Anthony Kohlmann

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Anthony Kohlmann

Anthony Kohlmann portrait.jpg
11th President of Georgetown College
In office
Preceded by Benedict Joseph Fenwick
Succeeded by Enoch Fenwick
Personal details
Antoine Kohlmann

(1771-07-13)July 13, 1771
Kaysersberg, Alsace, Kingdom of France
DiedApril 11, 1836(1836-04-11) (aged 64)
Rome, Papal States
Alma mater Collège Saint-Michel
OrdinationApril 1796

Anthony Kohlmann SJ (born Antoine Kohlmann; July 13, 1771 – April 11, 1836), was an Alsatian Catholic priest, missionary, and Jesuit educator. He played a decisive role in the early formation of the Diocese of New York, where he was the subject of a lawsuit that for the first time recognized the confessional privilege in the United States, and served as the president of Georgetown College from 1817 to 1820.


Fleeing the persecution of Catholics during the French Revolution, Kohlmann joined the Society of the Sacred Heart, and ministered throughout Europe. Eventually, he entered the Society of Jesus and left for the United States as a missionary in 1806, where he taught at Georgetown College and ministered to German-speaking congregations in the mid-Atlantic. In 1808, he became the apostolic administrator and vicar general of the newly created Diocese of New York in the absence of its first bishop. He was also the pastor of the city's only Catholic church established the diocese's first cathedral in 1809. He founded the New York Literary Institution, which he eventually removed to the countryside site of the present-day St. Patrick's Cathedral, established an orphanage, and introduced the Ursuline nuns to the United States.

In 1813, Kohlmann was the subject of a lawsuit to compel him to disclose the identity of a thief that he learned during a confession. Mayor DeWitt Clinton ruled that the government could not compel him to violate the seal of the confessional, establishing the confessional privilege for the first time in the United States. Kohlmann returned to Maryland in 1815 as superior of the Jesuits' Maryland Mission and president of Georgetown College. Three years later, he left Georgetown to establish the Washington Seminary.

Taking note of his writings on Unitarianism, Pope Leo XII named Kohlmann the chair of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1824. He rose as a consultor to the College of Cardinals and various curial congregations, culminating in his appointment as Qualificator of the Inquisition.

Early life

Antoine Kohlmann was born on July 13, 1771, in Kaysersberg, in the region of Alsace in the Kingdom of France. [1] As a youth, he began his studies in the nearby town of Colmar. He joined the Capuchin order, but with persecution of the order during the larger dechristianization of France throughout the French Revolution, Kohlmann fled to Switzerland. [2] He completed his theological studies at the Collège Saint-Michel, [3] and was ordained a priest in Fribourg in April 1796. [4] Kohlmann's brother, Paul, also became a priest and would join him in the United States. [5]


Shortly after his ordination, [3] he joined the Society of the Sacred Heart, [lower-alpha 1] and completed his novitiate period in Göggingen. [2] He ministered throughout Austria for two years, [3] during which he drew commendations for his work in Hagenbrunn during a plague. He then went to Italy, where he was chaplain at a military hospital in Pavia for two years. [2] Kohlmann was sent to Bavaria in 1801, where he became the director of the Ecclesiastical Seminary at Dillingen. He then spent time as the rector of a college in Berlin, [2] before founding a college in Amsterdam, [8] which was run by the Fathers of the Faith of Jesus, an order with which the Society of the Sacred Heart had merged in 1799. [3]

Kohlmann applied for admission to the Society of Jesus, which, despite its worldwide suppression since 1773, had been operating in the Russian Empire. During his wait of two years to receive a decision regarding his application, he resided at Kensington College in London, [8] where he learned English. [9] He eventually was instructed to travel to Russia, and he arrived in Riga in June 1805. [8] He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Daugavpils on June 21, 1803, [3] where he spent only a year before the superiors were satisfied that he was academically qualified. [8] The following year, John Carroll, the Bishop of Baltimore, put out a call for additional Jesuits in the United States, [9] and Kohlmann was sent as a missionary, prior to taking his final vows. [3]

