When Archbishop William H. Keeler becomes Cardinal William Keeler next month, he will join a tiny fraternity of Baltimore Catholic churchmen who have played large roles in the history of the church and the country, as they led America's oldest diocese.
As Baltimore's third cardinal, Archbishop Keeler follows Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, known as a quiet yet decisive man, who led the church through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Baltimore's first cardinal was James Gibbons, named to that office in 1886. Cardinal Gibbons was only the second cardinal in America and was the country's highest-ranking church leader for much of his tenure.
Though the personal styles of the first two cardinals were different, both championed social causes and the rights of common men and saw the Catholic Church through unsettled days. In the late 19th century, Cardinal Gibbons upheld the controversial Knights of Labor and promoted unity among immigrants, who brought differing practices and backgrounds to the church and the country. Cardinal Shehan fought for racial equality and strongly defended the church's position opposing birth control, unpopular even among his priests.
Both men were born in Baltimore and educated at St. Mary's Seminary in the city, though Cardinal Gibbons grew up in Ireland.
The two cardinals carried on the tradition of Baltimore's first Catholic leader, John Carroll, who became the first bishop of the first diocese in America in 1789. At that time, the diocese included the whole United States and, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Bishop Carroll was thus responsible for fixing many of the Catholic traditions in this country and showing Rome that democracy and Catholicism were compatible.
Cardinal Shehan, who became archbishop of Baltimore in 1961, received his red hat in 1965. He led the diocese until 1974, when he retired. He continued to serve the church almost until his death in 1984 at age 86. He regularly said 7 a.m. Mass for a small band of faithful Catholics at the Basilica of the Assumption, where he lived in the same quarters that Cardinal Gibbons had occupied.
Within the church, he supported the reforms of Pope John XXIII and defended Pope Paul VI's continuing prohibition of birth control, as put forth in the 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," against the objections of more than 70 dissenting priests under his tutelage.
In the community, Cardinal Shehan promoted cooperation between leaders of other faiths and was a staunch fighter for racial equality during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1963, he banned racial discrimination in Catholic schools, churches, hospitals and social organizations.
Though beloved and honored by many, Cardinal Shehan "had not the warmth of Cardinal Gibbons nor the inclination to befriend the mighty," writes Brother Thomas W. Spalding in his 1989 history of the archdiocese, "The Premier See."
Nevertheless, Brother Spalding says, "Shehan made more decisions in a month than Gibbons in a year and was more willing to accept the responsibility, even odium, for unpopular ones."
Cardinal Gibbons was, however, highly regarded by churchmen and was praised by presidents. He is said to have relished the limelight and to have been highly patriotic. John Philip Sousa's band played outside the cardinal's quarters during a celebration of his appointment.
As the highest-ranking Catholic leader in the late 19th century, when the church was faced with a flood of European immigrants, Cardinal Gibbons called for unity despite their diverse backgrounds. "Brothers we are, whatever may be our nationality," he told the members of his church.
When Cardinal Gibbons died, President Warren G. Harding was among the many dignitaries who sent condolences. He called the cardinal "the finest type of citizen and churchman" and wrote, "His long and notable service to country and church makes us all his debtors."
A fellow churchman, Rev. John Talbot Smith of New York, said of him: "No American leader has so few enemies."
Like Cardinal Shehan, he was 86 when he died.