Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy — A Bishop Who Never Met His Flock

Blessed Thaddeus was twice appointed bishop but, due to political intrigue, he never took possession of his diocese. His feast day is Oct. 25.

Stained-glass image of Blessed Thaddeus at St. Colman’s Cathedral
Stained-glass image of Blessed Thaddeus at St. Colman’s Cathedral (photo: Courtesy of Cobh Parish)

In 1492 an unknown pilgrim knocked on the door of a pilgrim’s hospice just outside the city of Ivrea in Piedmont, Italy. He was admitted by Father Francis Chabaud. It was customary to show charity and hospitality to pilgrims who often traveled from shrine to shrine on foot with few possessions, carrying only meager supplies and clad in the clothes they were wearing, bearing perhaps a staff for support. Pilgrims also wore prominently on their clothing a scallop shell — then, as now, a traditional sign of a pilgrimage.

The visitor to the house seemed exhausted and retired early to his quarters. The following morning, when domestic servants started their work, they were alarmed to find an unusual light around the late-night visitor’s bed. On further examination, they discovered that the pilgrim was dead, but his resting place was surrounded by a bright glow. Father Francis was sent for, and he summoned his bishop. Together, when they opened the traveler’s wallet, they were shocked to find a bishop’s insignia, a ring and pectoral cross, and papal documentation. 

The quiet pilgrim who had passed away overnight was none other than Bishop Thaddeus McCarthy, Bishop of Cork and Cloyne in Ireland. It was very unusual if not unheard of for a bishop to travel without a retinue and not clad in ecclesiastical garb. 

The deceased was dressed in episcopal robes for his lying-in-state and burial. He was brought to the cathedral in Ivrea, where, after lying in state, and requiem Mass, he was interred under an altar dedicated to Saint Eusebius.


Twice Appointed Bishop

At the time of his death, Blessed Thaddeus had been a bishop for 12 years. It is fair to wonder why a bishop of such long standing was passing through Italy alone as a solitary pilgrim. Indeed, at the age of 27, Thaddeus had been elevated to the diocese of Ross by Pope Sixtus IV. But, most peculiarly, despite being appointed bishop in two separate dioceses, he governed neither.

This was due to political intrigue at the time between the McCarthy and the Fitzgerald clans. Upon his appointment and return to Ross from Rome he found that Odo, or Hugh Ohedersgroyl, a Fitzgerald, was bishop of the diocese. Odo orchestrated a vicious smear campaign against Thaddeus that reached as far as Rome and the Pope. After six years of trying to administer the diocese, Thaddeus was deposed and excommunicated by Pope Innocent VIII.

Dismayed, Blessed Thaddeus set off for Rome to plead his case directly to the Pope and was successful, resulting in his reinstatement as a bishop and promotion to the diocese of Cork and Cloyne in 1490.

Any hope that his rivals would accept this new appointment was doomed. He found Gerald Fitzgerald occupying the cathedral in Cork, and the doors locked against him. Two years passed, during which Thaddeus attempted to have the papal appointment accepted, all the time traveling throughout his diocese, ministering to his flock while suffering from extreme hardship and poverty.

Again he had no alternative but to go to Rome to appeal his case. Again the visit was successful. Pope Innocent VIII gave him a document that ordered persons of power in Ireland to protect Thaddeus. It was with this papal document in his possession that Thaddeus was making his way back to Ireland when he arrived at the Hospice of the Twenty One in Ivrea — tired, broken and exhausted after 12 years of frustration.


Blessed Thaddeus

It is notable that in death, the city of Ivrea in Italy took him to their heart. Four centuries after his death, the Cork diocese, in association with Ivrea, had Bishop Thaddeus McCarthy’s cause examined. As a result, he was declared Blessed Thaddeus in 1895. The bishop of Cork brought home from the celebrations in Italy relics of Thaddeus, including some of his red hair, which were placed under the high altar in Cork Cathedral. Blessed Thaddeus is also memorialized in the beautiful side altar at the Pugin-designed St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. 

The port of Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown, is long associated with Irish people — priests and religious included — going abroad in troubled times, many never to return. As one of Ireland’s main passenger ports, it was the embarkation point for millions of faithful departing Irish soil. It was the Titanic’s last port before its ill-fated voyage. The harbor in Cobh is overlooked by the magnificent cathedral. It is right and fitting that a Bishop and a true son of Cork, who died alone traveling abroad, should be commemorated in a place associated with emigration.

Postscript: In 2019, on the cathedral’s centenary anniversary, the Cobh parish administrator, Father John McCarthy, instituted the Cobh Camino, a short pilgrimage trail in the cathedral, marked by a series of scallop shells on the walls. In part, the idea was inspired by Blessed Thaddeus, himself bearing a pilgrim’s scallop shell on his final journey toward home.

Blessed Thaddeus Side Altar
The Side Altar of Blessed Thaddeus at St. Colman’s Cathedral has his relics and the stained-glass window and carvings show scenes from his life — including the servants finding him on his deathbed, his appeal to the pope, being carried to his funeral in Ivrea.