The Thomas F. Meehan Papers consist of correspondence received or acquired by Mr. Meehan for the years 1859-1920. Correspondents include figures from the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy such as Cardinal John M. Farley, Abp. Michael A. Corrigan, Bp. James McFaul, and Bp. Charles McDonnell, as well as from leading political figures in both Irish and American politics, including Michael Davitt, Alexander M. Sullivan, Perry Belmont, Patrick A. Collins, and Samuel Sullivan Cox. The content of the correspondence reflects Meehan's many interests, from the nationalist movement in Ireland, to Democratic Party politics, to the preservation of the history of the Catholic Church in this country.
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Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1854, Meehan was one of eleven children born to Patrick Meehan and Mary Jane Butler. He was raised in the comfort of the Irish middle class and educated by the Jesuits at St. Francis Xavier College, where he recieved both his B.A and M.A. Although Meehan's family would move to New Jersey shortly after his birth, he would return to Brooklyn as an adult, where he would live for the rest of his life. In 1881 Meehan married Mary 'Molly' O'Rourke (1916) and together they had five children.
His father, Patrick, was the editor of the Irish weekly the 'Irish-American,' an independent, ethnically-oriented newspaper that aggressively promoted the interests of the Irish both in this country and in Ireland. Patrick Meehan, as his step-father Patrick Lynch, the founder and publisher of the 'Irish-American,' had done before him, quickly distinguished himself from other Irish-American editors by articulating a position that attempted to reconcile nationalism with Catholicism. He advocated the republican movement in Europe and openly criticized his fellow Irish-American editors for their conservative political views. He angered American clerics with his charges of interference and opposition to the nationalist movement. He rejected outright the arguments of Orestes A. Brownson, who had called for the 'Americanization' of Irish immigrants in order to ease tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities. Instead, he actively promoted the preservation of Irish culture in American society. He played a prominent role in helping to coordinate Irish-American aid to the nationalist movement in Ireland and in supporting the formation of military companies in this country. He became a leading figure in the Fenian Movement in the United States, being elected to serve in the Senate of that organization and travelled to Ireland to meet with Irish representatives in 1865 when they called upon their American brethren for support in a planned armed insurrection. Political factionalism soon divided the U.S. Fenian movement and culminated in an attack on Meehan when he was shot in the head. After the attempt on his life in 1870, Meehan distanced himself from the organization and did not play a visible role in the nationalist movement until the formation of the Irish Land and Industrial League in 1880. Locally, Meehan assumed an active role in New York politics and became an outspoken supporter of the Democratic Party. He rankled national party officials when he demanded political recognition for the significance of the Irish vote to the party's success. Meehan remained editor of the newspaper until his death in 1906.
Thomas Meehan would follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps when he joined the staff of the 'Irish-American' as a journalist. Upon graduation from St. Francis Xavier College in 1874, he was appointed managing editor, a position he held until the newspaper stopped publishing in 1906. Like his father, Thomas Meehan was a man of dedication and unbounded loyalty, but his passion would not be directed toward the cause of Irish independence, but for the preservation of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. While his correspondence reveals a man who was committed to the advancement of Irish interests in this country, he did not become actively involved in the movement for Irish independence. He continued to support the nationalist movement, but did not assume a position of leadership within the Irish-American community on this issue as his father had. Instead, Meehan's energy was channeled toward issues dealing with the Catholic Church. He moved comfortably within Catholic social circles. He sought, and indeed cultivated, relationships with members of the American hierarchy, several of whom had been classmates with him at St. Francis Xavier College. Perhaps this was an outcome of his being born and raised in this country or of his years spent as a student at St. Francis Xavier College. The relationships he forged with his professors and classmates at St. Francis Xavier were lasting and had a formative influence on his life. As a journalist, his interest in the affairs of the Catholic Church soon led to his reporting on its activities, and in 1888 he began to regularly contribute to the Baltimore 'Sun' as a correspondent on Catholic affairs. He would be one of the first journalists contracted to comment on Catholic issues in the secular press. Over the years, he would contribute to a number of other regional papers, including the Philadelphia 'Public Ledger,' the Richmond 'Times,' and Rotterdam's Catholic weekly 'de Maasbode.' He also acted as special contributor for several local newspapers, including the New York 'Sun' and the Brooklyn 'Eagle,' as well as serving as an editor at the New York 'Herald.'
Meehan had become interested in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States at an early age and had at one time assisted John Gilmary Shea in his research. Over his life, Meehan contributed scores of articles to Catholic publications, including 'The Catholic World,' 'North American Review,' 'America,' and the 'Records and Studies' of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society. He wrote a biography of the noted Catholic layman Thomas Mulry (1855-1916) and acted as editor and contributor to the 'Catholic Builders of the United States' series. In 1905 he was hired to manage the editorial room for the 'Catholic Encyclopedia' and in 1909 was persuaded by his good friend and colleague, Rev. John J. Wynne, SJ, to oversee the editorial production of the then newly founded Jesuit weekly newspaper 'America.' He was appointed editor of the 'Records and Studies' of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society in 1905, succeeding his friend Charles G. Herbermann, co-founder of the society.
In 1939, at the age of 84, Meehan finally accepted the position of president of the United States Catholic Historical Society, which he held up until his death in 1942. Recognition for his service and dedication to the church came when Pope Pius XI appointed him a Knight of St. Gregory in 1931, one of the highest honors bestowed by the church on a member of its laity. He was presented with an award by the Brooklyn Alumni Sodality in 1939 for his achievements, and in 1941 he was honored with an honorary degree from Fordham University.
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