Body of first bishop of Mississippi exhumed By Chaz Muth, Catholic News Service
and Mississippi Catholic
BALTIMORE (CNS) — The first bishop of Mississippi recently made his final trip from Baltimore to Natchez, Miss. — 155 years after he died in Maryland.
Born in Baltimore Oct. 4, 1795, to refugees from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Bishop John Joseph Chanche was ordained a Sulpician priest in Baltimore in 1819, became the president of the old St. Mary’s College there in 1834, and was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Natchez by Pope Gregory XVI in 1841.
He died in Frederick, Md., July 22, 1852 — presumably of cholera — while en route to Natchez after participating in the First Plenary Council in Baltimore. Though he was the bishop of Natchez, the native Baltimorean was buried at the original Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore and reinterred at the New Cathedral Cemetery on Old Frederick Road Feb. 11, 1878.
Last year Father David O’Connor, pastor of Natchez St. Mary Basilica, formed an archives committee in the parish to expand an historical collection at the basilica beginning with the formation of the diocese and the building of St. Mary as the original diocesan cathedral. The efforts to pursue getting Bishop Chanche’s remains grew out of this initiative.
“Bishop Chanche had the vision of building what was then our cathedral,” said Father O’Connor. “About a year ago we decided that we should try to bring his remains back here,” he continued.
At the request of Bishop Joseph Latino, Cardinal William Keeler, the now-retired archbishop of Baltimore, agreed to return the remains of Bishop Chanche to St. Mary Basilica in Natchez. Cardinal Keeler was the principal celebrant of the Mass at St. Mary when the church was dedicated a basilica in 1999.
On Aug. 8, Ruck Funeral Homes went about the delicate process of disassembling the monument atop Bishop Chanche’s grave, exhuming the body, and placing the remains in a new casket, said Michael J. Ruck Sr., president of the company.
“We handled this almost like an archaeological excavation,” said Ruck, who also chairs the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust.
Most of the remains were encased in a lead lining, which had been placed inside the casket when the body was reinterred in 1878, he said.
The entire lead lining was lifted into the new casket, along with a new set of vestments, zucchetto and a bishop’s miter supplied by Sulpician Father Ronald Witherup, provincial superior for the Sulpicians of the United States, Ruck said.
Both the remains and monument were then flown to Natchez. Bishop Chanche’s remains will be stored in a proper mausoleum until an official reinterment ceremony is scheduled by Bishop Latino.
“We are preparing the final resting place inside of one of the marble altars,” Father O’Connor said.
According to Bishop Latino, plans are in the works for a diocesan celebration to be held at some point in the future to commemorate this important event in the life of the Diocese of Jackson. The diocese plans to invite several bishops from the region and members of the Sulpicians to participate in the reinterment celebrations.