Alabama, Catholic Church in
ALABAMA, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Initially designated a part of the Diocese of Quebec, the region that now constitutes the State of Alabama was organized as the Vicariate-Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas in 1825. The Diocese of Mobile was erected on May 15, 1829, and its name was changed to the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham on July 9, 1954. The Diocese of Birmingham was created as a separate entity in 1969. Finally, the Archdiocese of Mobile was established on November 16, 1980, comprising the lower 28 counties of the State of Alabama (22,969 square miles), with the suffragan dioceses of Birmingham, and Biloxi and Jackson, Mississippi. Though Catholicism in the region remained below five percent of the total population at the beginning of the new millennium, it has enjoyed steady growth amid varied challenges, which have included economic, political and anti-Catholic sentiment.
Catholic Origins. Catholicism first came to the region with early Spanish and French exploration and a permanent settlement at Mobile in 1702, with Father Henry Rolleaux de las Vente as its first pastor. The parish register, intact from 1704, documents the unsettled conditions of those early years in which the faith expanded. One such condition was the dilemma of maintaining an adequate number of clergy to minister to the growing Catholic population. Yet, amid the transition of the varied political entities (French, Spanish and British) governing the region, secular and religious priests, in turn, functioned as pastors, without too much interference from civil authorities.
With the territory passing from French, British and Spanish rule, the ecclesiastical responsibility shifted from Quebec, Canada, to Santiago de Cuba, and finally in 1793, to the mainland diocese of New Orleans. With the Gulf Coast area becoming part of the United States, the State of Alabama and the Territory of Florida were erected into a vicariate apostolic in August 1825, and Bishop Michael portier (1795–1859) was appointed to head the new jurisdiction.
Diocese. Portier, a native cleric of Lyon, France, developed and structured religious life in the Gulf Coast area. The vicariate was raised to a diocese in May 1829, and in 1850 was reduced in geographical size, when part of the panhandle of Florida was transferred to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Stt. Augustine, Florida. Portier was most successful in founding institutions of education and welfare, which allowed the Catholic presence further influence and visibility in the greater community. Such institutions included Spring Hill College, founded in 1830, and entrusted to the Jesuits in 1847. At the time of Portier's death in 1859 there were 10 priests serving nine parishes and nine missions, and the Catholic population had grown from 6,000 to an estimated 10,000, most of it centered along the Alabama-Florida Gulf coast.
Bishop John Quinlan (1826–83) was consecrated as the second bishop of Mobile in New Orleans on December 4, 1859. A native of County Cork, Ireland, Quinlan immigrated to the United States in 1844, and was ordained for the Diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1852. He spent his early years in the diocese shepherding a region in turmoil due to the national debate over slavery and "states' rights." With the coming of the Civil War, and the consequent economic plights during and after the conflict, there was a greater commitment of Church resources to the poor. Yet, this commitment also hampered efforts to expand a parochial Catholic presence in the region.
Amid such challenges Quinlan secured clergy from Ireland, attained financial resources, and furthered construction on the cathedral. The northern half of the diocese received resident pastors for the first time, thanks to the arrival of monks from the Benedictine abbey of St. Vincent Abbey (later arch-abbey), Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The eventual establishment of the independent Benedictine Abbey of St. Bernard's in Cullman (1891) also provided the diocese with a second Catholic college, St. Bernard's. By the time of Quinlan's death, the clergy population had increased to 45, evenly divided between secular and religious priests. The Catholic population had also increased to about 18,000. Unfortunately, the diocese continued to be burdened with significant financial obligations.
Although growth of the Catholic population continued in the Diocese of Mobile, throughout the 1800s the local church could be characterized more by retrenchment and consolidation than by new gains. The vast majority of the relatively small Catholic population remained along the Gulf coast of Alabama, primarily in the city of Mobile, but small and steadfast Catholic populations were found in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and the expanding "new city" of Birmingham.
