Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan (1857-1932): First President National Conference of Catholic Charities, Long Time Rector, Catholic University of America and Noted Historian

By: Michael Barga

Introduction: Thomas J. Shahan was a Catholic historian, professor, and Rector of The Catholic University of America (CUA) for the majority of his adult life.  Shahan’s main contribution to social welfare was his leadership as University rector from 1909-1928; he oversaw an era of social action and organization at CUA including the founding and development of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC) and the National Catholic War Council (NCWC).  Shahan was named Domestic Prelate in 1909, and ordained titular Bishop of Germanicopolis in 1914.

Education and Career: Early in his life, young Thomas Shahan was noted for his analytic memory, and he was always seen with a book in his hand.  After receiving education from his father and public schools in Millbury, MA, he entered the Sulpician College at Montreal for seminary in 1872, continuing at the North American college in Rome in 1878.  In 1882, he earned a Doctorate of Divinity and was ordained a priest for the Hartford diocese.  From 1889-1891, Shahan studied at the University of Berlin and Sorbonne and Institut Catholique (Paris), earning a Civil and Ecclesiastical Law licentiate’s degree and significantly developing his expertise in church history.

Thomas Joseph Shahan was born on September 11, 1857 to a devout Irish Catholic family in Manchester, New Hampshire.  His mother was mentally ill, and his father and grandmother strongly influenced his upbringing including Shahan’s education and devotional prayer life.  At seminary he was recognized for his intelligence by teachers and colleagues alike, and it was no surprise that Shahan moved on from his assignments as parish priest and diocesan secretarial assignment after five years.  Newly established CUA requested him as student and potential professor, and Shahan gladly took the offer.

Upon completion of his education in Europe, Shahan was introduced as professor of church history for the 1891-1892 academic year and would teach a number of other subjects throughout his career including Canon and roman Civil Law, as well as Latin.  In addition to teaching at CUA, he was editor in chief for the Catholic University Bulletin and also lectured at nearby Trinity College.  As a historian, he wrote over a hundred articles for the Catholic Encyclopedia and published three history books entitled The Beginnings of Christianity, The House of God, and The Middle Ages during his time as professor.  Students and colleagues alike were consistently astounded by his depth of knowledge, some joking that he had a basic familiarity with every book ever written.  In 1909, Shahan’s scholarly career would be interrupted by his appointment by Rome as interim rector while other rector candidates were sought.

Rev. Shahan holds the record as the longest serving leader of CUA, 18 years as rector.

Already familiar with the internal dissension faced by previous rectors, Thomas Shahan immediately faced opposition, some even questioning the authenticity of the appointment.  Still, he was elected to a six-year term as rector and given the honor of Domestic Prelate from Rome by the end of 1909, both signs of continued interest in having him lead CUA’s development.  Shahan would later be given the title of Bishop in 1914 and be reappointed as rector for two more terms.  Especially in the 1920’s, Msgr. John A. Ryan and others credited him with maintaining academic freedom even though Shahan did not personally give vocal support to the more progressive social ideas coming out of CUA.

His most notable involvement in social welfare occurred in his first term as rector of CUA with the development of the National Conference of Catholic Charities and the National Catholic Warfare Council.  In 1910, Shahan took the suggestion of others to convene a meeting at of Catholic charity workers at CUA in coordination with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and sociologist professor William Kerby.  A larger meeting was scheduled later that year.  Shahan became president of the NCCC, and he presented the delegates of the full meeting to President Howard Taft who commended the organization’s charitable mission.  One of the key themes of the conference was the interaction between Catholic and state charity, and Catholic institutions generally felt they were treated fairly.

Shahan reported ecstatically about the event, considering it a significant contribution of Catholicism to the American people:

“The Catholic Charities Conference was a very great success.  We had about three hundred and fifty delegates from all parts of the United States, and the entire work was carried on in      McMahon Hall… They tell me that I have made a good many friends for the University…The University is thus leading a double life, being in the first place a teaching centre, and then a  centre of many important Catholic activities.”1

In 1917, he encouraged the development of the organization’s newsletter, Catholic Charities Review, by John A. Ryan, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and other contributors.  Shahan remained president of the NCCC until resigning in 1929.

Another high point of his first term as rector was the organization of the National Catholic Warfare Council in 1917.  Originally, the organization was authorized by Shahan to encourage the service of Catholic chaplains in WWI, although it would later come under the leadership of the bishops.  The NCWC eventually developed a school of service for women as a part of the war effort which ultimately merged with a similar program at CUA for men and became the National Catholic School of Social Service.  Shahan also oversaw the development of the Wounded Soldiers Rehabilitation School which provided care to injured veterans of the war.

The sharpest critics of Thomas Shahan point to his failure in admitting black students to the Catholic University of America, especially Charles H. Wesley in 1914.  Wesley would go on to study at nearby Howard University then graduate from Harvard University.  While a few blacks were allowed limited study opportunities at CUA, Shahan appeared to generally follow the precedent of other universities like American, Georgetown, and George Washington including a formal color barrier in 1919 that would remain fully intact until 1937.  Shahan’s support of admitting lay women into the school during his last term as rector in 1927 is more favorably viewed.

In 1928, Bishop Shahan completed his third full term as rector and did not seek a fourth at the age of 71.  He also resigned from editing the Catholic Historical Review after thirteen years, yet Shahan’s interest in academia would continue.  In his final years, he wrote roughly twenty articles for numerous periodicals including The Baltimore Catholic Review, Catholic World, Commonweal, the Missionary, and the American Ecclesiastical Review.  Shahan also continued his lifelong commitment to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception which was officially associated with the university during its early years.  He had proposed the shrine as a pilgrimage site, undertook great fund raising efforts, and oversaw significant progress in its construction throughout his time as rector. Shahan’s final years reflected his background as an intelligent man with a devotional Catholic spirituality, and his funeral took place in the crypt of the shrine he founded.

Shahan’s Funeral in the crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He died at age 75 and is the only person buried in the shrine. The upper church was completed in 1959.

Bishop Thomas J. Shahan died on March 9, 1932 just before his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.  Naturally, he is buried in the crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C., near to the Catholic University of America grounds where he had devoted much of his life’s work.

Sources: 1. The Catholic University of America, 1909-1928: The Rectorship of Thomas Joseph Shahan (dissertation) by Reverend Blasé Dixon, 1972 p. 72 – Letter from Shahan to Archbishop Henry Moeller, October 4, 1910.  Also, “Thomas Joseph Shahan” retrieved at

Photo Sources: The Archives of the Catholic University of America.

For More Information: The Catholic University of America, 1909-1928: The Rectorship of Thomas Joseph Shahan (dissertation) by Reverend Blasé Dixon, 1972 or contact the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at .


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