Creating an American Culture: The Golden Age of Baltimore
Mount Vernon Cultural Walk
During the early 19th century, Baltimore became, for a brief time, America’s second largest and fastest growing city. Baltimore led the world in shipbuilding, sail-cloth production, and flour milling. On Cathedral Hill, Baltimore’s business leaders built mansions surrounding America’s first Roman Catholic cathedral.
Cathedral Hill residents fueled Baltimore’s rise as an economic and cultural center. These wealthy merchants were patrons of literature and the arts, inventors, philanthropists, and politicos. They funded many of the institutions along Cultural Walk, such as the Maryland Historical Society, Maryland Club, the Peabody Institute, the YMCA, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Many of their mansion houses still stand today on Mulberry, Franklin and Charles streets.
A papal decree in 1789 established Baltimore as the seat of the first American diocese and commissioned the first bishop, John Carroll (1735-1815), “to erect a church in the vicinity of the said city of Baltimore in the form of a cathedral church, in as much as the times and circumstances allow.” The cathedral was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), architect of the U.S. Capitol under President Thomas Jefferson. Its cornerstone was laid in 1806, and the building was dedicated in 1821. Pope Pius XI elevated the cathedral to the rank of minor basilica in 1937 and renamed it the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Baltimore’s most famous Catholic, Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), guided the affairs of the Baltimore Archdiocese for 44 years. Cardinal Gibbons was born in Baltimore near the corner of Fayette and Gay streets. At the time of his consecration in 1866, he became the youngest clergy to be named bishop, the first native son of Baltimore to become archbishop and the first American bishop ever to participate in electing a new pope, Pope Pius X. In 1886, Pope Leo XIII named Gibbons a cardinal of the church. During his day, Gibbons was one of the most photographed men in the world.
Cardinal James Gibbons with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1918. During Cardinal Gibbons 44-year leadership in Baltimore, he founded the Catholic University in Washington, D.C; supported and defended the Knights of Labor against attacks from conservative clergy; sided with strikers in Baltimore, prepared a speech for the first ever Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893, supported the founding of the National Consumers League, and supported equal rights, fair elections, and major public improvements in Baltimore.