John Ireland was a builder, a politician, a colonizer, an orator, a writer, a diplomat, and a friend to presidents, an Irishman who loved America and a true believer in the promise of Minnesota--and that's before you get to his accomplishments as arguably the state's outstanding religious leader. Nearly 100 years after his death, many Minnesotans know him mainly as the namesake of the street that runs from the Capitol to the Cathedral of St. Paul. But from the 1870s until his death in 1918, Ireland led the Catholic Church in Minnesota and won national fame for his work in the temperance movement and settling southwestern Minnesota with Irish immigrants like himself.
He was a highly intelligent, voluble, and hyperactive man who fought the widespread prejudice that Catholics couldn't be good Americans, and an outspoken Republican and intimate of McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft at a time when the political sympathies of American Catholics rested largely with the Democratic Party. He may have become Minnesota's first (and only) Catholic cardinal had it not been for Rome's view that he was a political schemer who often put country ahead of church. He planted the Church firmly in the Twin Cities and for wide stretches to the west and north, as far as the Dakotas, and he stamped it with his personal openness to American democracy and eagerness to engage the "Modern Age" (as the 20th century was then known).
Ireland's leadership was not without its flaws--he was famously impatient with immigrants unwilling to trade in their old traditions for the American way, and at least once he needed James J. Hill to bail out his personal finances--but his legacy is still evident today. He founded the state's largest private college, the University of St. Thomas, in 1885. And he built not one but two massive Renaissance cathedrals in the Twin Cities, the Cathedral in St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, two of Minnesota's most remarkable architectural and religious monuments that still move and inspire visitors and have long since become indelible parts of the Twin Cities' skyline. It's not too farfetched to suggest that Minnesota became familiar to many Americans at the turn of the last century because of Ireland. "I thought he had a fine name," Ernest Hemingway wrote of the archbishop in his book Farewell to Arms, "and he came from Minnesota which made it a lovely name: Ireland of Minnesota."
~Kevin Duchschere, St. Paul, MN