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William Byrne

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Missionary and educator, born in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1780; died at Bardstown, Kentucky, U.S.A. 5 June, 1833. He was one of a large family for whom he was obliged by the death of his father to become breadwinner. He desired to be a priest, but circumstances denied him more than a common elementary education, imparted to him by a pious uncle. Many of his relatives were among the ill-starred patriots of the rebellion of 1798, and the cruel and bloody scenes of that year enacted near his home made a vivid impression on his youthful mind. In his twenty-fifth year came his opportunity to emigrate to the United States, where, shortly after his arrival he went to Georgetown College and applied for admission into the Society of Jesus. His advanced age and lack of classical education, however, convinced him, after some months' stay there, that he could not reasonably hope to obtain in the Society, for many years at least, his ambition for ordination to the priesthood. He therefore left Georgetown, and by advice of Archbishop Carroll went to Mount St. Mary's College , Emmitsburg. Here the Rev. John Dubois, the president, received him with sympathy, pointed out a course of study, and finding him an excellent disciplinarian, made him prefect of the institution. He was nearly thirty years of age when he began to study Latin, but his zeal and perseverance conquered all obstacles.

In order to advance more rapidly in his studies, he entered St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, but the surroundings were not congenial, and he remained there only a short time. He had been ordained a subdeacon, and Bishop Flaget accepted his offer of service for the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky. He made further studies at St. Thomas's Seminary there, and was then ordained priest by Bishop David, 18 September, 1819, with his friend George A. M. Elder, whom he had met at Emmitsburg. They were the first priests ordained at Bardstown, and by Bishop David, who was consecrated 15 August, 1819. Shortly after his ordination, Father Byrne was appointed to the care of St. Mary's and St. Charles's missions, visiting also the small congregation of Louisville, sixty miles distant, and labouring at all times with most indefagitable industry. The ignorance of the people and the necessity of establishing some institution for elementary instruction appealed to him strongly, and in the spring of 1821 he opened St. Mary's College, near Bardstown, in an old stone building that stood on a farm he had purchased with money begged from those who sympathized with his project. He had about fifty boys to begin with, one of them being Martin John Spaulding, later the famous Archbishop of Baltimore, who even then was so precious in the display of his abilities that at the age of fifteen he was appointed to teach mathematics to his fellow students. Father Bryne, with indomitable energy, at first filled every office in the school and attended to his missionary duties as well. His college had become very popular in Kentucky when it was destroyed by fire. This set-back seemed only to give him new energy, and he soon had the college rebuilt. A second fire ruined a large part of the new structure, but nothing daunted, he went on and again placed the institution on a firm foundation.

It is estimated that from 1821 to 1833, during the time St. Mary's College was under his immediate direction, at least twelve hundred students received instruction there, and carried the benefits of their education to all parts of Kentucky, some of them establishing private schools on their return to their respective neighbourhoods. Father Bryne, after twelve year's management of the college, made a gift of it to the Society of Jesus, believing that, having established its success, his old friends, the Jesuits, were better qualified than he was to conduct the school. He thought of funding a new school at Nashville, where one was much needed, and in spite of his advanced years he wrote to Bishop Flaget that all that he required in leaving St. Mary's to embark on this new enterprise was his horse and ten dollars to pay his travelling expenses. Before he could carry out the plan, however, he fell a martyr to charity. An epidemic of cholera had broken out in the neighbourhood, and having gone to administer the last sacraments to a poor negro woman who lay dying of the disease, he became infected himself, and died the following day among the Fathers of the Society of Jesus with whom at Georgetown he had begun his remarkable religious life .

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