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John Dawson Gilmary Shea

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Historian, born in New York, 22 July, 1824; died at Elizabeth, New Jersey, 22 February, 1892. The name Gilmary (Servant of Mary) was assumed at a late period of his life. Young Shea was a pupil of the Sisters of Charity, and a graduate of Columbia College grammar school, of which his father was principal. At an early age he became a clerk in a Spanish merchant's office, where he learned to read and write Spanish fluently. When only fourteen he contributed an article on the soldier-cardinal Albornoz to the "Young People's Catholic Magazine" (1838) Subsequently he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1846. In the following year he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Fordham, New York, and remained a member of the order until 1852. As a Jesuit he was associated with the scholarly Father Martin, S.J., Rector of St. Mary's College, Montreal, under whose inspiration was developed his natural taste for literary and historical studies. In 1852 he left the Society, and presently began a systematic study of the early Indian missions in America. The results of his researches soon appeared in the pages of the "United States Catholic Magazine", published in Baltimore. Shea's first note-worthy publication was the "Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi Valley with the original narratives of Marquette, Allouez, Membré, Hennepin and Anastase Douay" (1852). The "Westminster Review" described it as "a most valuable and interesting volume" (July, 1853), and the London "Athenaeum" (1853, p. 132) also spoke highly of it. In 1854, he published the "History of the Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854", a work of much labour and research. In the "Cramoisy Series" of twenty-six small volumes, he initiated in 1857 the republication of rare and valuable pamphlets touching upon the voyages of early explorers to America. In 1859 followed "A Bibliographical Account of Catholic Bibles, Testaments and Other Portions of Scripture", translated and published in the United States; he also edited an edition of Challoner's Bible. In 1860 appeared the first issue of his "Library of American Linguistics", a series of fifteen volumes of grammars and dictionaries of Indian languages. Beside "The Life of Pius IX" (1877), "The Catholic Churches of New York City" (1878), "The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the United States" (1886), Shea compiled many school histories and text-books; he also published numerous translations and adaptations, and contributed historical articles to Justin Winsor's "History of America", the "Catholic World", and the "U.S. Catholic Historical Magazine", of which he was the founder and first editor. He also edited for a number of years Sadlier's "Catholic Directory and Almanac". The articles on the Indians in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" and the "American Encyclopedia" are all from his pen, and he was looked upon as the best informed man in America on everything pertaining to the aborigines. The notes, biographical sketches, and bibliographical accounts of works upon aboriginal history scattered throughout his various publications will be very serviceable for future historians. The preparation of the "History of the Catholic Church in the United States" (4 vols., 1886-92) extended over many years and entailed immense labour He was practically a pioneer in this field, as the very sources of information had yet to be unearthed. This work will stand as a monument to his untiring industry. Most of his time was meanwhile claimed by his position as literary editor of Frank Leslie's secular publications. In 1888 he became editor of the "Catholic News", in which position he continued up to the time of his death. St. Francis Xavier's College, Fordham University, and Georgetown conferred on him the degree of LL.D. in recognition of his work as a Catholic historian, and the University of Notre Dame awarded him the first Lætare Medal (1883)


VALETTE in Cath. World, LV 55; Historical Records and Studies (1899), 130; WOLFF in Am. Cath. Quart., XVII, 411; Catholic News (New York, Feb. 1892)

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'John Dawson Gilmary Shea'. The Catholic Encyclopedia.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​j/john-dawson-gilmary-shea.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.