SEGHERS, CHARLES JOHN (Charles-Jean, Karl Jan), Roman Catholic priest and bishop; b. 26 Dec. 1839 at Ghent, Belgium, youngest son of Charles-François Seghers and Paulina Seghers; d. 28 Nov. 1886 near Nulato, Alaska.
Charles John Seghers was raised in Ghent by relatives because of the early deaths of his parents. After completing his studies at a Jesuit college in Ghent, he entered the diocesan seminary there in 1856. He was ordained deacon on 9 Aug. 1862 and in that year transferred to the American College at Louvain, Belgium, which had been founded in 1857 by American bishops to supply North America with English-speaking missionary clergy. Although he was in poor health, Seghers hoped to work in missions in the Washington Territory. Instead he responded to an appeal by Bishop Modeste Demers* of the crown colony of Vancouver Island. Seghers was ordained priest on 30 May 1863, and left for Victoria on 14 September.
Seghers worked as a parish priest, mainly at Victoria, for the next ten years. Poor health continued to trouble him and he almost succumbed to consumption in 1868 and 1869. After Bishop Demers’ death on 28 July 1871 Seghers became diocesan administrator, and on 21 March 1873 Pope Pius IX named him to succeed Demers as bishop of Vancouver Island.
Much of Seghers’ time as bishop was taken up in missionary activities among the various Indian groups on the west coast of the island and in Alaska, at that time attached to the island diocese. He was also a frank and eloquent defender of Catholic interests on the island and opposed Premier Andrew Charles Elliott’s attempt to impose the general education tax on Catholics in April 1876. In 1877 he began a missionary tour along the Yukon River. The trip lasted 14 months during which he had contact with native groups along the Yukon and near the Bering Sea. After returning to Victoria via San Francisco, he was dismayed to learn that Pope Leo XIII had appointed him on 6 May 1878 coadjutor to the ailing François-Norbert Blanchet, archbishop of the diocese of Oregon City, Oreg. In December 1880 he was also appointed administrator of the vicariate of Idaho.
Seghers spent most of the period from 1878 to early 1885 at Oregon City; his time was divided between administrative duties and apostolic journeys among whites and Indians in northern Idaho and western Montana. In 1885 Jean-Baptiste Brondel, Seghers’ successor on Vancouver Island, became apostolic administrator of the new vicariate of Montana, which had been created on 5 March 1883, and Jean-J. Jonckau declined to replace him on Vancouver Island. Seghers received approval from Leo XIII to return to Vancouver Island. On 10 Feb. 1885 he became bishop of the diocese with the personal title of archbishop-bishop.
Seghers was eager to go back to the diocese and especially anxious to resume his missionary efforts in the northern interior. Soon after returning to Victoria, he was looking for new missionaries to work in the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska interior. He encouraged Father Joseph Mary Cataldo, superior of the Jesuits in the Rocky Mountains, to visit Europe to recruit the much-needed missionaries. He also prevailed upon Cataldo to let two Jesuits accompany him on a tour he proposed to undertake of central Alaska, and Cataldo appointed fathers Louis-Aloysius Robaut and Pascal Tosi. Seghers added a layman, Frank Fuller, who had worked in various northwest Jesuit missions. Several colleagues, including Tosi, protested against Seghers’ choice of Fuller, who had shown signs of mental instability, but Seghers remained firm in his decision.
The expedition left Esquimalt, travelled by boat to Juneau, Alaska, and headed inland towards the Yukon River through the Chilkoot Pass. After a hazardous and exhausting trip of almost two months, from 13 July to 7 Sept. 1886, they reached the confluence of the Yukon and Stewart rivers. The expedition then headed north down the Yukon and into central Alaska.
Seghers soon learned that he faced competition in the area and that Octavius Parker, an Episcopalian missionary, was, in fact, near Nulato, the spot Seghers had designated as his choice for the first Catholic mission on the Yukon. Leaving the rest of his party, Seghers took Fuller and headed for Nulato in an effort to forestall Parker. During the journey Seghers recorded in his diary evidence of Fuller’s increasing insanity. Early in the morning of 28 Nov. 1886, just a few miles from Nulato, Fuller shot and killed the archbishop. Bizarre rumours spread about the murder and there were even attempts to make a martyr of Seghers. However, the murder was no more than the act of a paranoid schizophrenic who, unable to escape a hostile environment, had interpreted Seghers as his enemy.
Seghers’ contribution continued even after his death. He had been responsible for Cataldo’s search in Europe for additional missionaries and the Jesuits felt themselves obliged to follow up this activity. Among Seghers’ practical achievements was the placing of resident missionaries on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He also played a large part in encouraging the Sisters of St Anne in Montreal to send some of their number to central Alaska. A forceful, impetuous, but kind man, Seghers provided the Roman Catholic Church with the necessary leadership to expand and consolidate its missionary efforts in the Pacific northwest.
American College Arch., Katholieke Universiteit to Leuven (Louvain, Belgium), Charles-Jean Seghers file. Arch. de la Propagation de la Foi (Paris), Vancouver, f.202, Seghers à Certes, pièce 12618 (30 déc. 1878), pièce 12655 (13 juill. 1886). Arch. of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon (Portland, Oreg.), Blanchet f.III, 270, Johannes Card. Simeoni F
iN, Blanchet, 19 sept. 1876. Oregon Prov. Arch. of the Society of Jesus (Spokane, Wash.), Barnum to [Robaut], 10 May 1886; Tosi to Cataldo, 24 Nov. 1886; Robaut to Cataldo, 28 Nov. 1886; Robaut to Jonckau, 31 July 1887; Cataldo to Jetté, 13 Jan. 1925. Maurice De Baets, Mgr Seghers, l’apôtre de l’Alaska (Paris et Poitiers, France, 1896); translated by Sister Mary Mildred as The apostle of Alaska: life of the Most Reverend Charles John Seghers (Paterson, N.J., 1943). Reminiscences of the west coast of Vancouver Island, comp. Charles Moser (Victoria, 1926). G. G. Steckler, “Charles John Seghers, missionary bishop in the American northwest, 1839–1886” (phd thesis, Univ. of Washington, Seattle, 1963). J. M. Hill, “Archbishop Seghers, Pacific coast missionary,” CCHA Report, 18 (1951): 15–23. Pascal Tosi, “Alaska, le pays – un voyage de pénétration,” Etudes religieuses, philosophiques, hist. et littéraires (Paris), 60 (septembre–décembre 1893): 95–116.