Arkansas, Catholic Church in

views updated


In the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church in Arkansas numbered 93,480 members, about 3.4% of the total population of the state. The growth of the Church was slow but steady from the colonial period. There had been a small Catholic presence in Arkansas during the days of the French and Spanish, but the acquisition of the territory by the United States dramatically changed the demographics of the region. The Native Americans had been driven out of Arkansas by 1840, while the people who displaced them, both Anglo-Americans and African Americans, were overwhelmingly Protestant. In 1850 Catholics made up only 1% of the white population.

The first Catholics arrived in the territory that would become the state of Arkansas less than a half-century after Columbus first entered the western hemisphere, and some 66 years before the English established their first permanent settlement in North America. Hernando De Soto, the first European actually to see the Mississippi River, crossed the "Father of Waters" on June 18, 1541 and then erected a cross on its western bank. Seven days after arriving in the land that became Arkansas, he led his men in a religious ceremony, kneeling before the cross and singing a Te Deum, a traditional Catholic hymn of praise. That date, June 25, 1541 was the date of the first Christian religious event ever recorded within the future state of Arkansas. While De Soto stayed in the area for another year, Spain was too preoccupied with its holdings elsewhere to colonize much of North America. Brief as this encounter was, it was Arkansas's first experience with Catholic Christianity.

More than a century passed before another Catholic missionary visited Arkansas. Jesuit missionary Fr. Jacques marquette and fur trapper Louis Joliet journeyed southward from French Canada, where they entered the northern section of the Mississippi River. Using that watery thoroughfare, they made it to the mouth of the Arkansas River, staying for two weeks in the area in July of 1673 before returning to Canada. Robert Cavalier De La Salle followed the same path of Marquette and Joliet nine years later, yet followed the Great River to its mouth and claimed all lands that touch this river and its tributaries. De La Salle designated the region Louisiana in honor of his earthly sovereign, Louis XIV. The French explorer also gave his Italian lieutenant Henri de Tonti, a grant of land to start a colony. Tonti returned in 1686 to found the first European settlement in Arkansas near the juncture of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. Named the Arkansas Post, it was abandoned a decade later and there would be no further European settlement in the area for a quarter century. Fr. Jacques Gravier, SJ, a French missionary traveling down the Mississippi said the first recorded Catholic Mass in Arkansas on Nov. 1, 1700.

Colonial era. France re-founded the Arkansas Post in August of 1721, and this settlement would be the center of European activity in Arkansas for the rest of the 18th century. Little effort was made, however, to colonize the area or convert the natives. Fr. Paul du Poisson, SJ, worked as a missionary for two years in Arkansas, suffering martyrdom near what is now Natchez, Mississippi on Nov. 28, 1729. (This was exactly 114 years to the day before the establishment of a Catholic Diocese in Arkansas.) Few Catholic missionaries came to Arkansas during the 18th century or even during the first 40 years of the 19th century. Until the diocese came into existence in 1843, the longest time a priest had been in Arkansas was Jesuit missionary Fr. Louis Carette, SJ (17501758).

The Spanish assumed control over the western half of the old Louisiana Territory after 1763, and this included Arkansas. The Spanish eventually placed their Louisiana and Florida holdings under a newly created Diocese of New Orleans in 1793. After decades of being a mission outpost, Arkansas got its first resident Catholic priest in almost 40 years in 1796. Fr. Pierre Janin, a French diocesan priest fleeing the French Revolution, stayed in Arkansas for three and a half years. Janin failed to actually gather the funds to build a church and so he abandoned Arkansas forever in late 1799. After Napoleon pressured Spain to give him Louisiana in 1800, the crafty Frenchman turned around and sold it to the United States three years later.

