Michael Fisher’s grandmother, Margarette Buckley, had a Christmas tradition for her grandchildren. She would lay out Christmas presents on a table, and the kids would draw numbers, with the lowest number picking first, and choose the present they liked that was still on the table.
At one of his grandmother’s Christmas gift lotteries, Michael – who was the oldest of her 14 grandchildren – had picked one of the highest numbers and found only two gifts left at the table. The youth, who was then about 13 or 14, picked a two-volume biography, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, written by the eminent U.S. Catholic Church historian, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis. And you might say, the rest is history.
On June 29, Bishop Michael Fisher was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington after serving for nearly three decades as a local parish priest and archdiocesan administrator. Ten days later, after settling into his new responsibilities, he was interviewed about his lifelong interest in history.
Since 2006, Bishop Fisher has served as the archdiocese’s Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Secretary for Ministerial Leadership. On the wall of his office at the archdiocesan Pastoral Center, he has prints displayed that depict the Ark and the Dove, the two ships that brought the first English colonists to Maryland. In 1634, those ships landed at St. Clement’s Island in Southern Maryland, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies.
“History in general gives you a sense of rootedness,” said Bishop Fisher. At his residence at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish’s rectory in Hyattsville, he has another print displayed – a portrait of Archbishop John Carroll, who in 1789 was named the first Catholic bishop of the United States, leading its first diocese, Baltimore, which then included the territory of all 13 original states. The nine bookcases lining the walls of his residence are filled with books about American, world and Catholic Church history.
Archbishop Carroll is one of the historical heroes of Bishop Fisher, who grew up in Baltimore. He noted that when the nation began, Catholics were a small minority viewed with suspicion, but Archbishop Carroll demonstrated that one can “be a good American and a faithful Catholic at the same time.”
That quality, he said, was also a hallmark of another one of his heroes, Cardinal Gibbons, a Baltimore native who served as the archbishop of his home city from 1877 until his death in 1921.
“He was a towering figure,” said Bishop Fisher, noting that the cardinal was a champion of labor whom President Theodore Roosevelt described “as the greatest American of his time.”
Bishop Fisher added, “He’s another one who tried to show you could be a good citizen and a good Catholic.”
After reading the biography of that churchman in his mid-teens, the future bishop got to meet the book’s author some years later, in the late 1980s. Michael Fisher, who was then studying for the priesthood at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, was asked to drive to Washington to pick up a priest who was going to give a talk at the seminary. That priest was Msgr. Ellis, then the dean of U.S. Catholic Church historians and a faculty member at The Catholic University of America.
Before his ordination to the priesthood, then-Deacon Fisher described encountering that noted priest as “like meeting Mark Twain.”
Over the next year and one-half, he drove Msgr. Ellis to the Mount several times for the renowned historian’s talks to the seminarians there. Bishop Fisher said he admired Msgr. Ellis’s “straightforward way of writing” and his honest approach to chronicling figures in American Church history. “He gave you their humanity,” he said.
Msgr. Ellis died in 1992 at the age of 87. The title of one of his books, A Commitment to Truth, summarized his approach to Church history.
Bishop Fisher said his own love for history began when he was a young boy, when his father would take their family to visit Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields. He later learned that he had ancestors who fought on the Union and Confederate sides of the war, and he has an old family Bible with a letter written by his great uncle who was captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and was sent to Andersonville Prison and died there.
The bishop remembers the first book he ever pulled off the shelf and checked out of his school library – a biography of Stephen Decatur, a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore who as a U.S. naval officer was a hero in battles against the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s. “I love biographies,” he said.
While studying at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, the future bishop earned the seminary’s History Award. His mentors there included two popular professors of Church history, Mercy Sister Ann Miriam Gallagher, who is now deceased, and Father Michael Roach, who continues to teach there and also serves as pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Manchester, Maryland.
He noted that Father Roach liked to take seminarians on weekend road trips to historical places, like the Baltimore home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a pioneer American Catholic educator who in 1975 became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized as a saint; and the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, built in Baltimore between 1806-21, the first Catholic cathedral constructed in the United States. The excursions were nicknamed, “On the Road with Roach.”
“In many ways he nurtured my love for Church history… He brought history alive to me,” said Bishop Fisher.
The new bishop said one area of history that has especially interested him is “how our Church interacts in American society,” and he noted the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French diplomat, political scientist and historian whose landmark 1835 and 1840 two-volume book, Democracy in America, included his firsthand observations on how the American experiment was unfolding.
Bishop Fisher also enjoys reading biographies of noted Americans like George Washington and Daniel Boone. “Their true lives were bigger than their myths,” he said of those two figures.
After leading the United States to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington could have immediately retired from public service, but Bishop Fisher noted that instead the general became the first U.S. president. “He stayed committed to seeing our country begin,” he said.
And Bishop Fisher, who as a teen attained the rank of Eagle Scout and who continues to enjoy camping and hiking, said he admires the frontiersman Boone as a man “who always wanted to see what’s on the other side of the mountain.”
As his vocation to the priesthood has expanded to include episcopal service, Bishop Fisher’s avocation remains close to his heart, as he traces the steps of noted figures at historic sites and through the pages of books chronicling their lives.
“We can learn from history,” he said. Then smiling, he added, “Unfortunately, it seems we make the same mistakes over and over again, if we look at it with an objective eye.”
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