The Rt. Rev. Isaac Lea Nicholson, D. D.
Fifth Bishop of Milwaukee, 1891-1906
A History of the Diocese of Milwaukee, by Harold Ezra Wagner
Diocese of Milwaukee, 1947.
Next to Charles Chapman Grafton, second Bishop of Fond du Lac, Isaac Lea Nicholson was perhaps one of the best known and most influential Catholic churchmen in the United States. Together these two men formed a solid front against what they considered liturgical vagaries and spiritual laxity and were tireless in their efforts to bring the American Church to a full realization of her Catholic heritage.
Bishop Nicholson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, January 18, 1844, the son of a distinguished Maryland family. His health was frail and after an early education at St. Timothy's Hall, Catonsville, Md., it was decided that he lacked the constitution for further schooling, and accordingly he entered his father's banking house, where after seven years he was made a member of the firm. Success in the commercial world, however, never lessened his desire for a college education, so he left the firm and entering Dartmouth College was graduated from that school in 1869. Here he came in contact with Leonard and Talbot, both later missionary bishops of the Church, and largely through their influence, he determined to study for the holy orders. Accordingly he entered Virginia Theological, School at Alexandria, Va., where he came in contact with the Rev. James Haughton to whose influence he always attributed his success in the ministry. In 1871 he was graduated from Virginia, and ordained a deacon by Bishop Whittingham in Grace Church, Baltimore, September 24, that same fall. He was advanced to the priesthood by Bishop Pinkney, in St. Paul's, Baltimore, September 22, 1872.
He was at first curate in Hanover, N. H., and then at St. Paul's, Baltimore, where he stayed four years. In 1875 he became rector of the Church of the Ascension, Westminster, Md., and in 1879 became rector of St. Mark's, Philadelphia, where he remained until his consecration. In 1883, he was elected as Bishop of Indiana which he declined. In 1890, just one year before his election to the see of Milwaukee, Nashotah House granted him a Doctorate of Divinity.
He was consecrated in St. Mark's, Philadelphia on the feast of SS. Simon and Jude, October 28, 1891.
Bishop Nicholson came to Wisconsin at a time of financial difficulties and it was his acumen as a business man that first brought his acclaim. The panic of 1893 flooded the mid-West with misfortune. The failure of the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Bank involved the financial ruin of David Ferguson, its cashier and also the Treasurer of the Diocesan Missionary Funds. With the collapse of this bank about half million dollars of diocesan money was lost, about $25,000 of which belonged to the endowment fund of the diocese and the remainder to Nashotah House. Using his experience as a banker, Bishop Nicholson took the situation into his own hands. The fund had been wiped out. Mr. Ferguson offered the diocese his only asset, his home, which the bishop administered. So well was this done that it subsequently began to make small returns to the diocesan loss.
Bishop Nicholson urged the erection of a home for the bishop, one which he felt would be commensurate with the position which the diocese occupied in the American Church and which would be in keeping with the Bishop's position in Milwaukee circles. Accordingly the present episcopal residence was erected at a cost of $17,000 and Bishop Nicholson personally paid the interest on its $10,000 indebtedness during his lifetime.
Despite the panic of 1893, the diocese prospered under Nicholson's guidance, and a casual reading of the parochial histories brings to the reader time and time again this phrase, "church consecrated by Bishop Nicholson." Many of the church buildings now standing were begun in the '70s and '80s, and under the careful guidance of Bishop Nicholson, were able to liquidate their indebtedness and obtain consecration. Without making any effort to check the statement, one would venture the opinion that Bishop Nicholson probably consecrated during his episcopate more churches than any other bishop of the diocese.
When he came to Wisconsin, Racine College had been closed. He reopened it and with his aid it was placed on a firm basis for a time. Nashotah House is also indebted to Bishop Nicholson for much of its prosperity at a time when the West was going through financial stress, and especially after the staggering blow of the loss of its endowment in 1893. He, together with Grafton and their friends in the East, was able to obtain substantial financial assistance for the school.
In 1905 he suffered a severe heart attack, and requested the election of a coadjutor. Accordingly the diocese met for election and William Walter Webb, Dean of Nashotah House, was elected on November 21, 1905. Webb's consecration took place in All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee on February 24, 1906, the second in the Cathedral. Nicholson acted as Consecrator but attended the service with a physician constantly at his side. Nine months later he was dead, his demise occurring on October 29, 1906.