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Joseph Sadoc Alemany
First Archbishop of San Francisco, California, U.S.A., b. at Vich in Spain, 3 July, 1814; d. at Valencia in Spain, 14 April, 1888. He entered at an early age the Order of St. Dominic, was ordained priest at Viterbo in Italy, 27 March, 1837; consecrated Bishop of Monterey in California (at Rome) 30 June, 1850, and was transferred 29 July, 1853, to the See of San Francisco as its first archbishop. He resigned in November, 1884, was appointed titular Archbishop of Pelusium.
California having but recently passed from Mexican to American rule and still containing a large Spanish population with Spanish customs and traditions, the appointment of Archbishop Alemany as the first bishop under the changed conditions was a providential measure. Ten years of missionary activity in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee had enabled him to master the English language, which he spoke and wrote correctly and fluently, familiarized him with the customs and spirit of the Republic; and imbued him with a love for the United States which he carried with him to the grave. His episcopal labours were to begin among a population composed of almost all nationalities. Born in Spain, educated in Rome, and long resident in America, his experience and his command of several languages put him in touch and in sympathy with all the elements of his diocese. His humility and simplicity of manner, though by nature retiring, drew to him the hearts of all classes.
Naturally his first thought was to secure a body of priests and nuns as co-labourers in his new field; for this he made partial provision before reaching San Francisco. The Franciscan Missions (whose memory and whose remains in the second century if their existence are still treasured not by California alone, but by the whole country) having been lately confiscated in the name of "secularization", the missionaries driven away and their flocks largely dispersed, it was evident that his work was simply to create all that a new order of things called for, an order as unique as a bishop ever had to encounter. The discovery of gold in California a few years before his appointment had attracted to it a population from every quarter of the world, most of whom thought little of making it their permanent home. Many, however, brought the old Faith with them and even in the mad rush of all for gold were ready to respond generously to a personality such as that of the young bishop.
When he began his work, there were but twenty-one adobe mission-churches scattered up and down the State, and not more than a dozen priests in all California. He lived to see the State divided into three dioceses with about three hundred thousand Catholic population, many churches of modern architecture and some of respectable dimensions, a body of devoted clergy, secular and regular, charitable and educational institutions conducted by the teaching orders of both men and women, such as to meet, as far as possible under the circumstances, the wants of a constantly growing population. He was ever intent, as the first object of his work, upon the spiritual welfare of his people, but in the early years of his ministry in California much arduous labour was expended in protecting the church property from "Squatters", and in prosecuting the claims of the "Pious Fund" against Mexico. Through the State Department of the United States Government he compelled Mexico to respect her self-made agreement with the Church in California to pay at least the interest up to the date of the decision upon the moneys derived from the enforced sale of the Mission property at the time of the "secularization" and which had been turned into the Mexican Treasury. Under his successor, in the year 1902, a final adjudication of the "Pious Fund" in favour of the Church in California was reached by an International Board of Arbitration at The Hague.
The episcopal office which he had accepted only under obedience was, in a human sense, never congenial to Archbishop Alemany; his whole temperament inclined him to be simply a missionary priest; in a large sense, he continued to be such up to the day of his resignation. His characteristic devotion to the rights of the Church, his love of a common sense freedom of the individual, and particularly his admiration of the free institutions of the American Union, were manifested by an occurrence on the occasion of a visit made to his native land after many years' absence. Before an infidel spirit had poisoned the minds of many in power, even in Catholic countries, it had been the custom in Spain, as in other Catholic lands, for priests to wear their sacerdotal dress in the streets. This new spirit indeed had driven him from Spain when a student, desiring as he did to become a member of one of the proscribed Orders, and when he returned on the occasion in question it was a novelty to see him in the streets dressed as a Dominican Friar. When his would-be custodian warned him to put off his cassock for outdoor use he produced his passport as an American citizen, stating that in his adopted country, where Catholics were greatly in the minority, he was permitted to wear any sort of coat he preferred and that surely this privilege would not be denied him in Catholic Spain, the land of his birth. It was not denied him; at least, for that once. So wedded was he to the Order of St. Dominic that when becoming Bishop of Monterey, and ever after till his death, he wore the white cassock of the Order and in letter and spirit adhered to the Rule of St. Dominic as far as it is possible outside of community life.
The exalted office of archbishop did not grow more agreeable to him with years, and with a view of resigning and becoming again a missionary priest he besought Rome to grant him a coadjutor, cum jure successionis, long before one was given him. When, however, his prayer was heard, which was not until he had reached the scriptural age of three score years and ten, he lovingly transferred to his successor the burden which he had borne long and faithfully for his Master's sake. Whilst he had ever the greatest consideration for the comfort of others his own life was one of austerity. No one but himself ever entered his living apartments, which were so connected with the church that he could make his visits to the Blessed Sacrament and keep his long vigils at a little latticed window looking in upon the Tabernacle. No one ever saw him manifest anger; he was ever gentle, but firm when duty called for this. So considerate was he for the feelings of others that he certainly never intentionally or unjustly wounded them.
Most thoughtful and courteous in all he did, he journeyed a thousand miles to Ogden, Utah, in November, 1883, to meet for the first time, to accompany thence and to welcome to San Francisco his coadjutor and successor, the Most Rev. P. W. Riordan. From the first meeting and until his death the closest and tenderest friendship existed between them. Having acquainted his successor fully with diocesan affairs and transferred to him as a "corporation sole" all diocesan property (according to a law which he had had passed through the California legislature for the better security of church property), the Archbishop resigned in 1884, returned to his native land, and died there.
His intense love for the missionary life and his zeal for souls did not end with his resignation, his seventy years unfitted him for active work of that nature, but he returned to Spain with a dream of founding a missionary college to supply priests for the American missions. For this purpose he left behind him in San Francisco the amount of a testimonial given him by the priests and people of the diocese as some little recognition of his long services and the example of his saintly life among them. He stipulated that, should he not use it for that purpose, it should be expended by his successor for religious and charitable purposes in San Francisco. He received generous support from the diocese, but found the proposed missionary college impracticable. So, on his retirement from thirty years of apostolic labours in California, he left as a legacy to the diocese the example of a true apostle, and died as an apostle should, possessing nothing but the merits of his "works which had gone before him".
Reuss, Biographical Encycl. of the Cath. Hierarchy of the U. S. (Milwaukee, Wis., 1898); Dominicana (San Francisco, 1900-6).