The third bishop, Dominic Manucy (1823–85), was born in St. Augustine, Florida, and had been ordained by Portier in 1850. He was transferred to Mobile in March 1884, while retaining the administration of his former jurisdiction, the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville in Texas. But ill health and difficulties in Mobile led Manucy to resign before the end of 1884. Jeremiah O'Sullivan (1844–96), a native of Ireland and priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was consecrated the fourth bishop of Mobile, Sept. 20, 1885. He was instrumental in resolving the financial difficulties of the diocese, yet no substantial growth of institutions or Catholic population took place. Hard economic times in the South, particularly in Mobile, made immigration to the region unlikely. By the close of the 19th century, the State of Alabama had suffered a slight decline in Catholic population.
The cultural and political situation in the United States at the beginning of the following century, as well as the leadership of the next two bishops, were instrumental in the expansion of Catholic institutions and the spiritual good of the slowly growing Catholic population. Edward Patrick Allen, who had been president of St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, was consecrated bishop in Baltimore on May 16, 1897. During his 30 years as bishop in Mobile the Catholic population grew to 48,000, new churches were built, and there was an increase in the number of clergy. Particular emphasis was placed upon the spiritual well being of Catholics in the rural areas outside of Mobile, and the Josephite Fathers began their ministry to the African American population in the area.
Efforts by the Josephite, the Trinitarian, and the Edmundite Fathers fostered an environment of evangelization in the African American community, as well as in the general Alabama population, particularly in the rural areas and among the poor. These religious communities of men also promoted the development of Catholic education throughout the diocese, especially in the Black communities, which at this time were denied quality education, due to segregation and the infamous "Jim Crow" laws. The diocese also benefited from the endowments established by the McGill family of Mobile.
The 20th century brought monumental change for the State of Alabama and her Catholic population. The city of Mobile experienced steady growth throughout the century, due in part to the expanding paper and chemical industry, as well as the construction of a military air base. The city of Birmingham had the greatest increase in population thanks to the expansion of the steel and coal industries found there. This increase included Catholic immigrants, particularly Italians, attracted to the region by the new employment opportunities.
The city of Montgomery, also witnessed an increased Catholic population due to the expansion of Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) at the onset of World War II. This military base eventually became the home of the United States Air Force War College, which has continued to draw Catholics to the region. The Cold War period created the conditions for the rapid expansion of the Catholic population, through the continued building of the chemical and steel industries, as well as the increasing military presence in the region. Yet in rural Alabama, the Catholic community struggled to maintain a visible presence in the midst of an anti-Catholic environment. At the same time that the State of Alabama witnessed new economic opportunities, it was also faced with the challenge to address the tragic historical issue of racial inequality.
For the first half of the 20th century the man who personified "Catholic" in Alabama was Bishop Thomas Joseph toolen (1886–1976). From the time of his appointment as the sixth bishop of Mobile on February 28, 1927 until his retirement in 1969, Toolen instilled and fostered a greater unity and self-respect among the Catholic faithful. Toolen mandated religious education in every parish and established parochial schools, as well as Catholic healthcare facilities in the three metropolitan areas of the State of Alabama. He also addressed the plight of the poor through the establishment of the Catholic Charities Office during the Great Depression. Toolen also expanded the participation of the laity through the efforts of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, the Holy Name of Jesus Fraternity, and grand Catholic gatherings such as Christ the King celebrations, held throughout the diocese. In 1954 Pope Pius XII designated Toolen an "archbishop ad Personam."
Catholic Life Today. Archbishop Toolen continued the expansion of Catholic institutions and presence throughout Alabama. He gave particular attention to Catholic education in the African American parishes, and invited religious communities to serve in ministry to the rural areas of the diocese. He sought to maintain Catholic social agencies concerned with the poor and healthcare facilities. By 1969, an extensive "Catholic structure" has been developed to address the pastoral and fiscal needs of the Catholic population, as well as those of the greater community. These developments and the rapid growth in the Catholic population following World War II caused the Holy See to establish two new dioceses from out of the territorial jurisdiction of Diocese of Mobile: the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee was established in 1968, and in 1969, the Diocese of Birmingham.
