Exploring deaths of diocese former shepherds

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward

JACKSON – November is the month to remember the dead in our Catholic faith. It opens with the Solemnity of All Saints where we honor all those ordinary people in our lives who were saints to us. The next day is All Souls, a personal favorite of mine, in which we honor the dead and, in many traditions, decorate graves and have picnics in cemeteries.

This year was a particularly poignant All Souls for me as the death of Bishop Emeritus Joseph N. Latino of happy memory is still fresh. Because of soil and settling, we were just able to move the gravestone over his plot in the diocesan bishops’ cemetery next to the cathedral.

We have a temporary marker for Bishop Latino and are awaiting the engraver’s arrival in a few months to carve his inscription on site. Apparently, there are only one or two people willing to carve out inscriptions on site on this type of stone. So, we wait patiently.

JACKSON – Flowers and candles adorn the grave sites of Bishop William Houck, Bishop Joseph Brunini and Bishop R.O. Gerow in the bishops’ cemetery next to the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle on All Souls Day, Nov. 2. (Photo by Berta Mexidor)

Dealing with this made me think about all our previous bishops and their deaths.

Bishop John Joseph Marie Benedict Chanche, SS, (1841-1852) died most likely of cholera in Maryland while visiting family after a plenary council in Baltimore. Cholera is a horrible death, but he was described as bearing it with great dignity. After spending more than 150 years in the cemetery in Baltimore, he was brought home to Natchez in 2008.

Bishop James Oliver Van deVelde, SJ, (1853-1855) was Bishop of Chicago and suffered from arthritis. He felt a warmer climate would be beneficial for his joints, so he requested a move South. A yellow fever infected warm climate mosquito got him, another terrible way to go. Bless his heart. He was originally buried in the crypt at St. Mary in Natchez, but his Jesuit confreres wanted him home in Florrisant, Missouri.

Bishop William Henry Elder (1857-1880) was elevated to Archbishop of Cincinnati and lived a long life up there into the next century (1904). He died of what we used to call “old age,” which is a medical term for not one specific thing, and he was 85, which is old for 1904.

Bishop Francis August Anthony Joseph Janssens (1881-1888) also moved on to an archdiocese when he became Archbishop of New Orleans in 1888. He died nine years later in 1897 at age 53 aboard the steamer Creole, bound for New York City. He most likely had a heart attack or a stroke.

Bishop Thomas Heslin (1889-1911) as we explored in an earlier column, flipped out of the back of a mule cart near West Point and was levered back into the cart while unconscious. He most likely sustained some broken ribs, which weakened his lung capacity, and he died a few months later. He is buried on Catholic Hill in Natchez.

Bishop John Edward Gunn, SM, (1911-1924) survived an arsenic poisoning administered by a spy during World War I at a banquet in Detroit in 1915. Suffering a major heart attack in January 1924, his health finally gave out in February at Hotel Dieu in New Orleans. He is buried in the Catholic section in Natchez next to Bishop Heslin.

Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow (1924-1966) is the first bishop to officially retire from the office of bishop in our diocese. He lived 10 years after his retirement and died in December 1976 at the age of 91 having achieved 67 years of priesthood – another death attributed to “old age.” He is buried in the bishops’ cemetery beside the cathedral.

Bishop Joseph Bernard Brunini (1967-1984), our only native son bishop from Vicksburg, died suddenly surrounded by his brother bishops on retreat in Manressa, Louisiana on the Solemnity of the Epiphany. I had eaten lunch with him that very day and was shocked when I got the news he was dead four hours later. He is buried next to Bishop Gerow.

Bishop William Russell Houck (1984-2003) also lived many years into retirement dying of heart and lung issues in 2016 at the age of 90. He, too, achieved 60-plus years of priesthood having marked 65 years when he died. Bishop Houck completes the first line of three bishops in the bishops’ cemetery.

Bishop Joseph Nunzio Latino (2003-2013) died on May 28 of this year having just celebrated his 58th anniversary of priestly ordination on May 25. Bishop Latino’s death is still too fresh to share details, so we will save that for a later date.

Throughout this month of November offer some prayers for our deceased bishops who have served as our shepherds for more than 180 years each in his own unique and dynamic ways.
Requiescant in pace.

(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson.)

NATCHEZ – A photograph of Bishop John Edward Gunn, SM, as he lay in state in the rectory of St. Mary in Natchez. Bishop Gunn survived an arsenic poisoning attempt during WWI, but his health finally gave out shortly after a heart attack in January 1924. (Photo from archives)