By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
On July 28, the Diocese of Jackson quietly marked the 180th anniversary of its founding with the official promulgation by Pope Gregory XV1 as the 13th Catholic diocese in the United States. There are now nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the country which makes us one of the great great grandparents.
For the 175th anniversary the diocese celebrated with a more formal and festive commemoration which was fitting for such an auspicious milestone. It is noteworthy also to acknowledge the 180-year marker with gratitude and pride, but there will not be diocesan wide celebrations for this anniversary. Like a fine wine we continue to age as we strive to be ever ancient and ever new in the proclamation of the Gospel in our time.
We will have the opportunity in October of this year to have a diocesan-wide commemoration for the 100th anniversary of our Blessed Mother’s appearances at Fatima. We will consecrate our diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a splendid way of marking our 180 anniversary as a diocese. The history of our diocese is expansive and multidimensional and I choose the lens of the 11 diocesan bishops to present a sliver of our legacy of faith.
Four years after the founding of the diocese, Bishop John Joseph Chanche from Baltimore arrived in Natchez in 1841 to plant and nurture the Catholic faith which was truly in an embryonic state. At the time of his unexpected death in 1852 he had established 11 parishes in Mississippi in Paulding Biloxi, Jackson, Bay St Louis, Pass Christian, Vicksburg, Sulphur Springs, Pearlington, Port Gibson and Yazoo City. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the first Catholic School in the state, an academy for young ladies, opened in Natchez by three of his nieces, a sign of great love for their uncle.
The Daughters of Charity also came in 1847 to begin the tradition of Catholic Education at Cathedral School in Natchez, marking its 170th anniversary. Bishop Oliver Van de Velde, S.J. arrived in Natchez at a tragic time — the outbreak of a yellow fever epidemic in the region, which killed some 750 people in Natchez and more than 7,800 in New Orleans. The former president of St. Louis University, Bishop Van de Velde, moved quickly to continue the work of Bishop Chanche.
Another milestone for the Catholic Church in Mississippi occurred in 1855 with the opening of St. Stanislaus College in Bay Saint Louis. Five Brothers of the Sacred Heart served as the faculty, the beginning of their proud history in the diocese. Bishop Van de Velde succumbed to the yellow fever outbreak and died in 1855, as did 40 parishioners. Bishop William Henry Elder was ordained and installed at the third bishop of Jackson in 1857 and served until 1880.
During Bishop Elder’s administration, the Civil War consumed the nation in violence and bloodshed for four years. Bishop Elder ministered to soldiers and celebrated Mass for the wounded throughout the war. He also ministered to a community of freedmen formed in Natchez by slaves who fled after the city was occupied in 1863 by federal troops. Under Union occupation, the Bishop was expelled from Natchez and imprisoned in Vidalia, Louisiana, for refusing to pray for the United States government.
During the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, the Bishop personally ministered to victims and contracted the disease himself. He survived, but six diocesan priests were among the many who perished. Bishop Elder was named Coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1880 and would later become Archbishop where he served until 1904. When he left Mississippi, there were 19 priests, 42 churches, 12 schools for white children, three schools for black children, and a Catholic population of 12,500. In 1881 Pope Leo X11 appointed Francis August Janssens of New Orleans as the fourth bishop of Jackson.
Bishop Janssens focused on the completion of the cathedral, contracting for the building of the sacristy and installing a pipe organ. Catholic education was a hallmark of his time in Mississippi. When he arrived in 1881, there were 15 schools; when he left for New Orleans seven years later, there were 26. During his administration a mission among the Choctaws at Tucker began, creating a school staffed by three Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Charity began teaching African-American children in the original presbytery during this time. In 1888 Bishop Janssens was transferred to become Archbishop of New Orleans. Father Thomas Heslin of County Longford, Ireland, a pastor in New Orleans, was named the fifth Bishop of the diocese by Pope Leo XIII.
One of Bishop Heslin’s major initiatives was to evangelize and establish missions among African Americans. Bishop Heslin invited the Society of St. Joseph and the Society of the Divine Word to staff missions among black Mississippians. In 1890 Holy Family Parish in Natchez was established as the first parish in the diocese dedicated to ministering in the African American community. Saint Mother Katharine Drexel was instrumental in building a school for the children of Holy Family in Natchez.