Missionary to the United States

Kohlmann left Hamburg on August 20, 1806, arrived in Baltimore on November 4. [8] In the United States, he began anglicizing his name as Anthony. [10] [lower-alpha 2] The Jesuit Superior General formally permitted the Jesuits to be restored in the United States in 1805, and a novitiate was opened the following year at Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. Francis Neale was named the master of novices, and Kohlmann, though still a novice himself, was made the socius [lower-alpha 3] to the master of novices. He was also assigned to teach philosophy. [8] He introduced many of the customs that the Jesuits in exile the Russian Empire observed. While at Georgetown, he made trips to minister to the people of Alexandria, Virginia, Baltimore, and to German-speaking congregations in rural Pennsylvania. He also heard confessions from parishioners at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia because their pastor had not mastered the English language. [12]

New York

St. Peter's Church was the only Catholic church in New York City when Kohlmann became its pastor in 1808. St. Peter's Church, Barclay Street, New York City.jpg
St. Peter's Church was the only Catholic church in New York City when Kohlmann became its pastor in 1808.

Bishop Carroll found it difficult to govern a diocese whose territory encompassed the entire United States. [12] The church in New York suffered neglect and mismanagement, [3] and he had repeatedly requested the authorities in Rome remove New York to form a separate diocese. [12] Before news could arrive that his request was granted and R. Luke Concanen was appointed as the first Bishop of New York, [lower-alpha 4] Carroll sent a party of clergy to New York City. Headed by Kohlmann, it consisted of Benedict Fenwick and four Jesuit scholastics. [14] Arriving in October 1808, Kohlmann assumed pastoral responsibility for approximately 14,000 Catholics, who were primarily Irish, French, and German. [3] Upon his arrival, Kohlmann found New York suffering an economic depression resulting from the Embargo Act of 1807. [3]

Kohlmann became the pastor of St. Peter's Church, replacing Matthew Byrne, who sought to be relieved so that he could join the Society of Jesus. [14] There, he celebrated Masses in English, French, and German for the congregation's multilingual parishioners. He also was prolific in administering the other sacraments, visiting hospitals, and teaching catechesis. [15] He also created a subscription among parishioners to raise money for the poor. [16]

Kohlmann determined that St. Peter's was inadequate to serve the entire Catholic population of New York City, and he began the establishment of a new church that would serve as the cathedral of the diocese. He purchased land on what were then the outskirts of New York City, among farmland and on the edge of wilderness. [17] The cornerstone of the St. Patrick's Old Cathedral was laid on June 8, 1809. [3] He oversaw its completion and gave it the name of St. Patrick. [18] In 1809, he became the cathedral's first pastor, alongside Fenwick. [19] Upon its completion, Old St. Patrick's became the largest and most ornate church in New York State. [15] By this time, Cooncanen still had not yet arrived from Europe, delayed by Napoleonic Wars. [17] Therefore, on October 11 of that year, upon Bishop Concanen's request, John Carroll named Kohlmann the vicar general of the Diocese of New York. [20]

In 1809, in the course of their pastoral duties, Kohlmann and Fenwick were called to the deathbed of Thomas Paine, an avowed atheist, who desired that the priests would be able to heal him. However, when they attempted to disabuse him of his atheist beliefs, Paine became enraged and expelled them from his house. [21] In 1810, Bishop Concanen died in Naples, having never reached his diocese in America. [22] Therefore, Kohlmann was made apostolic administrator of the diocese. When it appeared that Concanen's successor, John Connolly, would successfully arrive in the United States, [3] Kohlmann was recalled to Maryland in January 1815. [23] He was succeeded by Fenwick as vicar general of New York and pastor of St. Peter's Church. [24]

New York Literary Institution

Kohlmann founded both St. Patrick's Old Cathedral and the New York Literary Institution, which were across the street from each other. St. Patrick's (Old) Cathedral, Mott Street, New York City.jpg
Kohlmann founded both St. Patrick's Old Cathedral and the New York Literary Institution, which were across the street from each other.

