for anti-Catholic violence in the area. In 1840 the Catholics had constructed a small church on North Eighth Street on the fringes of Williamsburg, but the church had few members and large debts.

As soon as Malone arrived in the parish he determined that he would make big changes. He exhorted his congregation to pay off the debt and within two years they had liquidated their obligation, but Malone had far grander plans that scared many of his congregants. He planned to build a new church right in the heart of the village, right next to the intimidating Know-Nothings. He had only a half-dozen Catholic families as parishioners when he began planning the new church building in 1847. Cardinal Hughes came to lay the cornerstone, but to the oldest and wisest Catholics, the plan to build on South Second seemed reckless and daring. They encouraged Malone to build the parish house behind the church to shield the priest from Nativist attacks, but the brave young priest would not hear of such cowardice.

Malone believed that the American sense of fair play would triumph and that he and his congregation would be welcomed into the community, a belief many of his congregation feared was both naïve and dangerous. Malone also needed a man to build his church and he found him in Patrick Keely, a fellow Irish immigrant who came from Tipperary. The two young men quickly formed a friendship, and Malone encouraged the young Irish carpenter to design and build a Gothic-style church on South Second Street, not far from the East River. Keely, who had never built a church before, initially doubted his ability to build the edifice, but Malone had faith in him and Malone’s faith proved well-founded.

(Right: Patrick Keely)

Keely would go on to become one of the most prolific and celebrated church architects in all North America, building 600 churches, as well as cathedrals in Montreal, Buffalo, and Boston. The church in Williamsburg turned out to be a gem and became a symbol of the proud Catholic community now forming along the East River. Those early years of his priesthood were hard ones for Malone. The church lacked the resources even to buy him a horse and Malone had to visit his widely scattered congregation on foot. He often had to walk miles to tend to his flock, spread over great distances, but his greatest sufferings were not physical, but emotional. As a Catholic priest walking through Nativist-dominated Williamsburg, Malone was the target of numerous anti-Catholic slurs, especially by the volunteer fire department men who proved to be especially cruel in their taunting.

Despite the daily heckling he received, Malone decided that he would never respond in anger. He would prove himself to be a model of Christian forbearance. Malone explained how he dealt with this anti-Catholic abuse: "I had my trials. They were long and they demanded patience on my part. Time and time again, my name was rudely called aloud in public by passing thoughtless boys and by young hangers-on of the old volunteer fire engine hose. I avoided being over-severe in my language or showing any anger for I always reasoned with the one whom I thought was the aggressor and what was strange, I never found one to own up to the fact." (Ibid.)

The prejudice that Malone faced was slow in passing and would last for more than a decade in its most virulent form. Malone became a target for Nativist abuse, but he slowly gained acceptance in some Protestant quarters in Williamsburg. Both Catholics and Protestants alike were shocked when they saw Malone walk through local streets locked arm-in-arm with a Protestant clergyman, Dr. Reynolds, rector of Christ Church. This was a daring move for both men and one of the first acts of ecumenism that would be a lifelong hallmark of Malone’s life in Williamsburg.

Despite gaining acceptance by some Protestants, anti-Catholicism remained fierce. In his native land, famine was driving tens of thousands of emigrants to America’s shores and the Catholic population in Williamsburg began to grow quickly, stoking the fires of religious bigotry. In 1853, there was an anti-Catholic riot in Williamsburg, but the next year anti-Catholic violence reached its peak in Williamsburg.

(Below: An anti-Catholic riot in Philadelphia in 1844.)

On Nov. 8, 1854, 100 Irishmen were drawn into a riot with Nativists, who headed for Sts. Peter and Paul church with the intention of torching the building. The Irish barely reached the church first and just managed to lock the gates. Armed, the Irish in the church were ready for a bloody showdown with the howling mob outside. The angry Nativists shook the gates so violently that the cross above its entry came down and they began to hurl stones through the windows. Only the arrival of Mayor Wall, who defied the angry mob, condemning their attack, and a detachment of armed local militia stopped the rioters from storming and burning the church.