Ecclesiastical changes. Arkansas remained part of the New Orleans diocese until 1826, when the Holy See created the Diocese of St. Louis, covering the Louisiana Purchase north of the state of Louisiana, with Joseph M. rosati named as its first bishop. Bishop Rosati sent some missionaries to Arkansas and one was so disgusted with Arkansas in 1832 that he referred to it as the "suburb of Hell" in a letter to a St. Louis prelate. Despite the rough goings on, the Sisters of loretto from Kentucky opened Arkansas's first Catholic school, St. Mary's Academy, on the southern shore of the Arkansas River, just south of what is now Pine Bluff on Nov. 19, 1838. Three years later, the sisters started St. Joseph's Catholic School in Little Rock. In 1842, they closed the school near Pine Bluff and began another school at the Arkansas Post called St. Ambrose Female Academy. Both of these schools were closed in 1845 due to lack of funds and the Sisters of Loretto left Arkansas.

At the fifth provincial council of Baltimore in May of 1843, the Holy See was petitioned to erect four new dioceses: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Little Rock. Responding to this request, Pope Gregory XVI erected the Diocese of Little Rock on Nov. 28, 1843. The papal document stated that its boundaries would correspond to that of the state of Arkansas, boundaries that have not been altered after more than a century and a half.

Infant diocese and Civil War. Irish-born Andrew byrne (18021862), Arkansas's Catholic bishop, arrived in Arkansas in 1844 and labored for 18 years in this frontier diocese. While he never had more than ten priests working under him, he founded Arkansas's first Catholic college, St. Andrew's, in 1849. He recruited Irish Sisters of Mercy to come to Arkansas in 1851 and in that year, they opened St. Mary's Academy in Little Rock, the oldest continuous academic institution in the state. Over the next decade, the Mercy Sisters opened additional schools in Fort Smith and Helena, but only the academy in Little Rock survives to this day. Byrne never owned any slaves, but if he had any opinion on slavery, he never recorded it. During the Know-Nothing uproar in the 1850s, Byrne judiciously avoided political disputes and concentrated on building up the Catholic population by promoting Irish migration to Arkansas. His efforts, however, met with little success. By 1860, the Catholics only numbered about 1% of the white population of the state, less than 1% of the general population. Byrne died on June 10, 1862 in Helena, Arkansas, and was buried in the courtyard of St. Catherine's Mercy convent. His successor moved his body to Little Rock and placed it under the newly constructed Cathedral of St. Andrew in 1881.

Arkansas joined the southern Confederacy in 1861, and the war closed St. Andrew's College that same year. When the competing armies finally made it to Little Rock in September of 1863, the Sisters of Mercy ministered to the sick and wounded of both the Confederate and Union armies. As the Union blockade disrupted communication between the struggling southern nation and the outside world, it took four years for the Holy See to name a successor to the Arkansas diocese, and that came after the war ended in 1865. No other American diocese was without a successor for such a long time. In the interim, Bishop Byrne's last vicar general, Irish-born Fr. Patrick Reilly served as apostolic administrator.

In the summer of 1866, Rome appointed Irish native Fr. Edward M. fitzgerald, a pastor in Columbus, Ohio, and a priest with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, to be Arkansas's next Catholic prelate. Fitzgerald initially rejected the appointment in September, causing the Vatican to issue the young priest a mandamus, a command under holy obedience to accept the Arkansas position. By the time he received this news in December, however, Fitzgerald had changed his mind about accepting the Little Rock bishopric. Consecrated at his home parish by Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, Fitzgerald arrived in Little Rock on St. Patrick's Day in 1867.

Bishop Edward M. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald proved to be a unique Catholic bishop for his time and the most significant prelate in the history of Arkansas Catholicism. Only 33 years old at the time of his appointment, he was the youngest bishop in the United States, if not the world. He distinguished himself in the annals of the universal Church by being one of two bishops in the world, and the only English-speaking prelate, to cast his vote against the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. This vote, together with his opposition to the setting up of Catholic schools in every parish at the Third Plenary Council in 1884, plus his sympathy with the early labor movement, marks him as one of the most interesting and overlooked 19th-century American Catholic bishops. He consistently defended papal infallibility and worked to establish Catholic parish schools, positions with which he had publicly disagreed. Pope Leo XIII offered him at least two archbishoprics (Cincinnati and New Orleans) and several other dioceses, yet the maverick Irish prelate rejected all of them, preferring to remain in Arkansas.

