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Aníbal A. González

KIRWIN, JAMES MARTIN (1872–1926). James Martin Kirwin, Catholic priest and civic leader, son of Patrick and Mary (Ryan) Kirwin, was born in Circleville, Ohio, on July 1, 1872. He attended parochial school in his hometown and then studied at St. Mary's College in Marion County, Kentucky. In 1892 he was incardinated in the Diocese of Galveston, Texas, while enrolled in Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he studied philosophy and theology and was ordained to the priesthood on June 19, 1895. Bishop N. A. Gallagher of Galveston sent him for a year to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received a bachelor's degree in theology. Upon arrival in Texas in August 1896, Kirwin was appointed rector of St. Mary's Cathedral in Galveston.

He quickly became active in civic affairs in the Galveston area, an uncommon practice for priests at that time. He first attracted public attention and appreciation for his special efforts during the yellow fever epidemic of 1897. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 he helped to form the United States First Volunteer Infantry regiment, was elected its chaplain, and served during the conflict in Cuba with the rank of captain. Much of his prominence came after the Galveston hurricane of 1900. He helped organize a committee of public safety to restore order, drafted the edict putting the city under martial law, supervised the disposal of the dead, and served as a member of the Central Relief Committee that aided surviving flood victims. He also initiated the plans to build a seawall for the city's future protection, delivered the opening prayer at the laying of its cornerstone (1902), and officiated at its completion (1905).

Kirwin permanently injured his eyes trying to rescue people in a great fire that threatened the entire city in 1901. Afterwards he conducted a study of fire protection needs for Galveston. His proposals, adopted by the city, ensured an adequate supply of water to cope with potential emergencies and brought about the strengthening of the local fire department. During this period he was also active in the American Prison Relief Society and other religious and civic organizations.

In 1907 the city of Galveston appealed to him to mediate the Southern Pacific dock strike after the company's importation of black laborers set up a potentially violent situation. Kirwin ended the strike peacefully by securing concessions on both sides. In 1909 he organized the Home Protective League, which succeeded in removing saloons from residential areas of Galveston. The league lobbied in the state legislature for a law empowering cities to restrict saloons. The crusade and the law received national publicity in the temperance movement that eventually led to prohibition. In 1911 Kirwin became vicar general for the Galveston diocese, as well as president of St. Mary's Seminary (then in La Porte), where he also taught moral theology, scripture, Latin, Spanish, and catechetics. His expert management made the seminary self-sufficient.

In 1915 or 1916 Kirwin accompanied the Fourth United States Infantry to the Mexican border as chaplain. He was also chaplain of the Texas National Guard in times of peace and of the United Spanish War Veterans (Camp Seven). In 1917, when American troops landed in France in World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing called on Kirwin to serve in his personal staff as chaplain of his troops. Kirwin proceeded to Washington to confer with the war department, but the illness and death of Bishop Gallagher forced him to return to Galveston and take up the duties of administrator of the diocese until the arrival of Bishop C. E. Byrne in 1918. Though he was reappointed under the new administration as vicar general, rector of the cathedral, and president of the seminary, Kirwin still found time to support the war effort as chairman of the Four-Minute Men, a speakers' group in Galveston, and of the local chapter of the American Red Cross. On the other hand, all through the war and in the early 1920s, Kirwin was outspoken against extremists who would violate the Constitution in the name of patriotism. He was especially critical of the Ku Klux Klan, to such a degree that the Kluxers apparently plotted to tar and feather him.

Kirwin was a high-ranking member of the Knights of Columbus. In 1922 Pope Pius XI gave him the title of monsignor, and in 1923 he received an honorary LL.D. degree from Notre Dame University. He died suddenly of heart failure on January 24, 1926. The news of his death brought hundreds of mourners to Galveston from around the nation. The solemn funeral services, which lasted four days, were attended by a papal delegate, Catholic bishops, Protestant and Jewish leaders, public dignitaries, military officers, and large multitudes of citizens. The Texas National Guard flanked the casket in the final procession to Union Station. There, a special private rail car had been furnished for the funeral party accompanying Kirwin's body to Circleville, Ohio, where his mother had requested he be buried.


Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–1958; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Catholic Archives of Texas, Files, Austin. George T. Elmendorf, comp., Memories of Monsignor J. M. Kirwin (1928). Galveston Daily News, January 25–29, 1926. Robert C. Giles, Changing Times: The Story of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston in Commemoration of Its Founding (Houston, 1972). Sister Mary Loyola Hegarty C.C.V.I., Serving with Gladness: The Origin and History of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1967). Houston Post-Dispatch, January 25, 28, 29, 1926. William H. Oberste, Knights of Columbus in Texas, 1902–1952 (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1952).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Aníbal A. González, "KIRWIN, JAMES MARTIN," accessed April 09, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fki38.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 19, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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