Malone, much to his credit, never felt anger or hatred toward those who had tried to destroy his church. He said, “I repaid the blind prejudice of the past by patience, never allowing my soul to hold within it, other than the kindest and most charitable towards friend or enemy.” (Ibid.) Malone proved himself to be a true Christian in his ability to love those who hated him. He said, “I am proud of the truth that I never for a moment cherished an unkind feeling towards any of my fellow citizens, even though they were cruel, unjust and wrong in their treatment of one who was praying for them and their families.” (Ibid.)

(Below: A "Know-Nothing Party" banner.)

Malone felt that the way to deal with the abuse he and his congregation received was by keeping silent about it. He explained: “I have ever kept silence on the difficulties that beset my beginnings in planting the church in the thirteenth ward, the banner ward of Know Nothingism and of the Americanism of a personal and narrow character that little comported with the genius and spirit of the Constitution of the country.” (Ibid.) One of the defining traits of Malone’s character was an abiding belief in America and its values. He once said, “I was American in everything, save the accident of my birth.” (Ibid.)

Unlike many Irish immigrants who were Democrats, Malone became a Republican and was an avowed abolitionist and enemy of slavery. His staunch support of abolitionism put him at odds with many Irish-Americans who feared that abolishing slavery would prove an economic disaster for the Irish, who were at the bottom of the economic ladder and feared that competition from freed blacks would cut their already meager wages even further. Many Irish voters opposed Lincoln and the war to keep the union together, but Malone was a firm supporter of Lincoln and the war. He shocked not only his congregation, but also all of Williamsburg, by flying an American flag from the steeple of his church when the Civil War started. His church became the first American Catholic church ever to fly the stars and stripes and sent an unmistakable signal of the church’s support of the Union to the community. The flag remained flying over the church for four years until the end of the war.

Malone also became a regular speaker at the many Brooklyn events during the war supporting the Union. He spoke out against the Draft Riots in 1863, condemning the orgy of hate that led to the lynching of so many African-Americans -- a stance few Irish-American priests were brave enough to take. Perhaps his most famous sermon ever was delivered just after the news of Lincoln’s assassination. He said: "I ask you to mark well the man calling himself a Catholic, shall dare to speak approvingly of this assassination, lest he bring disgrace on us all. Pray that the life and integrity of the nation be preserved. Pray that the constituted authority of the nation may pass through this trying ordeal unharmed and that this rebellion may speedily be destroyed." (Ibid.)

(Right: The NY Draft Riots.)

He commented on Lincoln’s murder saying: "It is not that Abraham Lincoln has been murdered. It is more. It is the President of the United States, the representative of a nation of free men, the head and chosen of the people. We mourn this day for this Christian patriot gone from us, but we stand appalled and horror-stricken at the murder of the magistrate whose heart so filled with Christian charity and forgiveness for those who had forgotten their allegiance, taken their arms against the most humane government on earth." (Ibid.)

At the start of the war, in 1861, Malone made one of his most enduring contributions to Irish-America by founding the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, an organization that still exists today. Malone was shocked by the poor manner in which some of the Irish celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. He wanted to create a society to make the commemoration of the day more of a religious and family-oriented celebration. For decades, he would serve as the society’s chaplain, and membership in the club was a status symbol in Irish-American Brooklyn.

(Left: Emblem of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.)

Malone saw his tiny congregation grow from a handful of Catholics to 5,000 parishioners within 10 years, swollen by the famine in Ireland, which drove tens of thousands of Irish men and women to New York City. He established a parochial school, which quickly became the largest in Brooklyn numbering, more than 1,000 pupils.

