A priest for 58 years, James Cardinal Hickey served as Auxiliary Bishop of Saginaw (Michigan), rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome and Bishop of Cleveland before Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Washington. During his two decades in Washington, Cardinal Hickey oversaw a significant expansion of social services, a renewal of Catholic elementary schools in the District of Columbia and the establishment of 16 new parishes and missions as well as two schools. He retired as Archbishop of Washington in November 2000 and died on October 24, 2004.
James A. Hickey was born in Midland, Michigan on October 11, 1920 to James P. and Agnes Hickey. He entered the seminary at age 13, studying at St. Joseph’s Seminary and Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit. While still in the seminary, he was assigned to provide pastoral care to migrant workers, starting a lifetime of commitment to better the plight of immigrants. After receiving his license in theology from The Catholic University of America, James Hickey, then 25, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Saginaw on June 15, 1946.
He served briefly as an associate pastor at St. Joseph in Saginaw before earning a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Lateran University in 1950 and a doctorate in moral theology at the Pontifical Angelicum University in 1951. Both universities are in Rome, Italy.
Father Hickey then became priest-secretary to Bishop Stephen S. Woznicki and rector of St. Paul Seminary in Saginaw. He attended the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965 in the role of theological expert. In 1967, Pope Paul VI named him Auxiliary Bishop of Saginaw. In 1969, Bishop Hickey, who had a lifelong interest in vocations, became rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, where he oversaw the formation of seminarians from 80 U.S. dioceses.
Cleveland and El Salvador
In 1974, Bishop Hickey was named the Bishop of Cleveland, with pastoral care for nearly one million Catholics. He chose the motto, “Veritatem in caritate,” or “truth in charity” for his coat of arms, a phrase that would well describe how he served the Catholic Church and broader community. In Cleveland, he became a leading advocate of racial unity in that city and became active in justice issues involving El Salvador. Just before Pope John Paul II named him Archbishop of Washington in 1980, he traveled to El Salvador to attend the funeral of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. Later that year, two lay women whom Bishop Hickey had commissioned to serve as missionaries in El Salvador were murdered. He kept their photographs on the wall of his private chapel for the rest of his life, and called for an end to military aid to that nation.
Archdiocese of Washington: 1980-2000
James Hickey was installed as Archbishop on August 5, 1980 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew. Eight years later, on June 28, 1988, Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals.
During his two decades as archbishop, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington became the region’s largest private social service agency, serving 80,000 people each year. The Spanish Catholic Center provided social services and legal and medical assistance to 36,000 people annually by the time the Cardinal stepped down. Programs started under his leadership included the Archdiocesan Health Care Network and Archdiocesan Legal Network, which provide millions of dollars in pro bono care for the region’s low income residents; Birthing and Care, which provides pre-natal, delivery and post-natal medical care and other support to women in financial need; and Faith in the City, an initiative to revitalize inner-city Catholic elementary schools through new resources and partnerships with the business community.
To serve the region’s growing elderly population, Victory Housing, a non-profit agency that develops assisted and independent living for senior citizens and affordable family housing, was started. With Mother Teresa, he dedicated the Gift of Peace Convent, where the Missionaries of Charity care for the homeless and terminally ill, including those with AIDS, as well as two other programs with the Missionaries of Charity. In 2001, Cardinal Hickey’s special love for those in need was recognized when Catholic Charities’ named its new downtown headquarters, at 924 G Street, NW, the James Cardinal Hickey Center.
Under his leadership, adult religious education and faith formation flourished; thousands of parishioners participated in classes and faith-sharing groups. Cardinal Hickey published pastoral letters on nuclear weapons (1982), the sacrament of penance (1984), the Eucharist (1984), substance abuse (1989), evangelization in the schools (1993), young Catholics (1993), care of the sick and dying (1993, with the other bishops of Maryland) and on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), as well as a major document on combating racism (1991). Over 30,000 total people participated in an Archdiocesan Convocation (1998) and an October 2000 Eucharistic Congress to mark the Jubilee of Christ’s birth. The Cardinal also played an integral role in establishing the Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious. He received the Pope Pius XI Award (1993) and Karski Award (2000) from the Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to strengthen relationships between Catholics and Jews, and the Gaudium et Spes award, the highest honor given by the Knights of Columbus.
He established 12 parishes, four pastoral missions and two schools, including the Cardinal Hickey Academy in Dunkirk, as part of the Archdiocese’s largest building boom since the post-World War II era. At the time of his retirement, the Archdiocese of Washington had become a diverse community, with Mass offered in 25 languages, and 140 parishes and 106 schools serving more than 510,000 Catholics in the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s Counties.
Roles with the Vatican and Bishops’ Conference
In addition to his local responsibilities, Cardinal Hickey served on a number of Vatican Congregations and Councils, including the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, Congregation for the Clergy, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for the Family
He traveled to Central America to discuss human rights and policy, and testified before Congress on these issues. He served as chairman of committees of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), including Chairman of Priestly Formation (1968-1969), Chairman of Pastoral Research and Practices (1974-1977), Chairman of the Committee for Doctrine (1979-81), Chairman of the Committee on Human Values (1984-1987) and Chairman of the Committee on the North American College (1989-1991; 1994-1997).
How He will be Remembered
When asked 15 years ago by a Washington Post reporter how he would like to be remembered, Cardinal Hickey told her, “First, I’d like them to say he was always loyal to his church. Second, that he was a friend to Catholic education. And third, if they don’t want to say the first two, at least I would hope they would chisel on the stone, ‘He served the poor.'”
James Cardinal Hickey will be remembered for all of this and more.