Jackson, Diocese of

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The diocese of Jackson (Dioecesis Jacksoniensis ), Mississippi was established July 28, 1837 as the Diocese of Natchez. In 1957, the name was changed to Natchez-Jackson, and finally in 1977 to Jackson. It is a suffragan see of the metropolitan see of New Orleana. From the time it was first erected in 1837 until 1977 when the Diocese of Biloxi was established, the territory of Natchez-Jackson was coextensive with the state of Mississippi, an area of 46,340 square miles.

The first bishop, John Joseph Chanche, arrived in Natchez May 18, 1841, and found only two priests and no churches within his vast jurisdiction. Natchez, Vicksburg, and some places along the Gulf Coast had small groups of Catholics, with a few more scattered throughout the state, but numbers of them had not seen a priest for many years. Chanche, traveling throughout his diocese by stagecoach, river steamer, and any other means available at that time, worked vigorously for 11 years. By the time of his death, July 22, 1852, the basic structure of the fine Gothic cathedral had been completed in Natchez, and churches had been erected in nine other places; there were ten priests, a girls' orphanage, and plans for several other churches. His successor, James O. Van de Velde, SJ, arrived Nov. 23, 1853, but about two years later an accident led to his death on Nov. 13, 1855.

The third bishop, William H. elder, arrived on May 30, 1857, to direct the see, which, despite the paucity in numbers and the poverty of the Catholics, made heartening progress in the years following the Civil War. When in 1880 Elder was transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio, as coadjutor archbishop, the diocese had 19 priests, 48 churches, 15 parochial schools, and a Catholic population of 12,500. During the episcopate of Francis Janssens, who was consecrated for Natchez May 1, 1881, St. Mary's Cathedral, Natchez, was completed and solemnly consecrated on Sept. 19, 1886; missionary work among the African Americans and Native Americans in the state was advanced; and the number of Catholics had increased to 15,000, with 30 priests, 60 churches, and 26 parochial schools to care for their needs. When Janssens was transferred to New Orleans in 1888, Thomas Heslin was consecrated fifth bishop on June 18, 1889, and served until his death Feb. 22, 1911. His administration was characterized by slow but healthy growth. The sixth bishop was John E. Gunn, SM (l91124), an eloquent speaker and effective administrator, who directed the establishment of nine new parishes and many mission chapels throughout the state.

On Oct. 15, 1924, Richard Oliver Gerow was consecrated seventh bishop of Natchez. A steady growth has marked his administration, during which the number of parishes has doubled and the number of priests more than doubled, while three Catholic hospitals, a monastery of cloistered Carmelite nuns, a lay retreat house, and a seminary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have been established, and other religious works inaugurated. In 1948 new chancery offices at Jackson, including administrative offices and bishop's residence, were completed and on July 22 of that year the bishop transferred his residence from Natchez to Jackson. The name of the diocese was changed to Natchez-Jackson on March 7, 1957 and St. Peter's Church in Jackson was named as cocathedral. By the time of Bishop Gerow's retirement in 1964, the diocese numbered 88 parishes, 190 priests, 52 brothers, and more than 400 sisters. There were 48 elementary schools, 26 high schools, three hospitals, two schools for nurses, and two orphanages under Catholic auspices.

Gerow was succeeded by his auxiliary bishop, Joseph B. Brunini, in 1966. A native of Vicksburg, Brunini was educated at the North American College in Rome and also received a doctorate in canon law from the Catholic University of America. In many respects he was both a visionary and activist. It was during his time and at his urging that the division of the diocese into the diocese of Jackson and the diocese of Biloxi took place in 1977. Brunini led the Mississippi Catholic Church through a number of rather difficult crises, including the integration of the Catholic school system, the implementation of Vatican II changes, and the creation of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference. He also led the diocese into unchartered waters when he delved into the political-social programs of the 1960s and 1970s. Under his direction, the Mississippi Catholic Church participated in federal programs designed to help the elderly and lower income groups. Finally, he encouraged the Church to reach out to their fellow Christians in Mississippi through specifically Catholic endeavors such as Catholic hospitals, Catholic charities, and Catholic education.

Brunini was succeeded by his Auxiliary Bishop, William R. Houck. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Houck had advanced through the educational system before coming to Mississippi in 1979. In 1984, he assumed the administration of the diocese of Jackson and began to focus on evangelization, planning, the empowering of the laity, and the ever-growing role of women in the Catholic Church. In 2001, Houck submitted his letter of retirement to Rome, and subsequently he was appointed as the new director of the American Catholic Church Extension Society.

Over the years the diocese of Jackson, blessed with far-sighted leaders, experienced consistent growth and adjusted well to its Protestant environment, and by the end of the 20th century Catholicism is generally well regarded in Mississippi. The diocese has 74 parishes, 29 missions, nearly 100 religious and diocesan priests, 12 brothers, 240 sisters, and 47,873 Catholics out of a total state population of nearly two million people.

Bibliography: r. o. gerow, Catholicity in Mississippi (Natchez 1939). m. v. namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911-1984 (Westport, CT, 1998).

[r. o. gerow/

m. v. namorato]

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Jackson, Diocese of

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