Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Bishop Vaughan

by John Burger


A short biography of Bishop Austin B. Vaughan, who became a prominent figure in the pro-life movement as the first American bishop to be arrested for blocking abortion clinic entrances.

Larger Work

Catholic New York

Publisher & Date

Archdiocese of New York, June 29, 2000

Auxiliary Bishop Austin B. Vaughan, who became a prominent figure in the pro-life movement as the first American bishop to be arrested for blocking abortion clinic entrances, died of heart failure June 25 in St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers. He was 72.

Bishop Vaughan was appointed vicar of Orange County in 1979 and continued in that position in spite of a series of strokes, beginning in 1993, which left him largely incapacitated. Msgr. George J. Valastro, pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Middletown, who was appointed co-vicar of Orange in 1994, said the bishop frequently expressed his desire to return to work.

Archbishop Egan celebrated the Mass of the Holy Eucharist for the bishop in St. Patrick's Cathedral June 27 after presiding at the reception of the body ceremony. He called Bishop Vaughan "one of the most distinguished sons of the archdiocese" and a "dedicated pastor of souls." He said that he had many conversations with him over the years, mostly on theological topics.

"He wanted to know that I was on the path of righteousness," the archbishop said at the Mass, which was concelebrated by six bishops and 48 priests.

At a news conference June 26, Archbishop Egan, who had visited the bishop a week before his death, said he felt a "sense of great loss." He called him "one of the premier theologians among the bishops of the United States."

"At meetings of the bishops' conference, we always waited for 'Arky' to stand up and give a statement on the issue we were discussing," the archbishop recalled. Bishop Vaughan often urged greater clarity in the bishops' documents and deliberations.

Since his high school days, Bishop Vaughan, who loved baseball, had been nicknamed "Arky," after Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Arky Vaughan.

Bishop Vaughan's body lay in state in the cathedral's Lady Chapel Tuesday and Wednesday. The Funeral Mass will be celebrated in the cathedral on Thursday, June 29, at 12:10 p.m. Retired Auxiliary Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, retired as vicar for development and a close friend of Bishop Vaughan's, will be principal celebrant, and Msgr. Daniel V. Flynn, pastor of St. Gregory the Great parish in Harrison, will be the homilist. Msgr. Flynn taught at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie with the bishop.

Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Sheridan, vicar general, in a homily at the Mass of the Eucharist Tuesday, said Bishop Vaughan led a "joyful lifestyle--simple and genuine to the point of saintliness." He said that as rector of Dunwoodie, he took seriously his responsibility to recommend candidates to the priesthood "one by one to the ordaining bishop."

"Any questions or doubts about their suitability as priests in this archdiocese were thoroughly addressed and resolved in his typical pursuit of truth and integrity," Bishop Sheridan said.

Born in Greenwich Village Sept. 27, 1927, Austin Bernard Vaughan was the son of Austin B. and Delia Considine Vaughan. He studied at St. Joseph's Seminary and completed his theology studies at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained there in 1951, and after serving at Corpus Christi parish in Manhattan, earned a doctorate in sacred theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1954.

Returning to the United States, he served briefly at Queen of Peace parish on Staten Island and St. John the Evangelist in Manhattan, then taught French at Cathedral Preparatory School. He was appointed to the faculty of St. Joseph's Seminary in 1956. He was named a monsignor in 1964 and became rector of the seminary in 1973, serving in that post until 1979.

Father Thomas J. Curley, pastor of St. Columba's parish in Chester, was a student of Bishop Vaughan's at Dunwoodie. He remembered him as a strong defender of the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality who stressed that the Church could not change its teaching that artificial contraception is sinful.

He was elected president of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1967 and also was president of the Mariological Society of America. He served as a censor librorum for the archdiocese and a member of the liturgical commission and the Priests' Senate. He helped form the permanent diaconate program in 1970 and frequently gave conferences to religious congregations, as well as pastoral institutes and courses for priests in all parts of the country. He made frequent appearances on network and educational programs.

He was a contributing editor to "The Pope Speaks," which publishes English translations of key Church documents, taught at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx and, in 1972, was visiting lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary.

He was ordained an auxiliary bishop by Cardinal Terence J. Cooke in St. Patrick's Cathedral on June 29, 1977. His episcopal motto was "To Jesus Through Mary."

