Bishop Timon brought Vincentian values to Buffalo

Thu, Jul 20th 2017 08:00 am
Adjunct Faculty Member, Christ the King Seminary
Bishop John Timon, CM, served in Buffalo from 1847-1867. (WNYC File Photo)
Bishop John Timon, CM, served in Buffalo from 1847-1867. (WNYC File Photo)

(This is the second entry in a series of articles on Bishop John Timon, the first bishop of Buffalo.)

Bishop John Timon, ordained as a Vincentian priest, was immersed in the order's charisms reflecting social justice and the Gospel values of care for the poor, sick, widowed and orphaned, and he lived by the motto of the order: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me - "He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor." Soon after his arrival, the bishop discovered the immediate need for an orphanage and hospital. Writing in his diary years later he believed that the purpose of the Catholic Church in Buffalo was to: "satisfy their worldly and spiritual needs."

The Protestant business elite welcomed the influx of cheap immigrant labor into the city, but prejudices against Catholics further deterred any positive action. Health problems were considered a result of an increase in the Catholic population and Protestant and nativist leadership's failure to take collective action left a desperate demand for social and medical services. The Buffalo medical community made several attempts to establish a hospital and medical college but New York state was reluctant to fund such a project. There was no firmly established local leadership that continuously sought state funds for a hospital.

By default, Bishop Timon and the Catholic Church would establish a hospital in Buffalo to meet the health care needs of the city. Timon believed that the "surest way to be equal with our brothers is to treat them and their miseries with the care and love that is found in the greatest of all physicians." The bishop went to Baltimore in March 1848 and three months later, six Sisters of Charity arrived in Buffalo and founded Sisters of Charity Hospital, the first hospital in the city. Bishop Timon selected the sisters due to their previous experience working with non-Catholics and they were the first religious order of women founded in America by an American - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The irony of the matter is that Bishop Timon specifically sought a women's religious community whose foundation was American. The Sisters of Charity were founded in Emmitsburg, Md. by Elizabeth Ann Seton, an Episcopal convert who was later canonized. Her purpose was to establish a women's religious order that focused on American society and not modeled after a European religious community.

Many of the nuns were American by birth. The order already had experience working in and operating hospitals. The sisters' administrative and pastoral experience was attractive to Bishop Timon. He defended their right to operate the hospital as they were the most qualified. Years later, he wrote in his diary that "the Sisters run the Charity Hospital not only as healers but as managers and laborers. They are saving many lives and that alone is an immense good." The sisters were responsible for daily administration of the hospital, which included finances, negotiating contracts for repairs and construction and in formulating policy.  

The sisters educated and trained future Protestant physicians who eventually established Buffalo General Hospital in 1859, these physicians credited their clinical instruction at Sister's Hospital for enabling Buffalo Medical College (Buffalo General's medical school) to be on par with medical colleges in larger cities. New York City's only Catholic medical college at Fordham University was not established until 1905.

During his 20 years, Bishop Timon recruited many religious orders of men and women to establish ministries in the newly formed diocese. Those included  the Daughters of Charity, the  Sisters of Notre Dame, the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, the Franciscans, the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, the Jesuits, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Vincentians, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Francis, the Passionists and the Christian Brothers.

Through Bishop Timon's dedicated efforts, many of the schools and institutions he founded are still part of Western New York society. Those include St. Bonaventure University, Niagara University, Christ the King Seminary (originally St. John Vianney Seminary), St. Mary's School for the Deaf, St. Joseph' Boys Home (later to become Our Lady of Victory Home for Orphans) Canisius College, Mercy Hospital and Sisters Hospital. During his tenure St. Joseph's Cathedral was constructed. Bishop Timon selected the location on Franklin Street so there would be a Catholic presence in the middle of Buffalo's business and political community.

Isolated geographically and with a small Catholic population that was initially hostile, this bishop created the Diocese of Buffalo within the turmoil of personal attacks from Protestants and nativists. He received minimal, if any, support from the American Catholic hierarchy because of his work to eliminate the hyphen in the term American Catholic. Bishop Timon clearly had a vision that extended beyond the boundaries of Western New York. His view of American society was that Catholics should be participants in the evolution of the nation. When Bishop Timon died in 1867, the massive number of mourners who attended his funeral was evidence that he had established a solid Catholic presence in western New York that is still viable today.

Paul Lubienecki, Ph.D., is an adjunct faculty member at Christ the King Seminary and a Special Studies Instructor at the Chautauqua Institute. He has previously presented two conference papers on John Timon at the American Catholic Historical Association and published works on Timon: "John Timon-Buffalo's First Bishop.  His Forgotten Struggle to Assimilate  Catholics in Western New York" New York History Review, 2010 and "Timon's Treasure.  The Forgotten Reliquary at St. Joseph's Cathedral"  Western New York Heritage Magazine, Fall 2016. Additionally he has published articles on Buffalo's labor priest, Msgr. Boland and on the diocesan labor college and edited a work on Father Baker.  

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