Commanding figure, Bishop Chanche rests in Natchez

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward

JACKSON – In his person, Bishop Chanche was of rather a tall and commanding figure, and prepossessing in his appearance. The grace and dignity with which he conducted the ceremonials of the church, on marked occasions, will long be remembered. By his courteous bearing and suavity of manner, as well as by sacerdotal virtues that graced his life, he won the esteem and respect of all who knew him.

The above is taken from a funeral story published July 24, 1852, in The Catholic Mirror, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, upon the July 22 death of Bishop John Joseph Chanche, SS, first bishop of our diocese.

On Feb. 19, Bishop Joseph Kopacz presented the Bishop John Joseph Chanche Medal to 17 individuals from parishes around our expansive diocese. This diocesan award, established in 2012 in honor of our diocese’s 175th anniversary, is given for outstanding service to parish, diocese and community.

Bishop Chanche was a Sulpician. Since 1641, Sulpicians have dedicated themselves to assisting bishops by providing seminary education and ongoing formation to priests.

Arriving in Natchez from Baltimore St. Mary College and Seminary where he was president and rector in May 1841, Bishop Chanche found a couple of missionary priests and no real church building. By his death in July 1852, the diocese had grown to 11 parishes throughout the state and 13 priests.

After serving as Chief Promoter of the First Plenary council of Baltimore in May 1852, Bishop Chanche went to visit family in nearby Frederick, Maryland. It is believed that he contracted cholera which led to a slow, painful death two months later. He was buried in the Baltimore Cathedral Cemetery.

The following was written in The Catholic Mirror after his Requiem Mass: Bishop Chanche was greatly beloved in our community – his native city and the field of many years’ zeal and labor – the tears which moistened the eyes of those who surrounded his grave evidence that his absence from among us had not caused him to be forgotten.

In 1878, he was moved with the remains of his sister, Mary Marcilly Edwards, to the new Cathedral Cemetery. There he remained until the fall of 2007, when after many years of research and preparations, the St. Mary Basilica Archives Committee in Natchez in conjunction with then Bishop Joseph Latino asked the Archdiocese of Baltimore to have his remains sent back to his diocesan home to be buried.

His Eminence, William Cardinal Keeler, then Archbishop of Baltimore, agreed to the exhumation and to come celebrate the re-interment Mass on Jan. 19, 2008.

The morning of Jan. 19, we awakened to three inches of snow on the ground. It had not snowed in Natchez in 15 years. I wondered if it was a message from Bishop Chanche to please not dig him up again and let him rest in peace, since this was the third time he would be buried.

Unbeknownst to most, we had requested a small box of soil from St. Mary Seminary on Paca Street in Baltimore to put in the grave so that Bishop Chanche would have some native soil beneath him. As an aside, St. Mary Seminary gave us Bishop Chanche in 1841 and Bishop William Houck in 1979.

When the snow stopped, I emptied the soil into the grave which is located on the grounds of St. Mary Basilica behind the rectory. Fortunately, the grave had been covered for several days.

The Mass was concelebrated by archbishops, bishops, and clergy from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Music incorporated into the liturgy was indicative of pieces from the times of Bishop Chanche.

In spite of the weather, a large congregation gathered to pay their respects to the well-travelled bishop, who left the comforts of his life at the seminary in Baltimore and journeyed to what must have seemed like the edge of the universe to serve God’s people in Mississippi. He served fervently and faithfully until the end.

Father Jean Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians, penned a beautiful prayer for his confreres, which was placed in the worship book for the Mass in 2008. It is indicative of Bishop Chanche’s ministry and zeal and embodied in our Chanche Medal recipients:
O Jesus living in Mary,
Come and live in your servants,
In the spirit of your holiness,
In the fullness of your power,
In the perfection of your ways,
In the truth of your virtues,
In the communion of your mysteries,

Have dominion over every adverse power,
In your Spirit for the glory of the Father.

As Bishop Kopacz presented the medals to this year’s awardees, memories of that Mass in 2008 filled my mind – the snow, the dirt, the Spirit – all reflective of honoring our first bishop – John Joseph Marie Benedict Chanche, a tall, commanding figure; prepossessing in appearance.

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