Charleston Catholics received Gallagher with enthusiasm. Eloquent and personable, he was successful in galvanizing the small community and achieved prominence in Charleston and beyond, earning respect and increased tolerance for Catholics.
Missionary, educator. Gallagher was born in Ireland (probably Dublin) in 1756. He studied for the Catholic priesthood and was ordained in the Diocese of Dublin. An educated, cultured man, Gallagher described himself as a graduate of the University of Paris and was always referred to as Dr. Gallagher. He immigrated to the United States and, in January 1793, applied to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore for work as a missionary. Carroll assigned him to be pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Charleston, where his name first appeared in the parish register on September 1, 1793. St. Mary’s was the first Catholic church in the Carolinas and Georgia, having been organized in 1788.
Charleston Catholics received Gallagher with enthusiasm. Eloquent and personable, he was successful in galvanizing the small community and achieved prominence in Charleston and beyond, earning respect and increased tolerance for Catholics. The congregation had difficulty supporting a pastor, so Gallagher earned income as a member of the faculty at the College of Charleston. Beginning in November 1793, he gave lectures in logic, mathematics, natural philosophy, and astronomy. He was popular with the students and helped to enhance the institution’s scholarly reputation. Charleston intellectual Hugh Swinton Legaré called him “the most eminent classical teacher of his day.” Gallagher also became a leader in Charleston’s Irish community and principal organizer of the Hibernian Society, serving as its first president from 1801 to 1803. For several years he operated the Athenian Academy, a school for Charleston youth. When the General Assembly authorized public schools throughout the state in 1811, Gallagher chaired the Charleston Board of School Supervisors.
Gallagher experienced difficulties with St. Mary’s board of trustees, or vestry, which sought to curtail his authority in parish affairs. Stories of a drinking problem triggered a formal complaint by the trustees in 1801, and a demand from Bishop Carroll for his resignation. Gallagher appealed directly to the Vatican, over Carroll’s head, declaring that he had been maligned. In 1803 Carroll sent as Gallagher’s replacement a French-born priest, who was rejected by most of the congregation. The problem festered for years, eventually causing a schism, partly along Irish-French ethnic lines. The conflict led Carroll’s successor, Archbishop Leonard Neale, to place St. Mary’s under interdict in 1817, ordering that no sacraments be performed there. The Irish-French split caused public scandal and confusion in the Charleston Catholic community. Gallagher refused to quit, declaring that, “it would be deserting the cause of Religion . . . [if] I should relinquish the sacred ministry.”
The Charleston schism was finally resolved by the establishment of the Diocese of Charleston and the arrival of John England as its first bishop in 1820. England reinstated Gallagher as pastor, but the man was past his prime. In 1822 England granted his request for a transfer to a parish in St. Augustine, Florida. For a time Gallagher worked in Havana, Cuba, and later in New Orleans. His last post was a parish in Natchez, Mississippi, where he died on December 13, 1825.
Buchanan, Scott. “Father Gallagher Eases the Plight of Catholics in Charleston.” New Catholic Miscellany 32 (September 21, 2000): 7.
Easterby, J. Harold. A History of the College of Charleston. Charleston, S.C., 1935.
Guilday, Peter. The Life and Times of John England. 2 vols. 1927. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1969.
Madden, Richard C. Catholics in South Carolina: A Record. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.