In 1894 the Brothers of the Sacred Heart opened a school for boys in Natchez. Bishop Heslin died after 22 years of service to the Diocese and was buried on Catholic Hill in the Natchez City Cemetery. Father John Gunn, a Marist priest, from County Tyrone, Ireland was appointed the sixth Bishop of Natchez by Pope Pius X in 1911. He cultivated the diocese’s relationship with Catholic Extension to help in the building of chapels throughout the state. By the time of his death in 1924, almost every Catholic in Mississippi was able to reach one of these chapels for Mass at least once a month.
Catholic churches grew from 75 to 149 during his administration, and Catholics grew in number from 17,000 to more than 31,000. Bishop Gunn died in New Orleans in 1924 and is buried beside his fellow Irishman Bishop Thomas Heslin on Catholic Hill in the Natchez City Cemetery. Father Richard Oliver Gerow of Mobile was appointed the seventh Bishop of Natchez by Pope Pius XI. He served for 42 years and saw a tremendous growth in the Catholic Church in Mississippi. Priests grew in number from 63 to 222, and churches increased from 108 to 159.
His administration included the years of the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, Great Depression, World War II, the Korean conflict, and the Civil Rights Movement, including the tragic murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson. Bishop Gerow oversaw the renovation of the cathedral sanctuary in celebration of the centennial of the Diocese in 1937. He was especially interested in ecumenism and is remembered for his Christian stand in the first days of school integration. He was a consummate historian and an avid photographer and documented many church activities and events throughout the Diocese. In 1957, the Diocese of Natchez became the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson. St Peter Church in Jackson became the Co-Cathedral.
In 1967, Joseph Bernard Brunini was named eighth Bishop of the Diocese and was installed the following year at that co-cathedral, having been ordained a bishop in 1957 by Pope Pius XII. Bishop Brunini is our only native Mississippi vocation to serve as bishop in our 180-year history. His administration was quite diverse — implementation of Vatican II, the continuing Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. He oversaw peaceful school desegregation in Mississippi’s Catholic schools, and as a strong leader he addressed such issues as ecumenism, evangelization, poverty and social justice. In 1973, Joseph Lawson Howze was named Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson. In 1977, the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson was divided to become the Diocese of Jackson, comprised of the northern 65 counties of the state, and the Diocese of Biloxi, made up of the southeastern most 17 counties of Mississippi. At that time, Bishop Howze became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi. Bishop William Russell Houck was one of 27 bishops ordained by Pope John Paul II on May, 29, 1979. He was auxiliary bishop for the Jackson diocese from 1979-1984 when he was installed in 1984 as the ninth Bishop of Jackson.
“Proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord” is the episcopal motto chosen by Bishop Houck, which would be his mission for nearly 37 years as a bishop in Jackson, through sanctifying, preaching, writing, teaching, leading, serving the poor. In January, 2003 Saint John Paul accepted Bishop Houck’s resignation and he continued to serve as the president of Catholic Extension until 2007. Bishop Joseph Nuncio Latino, a native of New Orleans, and a priest of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux was ordained and installed as the 10th bishop of Jackson in 2003 and served until 2014. He devoted his ministry as bishop to fostering Gospel-based social justice initiatives, lay leadership, and vocations.
During his tenure the office for Protection of Children was established to help insure a safe environment for children in our churches, schools and communities. Under his leadership the church implemented the new English translation of the Roman Missal, and he shepherded the diocese through the Mission and Ministry process in 2007 that led to the six deanery pastoral structure that serve the diocese so well ten years later.
This brings us to yours truly, Bishop Joseph Richard Kopacz of Scranton, Pa. I was ordained and installed as the 11th Bishop of Jackson in 2014. During the past three and one half years the diocese has embraced an Envisioning Process that has inspired a renewed Vision with Pastoral Priorities that is now in a diocesan-wide implementation phase. We give thanks for what has been, and we proceed with hope for what will be as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ in our Catholic faith.
(Editor’s note, look for more information on the consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in upcoming editions of Mississippi Catholic.)