Like his predecessor, Fitzgerald sought to bolster the Catholic population by bringing his fellow religionists from Europe. Some Irish continued to migrate to the state, yet more German, Swiss German, and Polish Catholics came between 1870 and 1890. They mainly inhabited land along the Little RockFort Smith railroad and in northeastern Arkansas. Italian immigrants came to Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas, yet three years later many of them moved to the Ozarks in the northwestern part of the state to found a community called Tontitown. Other Italians moved from Chicago to land about 40 miles west of Little Rock in 1915. There were also small pockets of Slovaks, Czechs, and Austrians scattered around the state. Despite his efforts, Fitzgerald was no more successful than his predecessor in luring Catholic immigrants to Arkansas. By 1900, only about 1% of the white population of the state was foreign born. In contrast to his predecessor, however, Fitzgerald sponsored an aggressive outreach to the African Americans in Arkansas, but this too met with only limited success. St. Peter's, an African American church in Pine Bluff, became the first Catholic parish in U.S. history to have a black Catholic pastor and a school staffed by the black Sisters of the Holy Family based in New Orleans in 1905.

New religious orders, both men and women, arrived during Fitzgerald's tenure. The Order of St. Benedict (benedictines) and the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (Spiritans), both men's orders, came in 1878. That same year, four sisters from the Order of St. Benedict also came to Arkansas and became the nucleus of a group of women religious based now in Fort Smith, Arkansas. In northeastern Arkansas, women religious came to the state in 1887, and six years later they aligned themselves with an order in Switzerland to become the Olivetan Benedictine sisters of Arkansas based in Jonesboro. St. Vincent's Infirmary, Arkansas's oldest medical facility, opened in Little Rock in 1888 and was staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. Even though Arkansas Catholics were still only about 1% of the population, they started Arkansas's oldest educational institution, Mount St. Mary's, and its oldest medical hospital, St. Vincent's, both in Little Rock.

Bishop Fitzgerald's active career ended in January of 1900, when the aging prelate suffered a stroke and eventually died at St. Joseph's Hospital in Hot Springs in February of 1907. For six years, the diocese operated under the direction of Fitzgerald's last vicar general, German-born Fr. Fintan Kraemer, OSB.

Twentieth-century developments. During most of the 20th century, the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock had only three prelates. Two of the three bishops were of Irish-American ancestry and were born outside the state, John B. Morris (18661946) and Andrew J. McDonald (1923). Only Albert L. Fletcher (18961979) was an Arkansas native of parents who had converted to the faith.

A native of Tennessee, Bishop Morris became coadjutor bishop for Little Rock in the summer of 1906. Once Fitzgerald died, Morris automatically became Arkansas's third Catholic shepherd. Over the next four decades that he was bishop, Morris oversaw tremendous institutional growth. Within five years of becoming bishop, Morris started Arkansas's second Catholic institution of higher education, Little Rock College, and St. John's Home Mission Seminary, and St. Joseph's Orphanage near North Little Rock. The second Catholic college in Arkansas closed in 1930, the seminary shut down in 1967, and the Ophanage closed in 1970. The diocesan newspaper, called the Guardian, begun in 1911, continues to this day, though its name was changed to the Arkansas Catholic in 1986.

Between 1910 and 1930 there was a strong rise in anti-Catholic feeling within the South, fed by a bitter, agrarian-populist Georgian named Tom Watson. Watson's own magazine sold well in the South and, after 1910, he launched a major attack on Catholicism. Watson soon had imitators, including a weekly published in Missouri called The Menace, which had 1 million subscribers by 1914. A version of this paper, named The Liberator, appeared briefly in Magnolia, Arkansas, where it was edited by a Baptist minister. In 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly became one of several southern states to pass the Convent Inspection Act, allowing local law enforcement authorities to inspect Catholic convents and rectories at different occasions. This act remained law until repealed rather quietly in 1937. During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan became a potent political force in the South, West, and Midwest, yet the "Invisible Empire" was not as strong in Arkansas as in other states. Arkansas even voted for Alfred E. Smith, the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major party for the presidency of the United States. (A major factor in the vote may have been that Smith's Vice Presidential running mate was Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas.)

