Time Capsule • January 11, 2021

The remains of Father Joseph Hewitt, the first Catholic priest ordained in Virginia, are buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Richmond. (Photo provided)



On the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 1842, the first Catholic priest was ordained in Virginia. Tragically, Father Joseph Hewitt died six months later, but his ordination remains a momentous event in the history of the Diocese of Richmond.

Father Hewitt’s ordination was a hopeful sign because the diocese had been struggling since its creation in 1820. The archbishop of Baltimore administered the Richmond Diocese from 1822–1841 because it lacked financial and pastoral resources.The bishops of the United States, gathered at the Second Provincial Council of Baltimore (1833), recommended suppressing the Diocese of Richmond, but the Vatican rejected this proposal.

When Richard V. Whelan, the second bishop of Richmond (1841–1850), ordained Father Hewitt,   in a small way this alleviated the diocese’s chronic shortage of priests. Father Hewitt became only the seventh priest in the diocese at that time, although several more were ordained in the following years.

Bishop Whelan was determined to increase the number of priests. He did so by first recruiting seminarians from outside the diocese. Whelan also started his own seminary, as recommended by the Council of Trent (1563), and specifically for the United States, by the Second Provincial Council of Baltimore.

Whelan asked his friend and seminary classmate, John Hughes, coadjutor bishop of New York, to send him candidates (1841), and he later recruited seminarians from All Hallows College in Ireland (1846). Seminarians for the Diocese of Richmond were trained at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore until Bishop Whelan’s own seminary was completed. 

In 1841, Whelan purchased land for a seminary that was then located just outside the city limits of Richmond, and he personally assisted in its construction. This short-lived institution was called St. Vincent’s Seminary (1841–1846), to which a college was later attached (1843–1846). Bishop Whelan served as the rector and taught most of the classes. His brother, Father David Whelan, also worked on the seminary staff. 

Joseph Hewitt, originally from Ireland, was one of the recruits sent to the Diocese of Richmond by Bishop Hughes of New York. Hewitt is listed as a tutor of several subjects — arithmetic, Latin and geography — at St. Mary’s College (which was attached to the seminary) in Baltimore (1839–1841). This position suggests he had received training for the priesthood earlier, although he was not yet ordained. 

Hewitt attended St. Vincent’s Seminary in Richmond before being ordained a priest. There, he likely heard Bishop Whelan speak about the ideal Richmond priest, who was to be a rugged and hard-working missionary, just as Whelan himself had been a zealous priest circuit-rider in northern Virginia (present-day West Virginia). 

Hewitt received several grades of holy orders in quick succession. The “Religious Cabinet,” a national Catholic magazine (vol. 1, February 1842), reported that he was ordained a subdeacon on Jan. 1, 1842, a deacon the following day, and a priest four days after that. The same issue also noted his death, when he was 31 years old. According to the periodical, “He was a young clergyman of unassuming manners and exemplary piety.”

The diary of James Gibbons, the fourth bishop of Richmond (1872–1877), lists Hewitt among the deceased priests buried in the first Catholic cemetery in Richmond, commonly known as the Bishop’s Cemetery:

Priests buried in Cath. [Catholic] Cemetery Richmond

Nov. 19th 1875 marble slabs with name were placed on the graves of the four priests buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Richmond. …

Rev. Jos. [Joseph]Hewitt a young priest ordained by Rt. Rev. Bp. [Richard V.] Whelan, educated at the [St. Vincent’s] College, built by said Bishop, near our present Cemetery. (This College was burnt [in] 1856, and the property sold in 1873). Rev. Hewitt died not long after his ordination [in] July 1842. He was first buried in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral. By order of the City council his remains had to be taken up, and were buried in the College grounds, and from there removed to our Cemetery [in] August 1875.

A misreading of the abbreviation of Father Hewitt’s name in Gibbons’ diary — “Jas.” rather than “Jos.” — probably led to his being referred to as “James” in many subsequent sources. 

The Bishop’s Cemetery was the third of four burial places for Hewitt. On Nov. 2, 1887, his remains were finally laid to rest at newly-opened Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Richmond. John J. Keane, the fifth bishop of Richmond (1878–1888), recorded in his diary the transfer of Hewitt’s remains:


Transfer of deceased Priests.

Nov. 2nd. This day, after solemn High Mass of requiem for our dead, translated to our new cemetery, with a grand funeral cortege of an immense multitude of our people, the mortal remains of the four priests whose bodies have rested in the old cemetery, as named on p. 20 of this Record [i.e., Bishop James Gibbons’s diary].

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