The newly created Diocese of Birmingham experienced an amazing growth in Catholic population through the migration of Catholics into the northern half of the state, mainly due to the relocation of the steel industry to the South, the growth of technological and medical research in the Birmingham metropolitan area, and the establishment of NASA's jet propulsion headquarters in Huntsville. Prior to the mid-20th century, Catholicism in Alabama had been shaped and identified along the Gulf Coast region of the state, primarily in the city of Mobile. But the once "Protestant interior" of the state saw a dramatic increase in the Catholic population in Birmingham, Anniston, and in other once-small communities throughout the northern tier of the state. By the late 1950s the Catholic population in northern Alabama was growing at a faster rate than that of the Gulf Coast region. Thus there came to be a pattern of two experiences of Catholic life in the State of Alabama: a predominance of native, Southern Catholics along the Gulf Coast, with long roots in the coastal region, and the more recent immigrant Catholics in the northern part of the state, with family roots in other areas of the country as well as other nations. The only "ethnic parishes" in the state are found in Birmingham.
When Pope Paul IV established the Diocese of Birmingham on June 28, 1969, the newly created diocese included the upper 39 counties of the state and had an initial Catholic population of 39,828 among the general population of 2,134,396. By 2000, the Catholic population of the diocese had nearly doubled, to 76,941. Thus, the once "mission" area of the state that a few years previously had only a few established Catholic communities in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Cullman came to have a greater Catholic population than the "mother diocese" of Mobile. Catholics in the region, with strong Eucharistic and Marian devotions, often still face misconceptions about Catholics beliefs as well as direct and indirect anti-Catholicism.
In 1969 John L. May was appointed the seventh bishop in Mobile. He was a native of Chicago and head of the Catholic Extension Society, which has continued to forward grant monies to many of the mission parishes in the state. Bishop May was noted for implementing the "vision" of the Second Vatican Council, being an advocate of adult faith formation, and for the establishment of mission parishes in counties with growing, yet small Catholic populations. He also helped in the formation of the longest ongoing Christian-Jewish dialogue in the United States: Mobile Christian-Jewish Dialogue.
In January 1980 May was appointed Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri. In that same year the Holy See raised the Diocese of Mobile to an archdiocese. And on July 29, 1980, Monsignor Oscar H. Lipscomb, a native Mobilian and chancellor of the diocese, was appointed the first archbishop of Mobile. Lipscomb provided a continued vision for the newly established Archdiocese of Mobile, bringing qualities nurtured in his own experience of Catholic culture in the Deep South and his understanding of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
At the beginning of the new millennium the Catholic population continued to grow, though not at the accelerated rate of that found immediately after World War II. Also, the efforts to establish a Catholic ethos in rural Alabama began to see fruit in the southeastern and northern regions of the state, where once-mission parishes were becoming large and dynamic centers of Catholic worship, contributing to the greater community. The Archdiocese of Mobile and the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama continue to provide ministry to the poor of the region, most of whom are non-Catholics. Thus, the Catholic faithful continue to create ecumenical bridges, while still offering ongoing formation in and the celebration of Catholic culture in a rapidly changing "Deep South" state.
Bibliography: m. t. a. carroll, A Catholic History of Alabama and the Floridas (New York 1908). Catholic Culture in Alabama: Centenary Story of Spring Hill College (New York 1931). reverend o. h. lipscomb, The Administration of Michael Portier, Vicar Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas, 1825–1829, and First Bishop of Mobile, 1829–1859 (unpublished thesis, Catholic University of America, 1965). r. g. lovett, Catholic Church in the Deep South (Birmingham, Ala. 1981).