In 1870, Mayor Martin Kalbfleish was the guest of honor at one of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in which he made a speech claiming to love all the citizens of Williamsburg, regardless of their faith. When he challenged Malone to prove this by joining the Jewish community in its Purim celebration,  Malone promptly did so. For almost three decades, Malone proved himself to be a sincere friend to Williamsburg’s Jews and he earned their respect and love. On his Golden Jubilee, Rabbi Gotheil of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan related an incident of meeting a Jewish lady from Williamsburg who asked the rabbi if he knew “our father Malone.” as if she were one of his very own parishioners, such was the love and respect Williamsburg Jews held for Malone. (The Malone Memorial, Page 7)

Malone’s reaching old age seemed like a miracle. Part of the reason why Malone was so loved was his sincere concern for the poor and the sick. He risked his life, visiting members of his congregation who were suffering from diseases. In 1878 he contracted smallpox from a sick parishioner, which nearly killed him. He recovered, but would also later contract cholera and ship’s fever, both of which severely weakened him. By 1881 Malone had grown exhausted by the immense labor he had done to build his parish. He decided to take a break from his work, and, in a sermon, he summarized the work he had done in building his parish. Malone stated that he had preached 10,000 sermons, baptized 18,000 children, performed 3,500 marriages, and heard a half-million confessions. (The Malone Memorial, Page 8)

In 1881 Malone returned to Ireland, his first visit home in four decades. Although he had come to America as a teenager, he had not forgotten the land of his birth. He visited his mother, whom he found strong and in good health, but the same could not be said for the political and economic state of Ireland. Malone traveled around the country and became an advocate for Irish Home Rule and a fervent supporter of the Land League.

Upon his return to America in 1882, he stated that Ireland had no friends among the aristocracy of the country and he made the following remarks on the situation of Irish tenant farmers: "It is my belief that were justice done in a country where the life and happiness of a people depends almost entirely on the proper distribution of land, there would be no bloodshed, no need of coercive legislation. It is justice that the people want. … Treat any people the world over in the spirit underlying the wholesale eviction of families from their humble homes, retaliations, even to murder are inevitable. I do not say it is right. I do not seek to justify any such extreme remedy, but I say you will find human nature of any people about the same in like circumstances." (Malone Memorial, Page 8)

The Irish question was a difficult one for Catholic priests and the solutions one of his friends espoused led to his removal from the pulpit. In 1886, an old personal friend of Malone, Dr. Edward McGlynn, an advocate of the ideas of Henry George, was suspended from his priesthood by Archbishop Corrigan for “advocating economic doctrines that were not in accordance with the doctrines of the church.” Although personally risky, Malone sprang to the defense of his friend, writing a letter to the Pope himself in defense of MyGlynn. Thanks in large part to Malone’s letter, McGlynn was vindicated and re-instated as a Catholic priest.

One of the most surprising stances of Father Malone was his support of public education. Few Catholics trusted the public school system because at its outset schools sometimes tried to force Catholic children to say Protestant prayers and many feared that one of the goals of public education was to make Protestants out of their children. In response, Catholics set up a huge parochial school system, and most priests had few kind words to say about public education. Malone not only praised public education, he was elected in 1894 to the New York State Board of Regents, despite the disapproval of many of his superiors in the church.

Malone died at 78 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery, his coffin fittingly draped in the stars and stripes. He left a thriving parish with thousands of parishioners, but it was his work outside of the parish with other religions that won him the enduring love of many people in Williamsburg. Former mayors, millionaires, and politicians praised him, but it was the love of Williamsburg’s thousands of poor that showed what a great man Malone had been. Fittingly, it was a local Jewish woman who was the first contributor to a memorial in Malone’s honor.

Today, few Catholics are aware of how men like Malone fought for their integration into American life, but that legacy lives on, and Malone remains an example of a man who loved all the people of Williamsburg, regardless of their creed. He showed everyone that goodness and Christian love can defeat hatred and create unity.

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Tags: An Gorta More, Architecture, Brooklyn, Faith, Know-Nothing, New York City

Comment by Máire Malone on January 17, 2024 at 6:23am
This article was invaluable as research for my novel, Hungry Trails. Proud to be Irish having read about his magnificent character during a difficult period in Irish-
American history.


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