In addition to his pastoral work, Carroll charged Kohlmann with establishing a Catholic college in the city. [14] Therefore, in 1808, [25] he opened a classical school called the New York Literary Institution, [3] which functioned as an offshoot of Georgetown College. [10] He rented a house on Mulberry Street, across from the cathedral, where the four Jesuit scholastics began teaching 35 Catholic and Protestant students, a minority of whom boarded at the school. [26] With the school outgrowing its location, in September 1809, it moved to Broadway, and, in March of the following year, Kohlmann relocated the school far into the countryside of New York City, across the street from the Elgin Botanic Garden. The new site of the New York Literary Institution would later house the new St. Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan. [25] Following its move, the school began to prosper. Kohlmann, however, continued to reside at Mulberry Street, where he could perform his pastoral duties at Old St. Patrick's and St. Peter's. Therefore, he made Benedict Fenwick the president of the school. [22]

Kohlmann became convinced that New York City would remain the preeminent city in the United States and that the Jesuits should shift their ministerial efforts to it, [14] rather than focus on their rural plantations in Maryland, which he described as "graveyards for Europeans". He went so far as to advocate the relocation of Georgetown College to New York, [10] which he argued was of "greater importance to the Society than all the other states together". [27] Before long, the Jesuit superiors in Maryland determined that there were not enough Jesuits to staff both the New York school and Georgetown. Therefore, despite Kohlmann's protestations, the New York Literary Institution was disbanded in 1813, and the Jesuits were recalled to Maryland. [27]

In addition to the New York Literary Institution, Kohlmann established a school for girls in April 1812 near the literary institution. The school was put under the care of the Ursuline nuns, whom he had invited from County Cork, Ireland, for the purpose of running the new school. [3] The nuns accepted Kohlmann's invitation on the condition that they would remain only as long as they received novices for their order. [28] Their arrival marked the Ursuline order's first presence in the United States. [29] When their desire for novices did not materialize, the nuns returned to Ireland three years after their arrival. Kohlmann also established an orphanage, which he placed under the care of Trappist nuns who had fled persecution in France. This institution was short-lived, as the Trappists left for Le Havre in October 1814. [28]

Seal of the confessional

In 1813, Kohlmann became the subject of a lawsuit that rose to national interest. [3] A New York City merchant, [15] James Keating, accused a man named Phillips and Phillips' wife of stealing goods from him. The police prosecuted the two accused, but, before the trial could be brought to a close, Keating declared that he had been paid restitution, with Kohlmann acting as an intermediary in the transaction. The New York District Attorney subpoenaed Kohlmann to provide the name of the thief who paid the restitution, but Kohlmann refused to reveal his identity, stating that it had been disclosed to him during the Sacrament of Penance and was therefore protected under canon law by the seal of the confessional. [21] In response to the district attorney's demand that he disclose the thief, Kohlmann stated that he would suffer imprisonment or death before violating the seal. [15]

Kohlmann was brought before the Court of General Sessions to compel him to provide the identity of the thief. [3] He was represented by two Protestant defense attorneys: Richard Riker and William Sampson. [21] The four judges, DeWitt Clinton, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, Richard Cunnin, and Isaac Douglas, ruled in favor of Kohlmann, citing religious liberty as the basis of their decision. [30] Speaking for a unanimous court, [31] DeWitt Clinton wrote:

It is essential to the free exercise of religion, that its ordinances should be administered—that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected... Secrecy is the essence of penance. The sinner will not confess, nor will the priest receive his confession, if the veil of secrecy is removed. [32]

The court's decision represented the first legal recognition of the confessional privilege in the United States. [33] As a result, the New York State Legislature passed a law on December 10, 1828, codifying the confessional privilege: that when clergymen come to know of facts through their ministerial capacity and their denomination imposes a requirement of secrecy, they cannot be compelled to reveal those facts. Kohlmann also wrote a book directed at non-Catholics, explaining the Catholic doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance. [28]

Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Upon his arrival in Maryland in 1815, Kohlmann was made the master of novices at the novitiate in White Marsh. Shortly thereafter, Giovanni Antonio Grassi left Maryland for Rome, and Kohlmann succeeded him as the superior of the Jesuits' Maryland Mission on September 10, 1817. [23] As superior, Kohlmann advocated selling the Jesuits' plantations in rural Maryland, in order to finance the establishment of other colleges in the major American cities. The Anglo-American Jesuits fiercely opposed this proposal. Disagreements between the Continental European Jesuits in the United States and the Anglo-American ones because so entrenched that the Jesuit Superior General sent Peter Kenney as an apostolic visitor. [34] He also assumed Kohlmann's role of mission superior on April 23, 1819. [35]

Georgetown College

Early depiction of Georgetown College's campus, with Old North on the right. Georgetown College Simpson.jpg
Early depiction of Georgetown College's campus, with Old North on the right.

When Benedict Fenwick left for Rome in 1817, Kohlmann was named to succeed him as president of Georgetown College. Though Kohlmann remained convinced that the Jesuits must close Georgetown to allow them to concentrate their meager resources on the training of Jesuits, he did not attempt to shutter the college while in office. [36] Kohlmann aligned with the European Jesuits who advocated a rigorous classical curriculum that placed a special emphasis on Latin and Ancient Greek, while the Anglo-American Jesuits supported a diminished emphasis on the classics in favor of mathematics and science. [37] He also encouraged proselytization of the Protestant students, to which their parents and some of the Anglo-American Jesuits objected. [38]

During his administration, the number of students enrolled at the college declined somewhat. This was due in large part to the Panic of 1819 [36] and partly to the strict discipline that Kohlmann enforced, which resulted in a significant number of students being expelled or transferring out. In 1818, students at the college staged a revolt to this discipline by plotting to kill the prefect of students, Stephen Larigaudelle Dubuisson, who was responsible for maintaining discipline. While such conspiracies had become frequent at other American colleges, this was the first time such a design had appeared at a Catholic college. However, the plot was discovered before it could be acted upon, and Kohlmann expelled the six conspirators. Overall, his leadership of the college was not considered successful. [39] Kohlmann's term as president of the college ended in 1820, [4] and he was succeeded by Enoch Fenwick. [40]

Washington Seminary

In 1819, a building was constructed next to St. Patrick's Church in downtown Washington, D.C. It was to serve as the home of the Washington Seminary, which was envisioned as a standalone Jesuit novitiate, to alleviate overcrowding at Georgetown. [41] This never came to fruition, however, and the building went unused for one or two years. Instead, the novitiate found another location, and the Washington Seminary opened as a Jesuit scholasticate, under Kohlmann's leadership. He became the first president and rector of the school on August 15, 1820, and also assumed the position of professor of dogma. [23]

Soon after its founding, prominent Catholics in the area petitioned Kohlmann to open the school to lay students, and Kohlmann complied. The first lay students enrolled on September 1, 1821, alongside the Jesuit scholastics. [23] Kohlmann admitted day students reluctantly and out of financial necessity, [42] as it violated a law of the Jesuit order that forbade them from accepting compensation for educating youths. [43] As a result of it no longer being exclusively for priestly training, the school would later be renamed as Gonzaga College. The school prospered and came to be the preeminent day school in Washington. [44]

In response to the writings of the Unitarian minister Jared Sparks, which were aimed at Baltimore readers, [44] Kohlmann published an apologetical book titled Unitarianism, Theologically and Philosophically Considered. [3] The book was well received in Catholic circles; several editions of it were published, and it was considered sufficiently authoritative to be read aloud in the refectory of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. [44] Kohlmann's tenure as president came to an end in 1824 when he was recalled to Rome by Pope Leo XII, [45] and he was succeeded by Adam Marshall. [46]

Kohlmann became involved in the purported miraculous cure of Ann Mattingly, the sister of Thomas Carbery, the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Kohlmann instructed her to pray a novena in union with the German Prince Alexandeer von Hohenlohe, [44] who had gained a reputation as a miracle worker. [47] On March 10, 1824, Mattingly was restored to health. [44] Despite wariness by Archbishop Ambrose Maréchal and William Matthews (Mattingly's pastor), Kohlmann was the most emphatic priest in declaring the cure a miracle and published an account of it in a Baltimore newspaper. [48] Seeking to have the miracle declare true, he would later arrange an audience with Pope Leo XII, in which the pope was impressed by the event and ordered a pamphlet about it translated into Italian and published. [49]

Later life

Kohlmann Hall at Fordham University was constructed in 1923. 2020 Fordham University Kohlmann Hall.jpg
Kohlmann Hall at Fordham University was constructed in 1923.

