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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 21 2008

Shanley played role in divorce law change

Shortly after statehood, Fargo became the “divorce capital of America.”

This reputation worried several church officials, especially John Shanley, the first Catholic bishop of North Dakota. Largely through his efforts at rallying groups to put pressure on the legislators, the law was changed in 1899 to extend the residency requirements from 90 days to one year. Shanley “was widely recognized as the principle force behind the new law.”

Because Shanley was so admired and loved when he died in 1909, the Fargo Forum reported his was the “largest funeral ever held in North Dakota.”

Shanley was born Jan. 4, 1852, to John F. and Nancy “Ann” (McLean) Shanley in Barre, N.Y. His father was a stonemason who worked in the rock quarries. In 1857, the family moved to Minnesota Territory, first to Faribault and a short time later to St. Paul.

John Jr. became involved at the Cathedral of St. Paul, becoming an altar boy in 1858. The Ecclesiastical Preparatory Seminary was established in St. Paul in 1862, and Shanley was enrolled in its first class. He then went to another preparatory seminary in Missouri and later enrolled at St. John’s College in Minnesota, where he excelled in Latin, Greek, French and German.

For Shanley’s outstanding work in college, Bishop Thomas Grace of St. Paul sent him to Rome in 1869 to prepare for ordination into the priesthood.

Shanley was ordained May 30, 1874, and returned to Minnesota. On Aug. 29, 1875, he was appointed assistant at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Six months later, he replaced Grace as head pastor at the cathedral, where during his 14 years he developed programs to help orphans, young girls, African Americans and the Italian community. He also edited a Catholic newspaper and championed total abstinence from alcohol.

In 1889, when it was apparent that North Dakota and South Dakota would be admitted as separate states, Grace met with Martin Marty, the bishop of Dakota Territory, to discuss who should be named as the first bishop of North Dakota. They agreed Marty should remain in Yankton and be the bishop of South Dakota and Shanley would become North Dakota’s bishop.

The two bishops petitioned Pope Leo XIII in Rome and awaited his decision. On Sept. 23, 1889, Shanley received a cablegram from the pope telling him he was about to be selected as the first bishop of Jamestown, N.D., a diocese that included the whole state.

Shanley was officially appointed bishop of Jamestown on Nov. 15 and ordained Dec. 27. On Jan. 22, 1889, Shanley left St. Paul by train and was greeted in Moorhead by a Fargo delegation that accompanied him to Jamestown. He was installed as bishop Jan. 26.

In 1890, the Catholic population in North Dakota was nearly 20,000 – 37 percent were Native Americans – but there were only 60 churches. Because a high percentage of the Catholics were American Indians, Shanley went to the reservations to check on them.

He found the Indians starving and freezing, so he put together a relief plan. He solicited aid in Minnesota newspapers, lobbied Washington, D.C., and established speaking and preaching engagements where he encouraged donations.

Shanley soon discovered Jamestown was not the ideal location for his base of operation. Most churches were in or near the Red River Valley, and Fargo seemed like the logical location for his base. When a group of Fargo residents called on Shanley in May 1891, he told them he would immediately move to Fargo if the city would “make a bonus of $12,000” to begin work on a new cathedral.

The necessary money was raised in a week, and Shanley moved to Fargo. He purchased a home along the Red River at Island Park, later the site of St. John’s Hospital. On Nov. 18, 1891, the cornerstone for the new cathedral was laid at Broadway and Sixth Avenue North. St. Mary’s Cathedral was completed in 1899.

During these slow economic times, one business that flourished brought a considerable amount of money into Fargo – divorces. Dakota Territory had the most liberal divorce law in the country because people seeking a divorce only needed a 90-day waiting period.

This was the law when both North Dakota and South Dakota became states in 1889. In 1893, South Dakota increased the waiting period. As a result, Fargo became the divorce capital of the country. Cass County District Court averaged one divorce a day. The revenue this generated for the city amounted to $100,000.

Shanley saw the law as “injuring the morals of our own people” and fought to have the waiting period extended. He testified before the 1897 Legislature, where he was favorably received, but the legislators took no action. He then rallied groups to lobby their legislators. During the 1899 session, the waiting period was extended to one year.

Another cause Shanley championed was education.

St. Joseph’s Academy, an elementary school, had been in Fargo since 1882, and classes were taught by the Sisters of Presentation. In 1897, the name of the school was changed to Sacred Heart Academy.

The academy extended to secondary education in 1902. In 1951, the diocese replaced Sacred Heart with a new structure and named it Shanley High School, in honor of the beloved bishop.

Shanley died July 16, 1909. During his 20 years as North Dakota’s bishop, it was reported that the number of churches built under his leadership were “more than any other American diocese.”

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens

at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net