Soon after, he was appointed co-vicar for vocations, serving until 1979, when he was named vicar of Orange County and pastor of St. Patrick's parish in Newburgh. He was pastor there until 1991 and established a soup kitchen which is still operating.

In 1982 he took on added responsibility in the newly created position of vicar for the Prison Apostolate.

He gave an "intervention" at the sixth world Synod of Bishops in 1983, which was considering "Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church." He was one of four American delegates chosen by their fellow bishops to attend the meeting in Rome.

Bishop Vaughan's intervention stressed the need for a positive reaffirmation of the values of confessional practices as Catholics had traditionally known them.

"The lack of the use of the sacrament of penance is especially harmful in our time, when so many people question their own worth; when they wonder, 'Do people care?' " he told CNY before leaving for the synod. "The sacrament is a constant reassurance. It's a sign that God cares about them."

Bishop Vaughan, who was a member of the Advisory Board of the U.S. Bishops' Consultative Committee on Studies on the Priesthood, was one of the few who voted against the U.S. bishops' pastoral on peace and war in 1983, citing a lack of clarity in the document. He felt that the question of the pastoral's binding force on individual Catholics had not been made clear and that many theological questions were "either unanswered or had been given answers that were unsuitable."

In December 1987 Bishop Vaughan received an invitation to join Operation Rescue, which had just begun its nonviolent protests aimed at shutting down abortion clinics.

He did not respond immediately, but, after a virtual blackout of the abortion debate during the 1988 presidential primary campaign in New York, he decided that he had to do something to make abortion an issue for voters and candidates. Along with New York Giants star Mark Bavaro and 500 others, he was arrested at an upper East Side Manhattan abortion clinic in May 1988. He went on to be arrested at least eight other times in Dobbs Ferry, Albany, Amherst, N.Y., Pennsylvania and Texas, as well as the Netherlands and Belgium. He served prison sentences of up to 10 days for the actions.

Speaking at an Operation Rescue rally, the bishop explained that his episcopal ring had the images of Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul on it and that all three were arrested, put in jail and killed for their witness to the truth. "He said the least he could do is try to follow in their footsteps in saving the precious babies," said Joan Andrews Bell, who has been arrested many times for her pro-life activism. Coincidentally, Bishop Vaughan's funeral is on the feast day of SS. Peter and Paul.

"He brought everyone a notch higher in their witness to the sanctity of life," said Mrs. Bell.

"He provided us with the support of a shepherd which is so needed in what is still a daily struggle for the lives of the babies," said Christopher Bell, her husband, who is director of Good Counsel Homes for single mothers in the metropolitan area.

Father Frank A. Pavone, a priest of the archdiocese who is international director of Priests for Life, said the bishop "was able to crystallize that we're talking about a real act of violence against real people." For that, he said, "he put his freedom on the line."

Retired Auxiliary Bishop George E. Lynch of Raleigh, N.C., who lives in his native Bronx, has said that his own abortion clinic blockades were inspired by Bishop Vaughan's actions.

At the time of his first sentence in Chester County, Pa., in November 1988, Bishop Vaughan said: "When the choice is between murder and trespassing, there's no choice at all."

In January 1990, he caused even more controversy when he told a reporter that Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was risking his immortal soul by saying on the one hand that he did not personally approve of abortion and, on the other, that he would do nothing to limit a woman's access to abortion.

"When he first ran for governor, he was quoted in The New York Times as saying he had done more to fight for abortions for poor women in New York state than anyone else," Bishop Vaughan said. "Our position is very clear: no one has the right, not the Supreme Court, not an individual, man or woman, because the child has a right to exist. Cuomo can't adhere to Catholic teaching and support abortion too."

Later, though he was physically limited, Bishop Vaughan asked the Bells what he could do to continue to serve in the pro-life movement. He often said he did not want to be an inconvenience to anyone, having to be pushed around in his wheelchair. But he never complained about his illness, said Sister Michelle McKeon, S.C., principal of SS. Peter and Paul School in the Bronx, who took care of him at Our Lady of Consolation, a retired priests residence in Riverdale. "His favorite saying was, 'Whatever God sends,' " she said.

Bishop Vaughan is survived by his sister, Mae Murphy of Ridgewood, N.J., and his cousin, Msgr. John J. Considine, pastor emeritus of St. Barnabas in the Bronx. His brother, John, died in 1985.

Burial will be in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne.

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