Bishop Morris vigorously attempted to both convert and educate African Americas during his episcopacy. There were only two black Catholic churches and schools when he arrived; by his death there were nine black parishes and all but two had Catholic schools. Near Pine Bluff, a black Catholic orphanage opened in the fall of 1932, but this facility closed five years later. Ultimately, blacks were reluctant to place their children in an orphanage run by whites and operated by a church of which most of them were not members. By 1940, Arkansas Catholics made up just over 2% of the white population and 1.7% of the total population.

When Bishop Morris died in 1946, he was succeeded by his auxiliary, an Arkansas native, Albert L. Fletcher. It was Bishop Fletcher's lot to serve the diocese during its most turbulent years. In 1957, the eyes of the nation and the world focused on the attempted racial integration of Little Rock public schools. Throughout the turmoil, Bishop Fletcher counseled calm and supported peaceful integration in his public pronouncements. He published a local catechism in 1960, stating that racial hatred and legal segregation were morally wrong. When integration did occur during the 1960s in all the diocesan Catholic schools, it greatly reduced the number of black Catholic parishes and schools. In 1961 there were eleven black Catholic parishes and seven schools, while a decade later there were only three black Catholic schools and parishes in operation. The racial turmoil in Little Rock caused Bishop Fletcher to move the cloistered Carmelite sisters from Pennsylvania who had come to the diocese in 1950 from downtown Little Rock to a safer area in the city.

In the decades from 1940 to 1960, Arkansas Catholicism continued to experience real growth. Bishop Fletcher attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (19621965). Nine of the thirteen suggestions he made found their way into the final documents. Although the Catholics were only 2.8% of the state's population, Arkansas residents voted for John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960.

Three years prior to his resignation, Bishop Fletcher asked Rome for an auxiliary bishop. He was Lawrence P. Graves (19161994), a native of Texarkana, Arkansas, who went on to become bishop of Alexandria-Shreveport in Louisiana in 1973. Bishop Fletcher's successor in Little Rock was the Reverend Andrew J. McDonald, a native of Savannah, Georgia, who was to head the Church in Arkansas for almost three decades. Consecrated in Savannah, Bishop McDonald moved to Arkansas in early September of 1972. He led the Arkansas church at a time when the American Catholic Church as a whole suffered a massive decline in religious vocations and the closing of many schools and hospitals. While the Catholic population declined in many parts of the country, it grew in Arkansas. In 1980 there were only 59,911 Catholics in the state, but by the year 2000 there were 93,480. In 1990 Catholics made up only 2.5% of the total population; ten years later Catholics made up more than 3% of the total population, 3.4%. Much of the growth in the number of Catholics stemmed from immigration from southeast Asia and, even more significantly, from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. In addition, there was an influx of Catholics into the booming areas of northwestern and central Arkansas from elsewhere in the United States, as well a modest increase in individual conversions. The Church in Arkansas, despite a leveling off in the number of priests and religious, struggled earnestly to minister to the new immigrant population, building new facilities and expanding existing facilities across the state.

Bibliography: Diocesan Historical Commission, The History of Catholicity in Arkansas (Little Rock, AR 1925). f. s. guy, "The Catholic Church in Arkansas, 15411843." M.A. thesis (Catholic University of America, 1932). j. m. woods, "To the Suburb of Hell: Catholic Missionaries in Arkansas, 18031843." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 48 (autumn 1989) 217242. j. m. woods, Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas Little Rock, (Little Rock, AR 1993).

[j. m. woods]

About this article

Arkansas, Catholic Church in

Updated About content Print Article


Arkansas, Catholic Church in