In 1824, Pope Leo XII placed the Pontifical Gregorian University under the care of the Society of Jesus, as it had been prior to the order's suppression. Impressed by Kohlmann's book on Unitarianism, [44] he named Kohlmann as the university's chair of theology. He held this post for five years, during which time one of his students was Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, who would go on to become Pope Leo XIII; another was Paul Cullen, who would become the Archbishop of Dublin and the first Irish cardinal. [3]

Kohlmann's inquisition of Pecci during the latter's public academic defense again caught the attention of the pope, who named him a consultor to the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. [44] He also became a consultor to the staff of the College of Cardinals. [3] Pope Gregory XVI promoted him within the curial staff to the position of Qualificator of the Inquisition [44] and considered making him a cardinal. In 1830, he resigned the office and spent a year as spiritual director at the Roman College. In 1831, he retired to the Jesuit house attached to the Church of the Gesù, where he served as confessor, aided by his knowledge of several languages. [50] By 1836, Kohlmann's health had begun to deteriorate, and he is said to have overtaxed himself hearing confessions during the Lenten season. [50] He died on April 11, 1836. [3]

Kohlmann Hall at Fordham University was constructed in 1923 and named in his honor. [51] Originally the headquarters of the Jesuit Order's New York province, it was later converted into the residence for Jesuits teaching at Fordham Preparatory School. [52]


  1. Though it would become a women's religious order, [6] at its incipient stage, the Society of the Sacred Heart was founded by two priests, Joseph Varin and Joseph de Tournély. [7] Its early members were primarily former Jesuits, who joined after the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773. [2]
  2. Kohlmann's anglicized first name is sometimes identified as Anton. [10]
  3. The socius magistri novitiorum is the associate to the master of novices, and is responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the novices. [11]
  4. R. Luke Concanen was appointed Bishop of New York and consecrated on April 24, 1808, but word of his appointment would not reach Carroll until September 24, 1808. [13]

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  36. 1 2 Curran 1993 , p. 84
  37. Curran 1993 , p. 86
  38. Curran 1993 , p. 87
  39. Curran 1993 , p. 85
  40. Shea 1891 , p. 58
  41. Hill 1922 , pp. 20–21
  42. Hill 1922 , p. 25
  43. Hill 1922 , p. 24
  44. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Parsons 1918 , p. 50
  45. Hill 1922 , p. 26
  46. Hill 1922 , p. 27
  47. Schultz 2011 , p. 11
  48. Curran 1987 , p. 45–46
  49. Curran 1987 , p. 52
  50. 1 2 Parsons 1918 , p. 51
  51. As I Remember Fordham 1991 , p. 202
  52. "Kohlmann Hall". Fordham University. Archived from the original on October 10, 2014. Retrieved July 5, 2020.


Further reading


Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Matthew Byrne
Pastor of St. Peter's Church
Succeeded by
Benedict Joseph Fenwick
Preceded by
Vicar General of the Diocese of New York
Succeeded by
Benedict Joseph Fenwick
First Pastor of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral
with Benedict Joseph Fenwick
Title next held by
John Power
Preceded by
Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of New York
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Giovanni Antonio Grassi
24th Superior of the Jesuit Maryland Mission
Succeeded by
Peter Kenney
Academic offices
Preceded by
Benedict Joseph Fenwick
11th President of Georgetown College
Succeeded by
Enoch Fenwick
New office1st President of the Washington Seminary
Succeeded by
Adam Marshall