Irish-born Franciscan priest Michael Egan (1761–1814) was the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's first bishop, serving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Philadelphia. He served in this position for only a short time, due to health problems. During his tenure, Egan spent much of his time dealing with conflicts among lay trustees, and the stress of this situation exacerbated his own failing health.
Although his tenure was brief, Michael Egan served Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the city's first Roman Catholic bishop. Egan's post required him to deal with the growing pains of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States as well as involve himself in the power struggle among lay trustees within the city. The turn of the 19th century was also at a time of political turmoil in Europe and of regular yellow fever epidemics in cities such as Philadelphia. Although poor health limited Egan's ability to deal with these problems, it did not overshadow the historic significance of his position and the line of succession that came in the wake of his appointment and his death.
While continuing on his religious path, Egan gained a reputation as an excellent speaker and, in turn, as a preacher. In 1802, he traveled to the United States, landing in Albany, New York, with plans to perform his priestly duty there. However, that location already had enough priests. A request by Catholics living in the Pennsylvania city of Lancaster resulted in his transfer south, and he began serving as assistant pastor of Conewago Chapel, a church located hear Harrisburg. There he worked with Father Louis de Barth, who would become his lifelong friend.
In 1789, the United States witnessed the birth of the first American diocese in Baltimore. Established by Archbishop John Carroll, this Roman Catholic subdivision served all of the United States. As wave after wave of immigrants arrived in the young nation, the population of Catholics increased. Carroll petitioned Rome to have the huge diocese further divided, and in 1808, Pope Pius VII gave his blessing: the diocese of Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Bardstown, Kentucky were now separated from Baltimore. For each of these new diocese, a priest elevated to the title of bishop would be needed.
Meanwhile, in 1733, Roman Catholic cleric Father Greaton had established Saint Joseph's Church, the first Catholic parish in Philadelphia. The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania goes back to William Penn who, in 1707, sought religious freedom in the New World. By the time of American Independence, Philadelphia had become the largest city in the American colonies. It was also the nation's first capital; the move of the seat of government to Washington, D.C. would not occur until July of 1790, with the signing of the Residence Act.
Egan's excellent reputation as a preacher prompted Archbishop Carroll to recommend that he serve the important congregation at Saint Mary's Church, in Philadelphia. The church, which had welcomed such prominent figures as General George Washington and John Adams to worship, had been built in 1763 as a Sunday church for Saint Joseph's parishioners. The congregation was impressed with Egan, and the lay trustees elected him to serve as a pastor in 1803.
Five years later, in 1808, Archbishop Carroll recommended Egan for the role of bishop of Philadelphia, due to his experience and background in Ireland and Europe. His appointment became official on October 28, 1810, in a ceremony at Saint Peter's procathedral in Baltimore. St. Mary's Church, where Egan had served as pastor, now became the first cathedral of Philadelphia's Roman Catholic diocese.
The service territory of the new the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia included the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as all of Delaware and the southern portion of New Jersey. At the time it was established, it encompassed 16 churches and 11 priests serving 30,000 Catholics. It was to this large flock that Egan now ministered, a flock that grew larger when several members of his family traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to make a home in Philadelphia.
In the established churches of Europe, the clergy held the power, but things were different in the United States. In this new country, laymen (non-clergy) founded the Catholic churches, purchased the property where churches would be built, and oversaw the development of physical church parishes. As such, lay trustees demanded—and got—a measure of control over the clergy. For the many priests and bishops who came from Europe to the United States, the power situation was a shock to their systems. It was truly a shock for Egan.
Carroll recommended Egan for the position of bishop because he viewed the priest as “truly pious, learned, religious, remarkable for his great humility,” according to Richard H. Clarke in his Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States. Unfortunately, Egan's episcopate was constantly challenged by lay trustees who thrust him into numerous administrative disputes, such conflicts often involving the exact meaning and purpose of trusteeism. The trustees also worked en bloc to challenge the authority of his priests. Another thorn in Egan's side was Reverend William Harold, a priest who possessed a dominant and forceful personality. Harold was subtly insubordinate, as was his uncle, fellow priest James Harold.
A fair-thinking man, Egan had always attempted to resolve disputes in an amicable fashion. As bishop of a large and diverse diocese roiling with power struggles and other distractions, however, he was handicapped by his gentle nature; a highly respected preacher, he was not a fighter. Watching Egan's authority constantly compromised by petty disputes, Carroll began to temper his enthusiasm for his new bishop, writing, as Clarke transcribed, that Egan “seems endowed with all the qualities to discharge with perfection all the functions of the episcopacy, except that he lacks robust health, greater experience and a greater degree of firmness in his disposition.”
Carroll's observation that Egan lacked “robust health” was an astute one; the bishop endured illness throughout his years serving the church in America. While his symptoms indicated that he most likely had tuberculosis, he also contracted yellow fever during his years serving as bishop of Philadelphia. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, over nine percent of the city's population had died. While Egan lived there, the city streets would sometimes be strewn with piles of filled coffins during repeated outbreaks of the illness. The ever-increasing number of corpses overwhelmed city worker's ability to bury them in a timely fashion.
Ultimately, the tense situation Egan found himself in as bishop of Philadelphia contributed to his early death; he died in that city on July 22, 1814, at 53 years of age, and was buried in the cemetery next to Saint Mary's Church. In 1869, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was built on Logan Square, and this became Egan's final resting place; they now reside at Logan Square, in the crypt specially built for Philadelphia's bishops.
After Egan died, the clergy-laymen conflicts in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Philadelphia continued, and the position of bishop was not filled for six years. In 1820 Henry Conwell (1747–1842) became the second bishop of Philadelphia and, like Egan, was titled Most Reverend.
The bishops who succeeded Egan and Conwell include The Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kenrick (1797–1863), Saint John Nepoumecene Neumann, C.SS.R. (1811–1860), The Most Reverend James Frederic Wood (1813–1883), The Most Reverend Patrick John Ryan (1831–1911), The Most Reverend Edmond Francis Prendergast (1843–1918), His Eminence Dennis Cardinal Dougherty (1865–1951), His Eminence John Cardinal O'Hara, C.S.C. (1888–1960), His Eminence John Cardinal Krol (1910–1996), and His Eminence Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua (1923–2012).
Clarke, Richard H., LL.D., Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States, revised edition, Richard H. Clarke, 1888.
Catholic Hierarchy website, http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/ (August 10, 2016), “Bishop Michael Francis Egan.”
New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/ (August 30 2016), “Michael Egan.”
Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center website, http://www.pahrc.net/ (August 10, 2016), “Philadelphia's First Bishop.”
Philadelphia History online, http://www.rc.net/philadelphia/history/ (September 1, 2016), “The Bishops of Philadelphia.”❑