Little Rock, Diocese of
LITTLE ROCK, DIOCESE OF
The Diocese of Little Rock (Dioecesis Petriculana ), upon the recommendation of the Fifth Provincial Council of Baltimore, was erected by Pope Gregory XVI on Nov. 28, 1843. It is coextensive with the boundaries of the state of arkansas, and until 1891 when a vicariate apostolic was established in Oklahoma, it included the Indian Territory. In its early years it was a suffragan see of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, but in 1972 it was transferred to the newly created province of Oklahoma City. In its more than 150 years of existence, Little Rock has only had six bishops, with the sixth assuming his position in 2000.
Bishop Byrne Era, 1844–1866. Arkansas's first bishop, Andrew byrne, like his successor, was born in Ireland, but the exact date is unknown. Given that he was baptized Andrew, it is likely that he was born on or near Nov. 30, 1802, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. While still a seminarian, he was brought by Bishop John England to Charleston and the famed South Carolina prelate ordained him to the priesthood on Nov. 11, 1827. Nine years later he left to became a diocesan priest for the New York Diocese, where he founded St. Andrew's Church in Manhattan. Byrne's abilities as a pastor, his connection with Bishop John Hughes of New York, and his previous experience in the South made him the natural choice to be a prelate on the southwestern frontier. Consecrated on March 11, 1844, in old St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Byrne arrived in Arkansas with just two priests. Byrne raised the money necessary to build Arkansas's first Catholic Cathedral at Second and Center Streets in Little Rock and dedicated it on Nov. 1, 1846.
Throughout his 18 years as bishop, Byrne never had more than ten priests to work with him and his diocese, which was sustained basically by the Leopoldine Society in Vienna and the Paris-based Society for the Propagation of the Faith. With funds from these societies, he purchased land near Fort Smith and there placed Arkansas's first Catholic college, St. Andrew's. Byrne judiciously avoided religious disputes with fellow Arkansans, and this was not easy during the Know-Nothing uproar in the 1850s. Byrne owned no slaves and never expressed any views on the peculiar institution, probably accepting it as part of the economic landscape of the American South. Byrne sought to augment his minuscule Catholic flock by attracting immigrants from famine ravaged Ireland. The Religious Sisters of Mercy, a newly formed Irish-based community, answered his call. In February 1851 the first groups of sisters arrived and that fall founded St. Mary's Academy in Little Rock. This Mercy academy became Arkansas's oldest educational institution, celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2001. The Mercy sisters also founded St. Anne's Academy in Fort Smith (1853), and St. Catherine's Academy in Helena (1858).
At first, the Diocese of Little Rock was attached to the archdiocesan province of Baltimore. In 1850 the diocese became part of the newly created province of New Orleans, together with dioceses that then covered the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, and, after 1853, northern Louisiana. Byrne attended provincial councils in New Orleans early in 1856 and 1860.
The American Civil War brought about the close of Arkansas's first Catholic college in 1861 and Byrne died the next year on June 10, 1862, in Helena. At first buried in the courtyard of St. Catherine's Mercy convent, his remains were removed and placed under a newly constructed St. Andrew's Cathedral in 1881. Due to the exigencies of the Civil War, communications between Rome and the embattled Confederacy were difficult. Arkansas would not see another bishop for almost five years, one of the longest times in American history for a diocese to be without a bishop. Until Rome named a new bishop, it would be the responsibility of New Orleans Archbishop Jean Odin to name an apostolic administrator. Yet Odin was in Europe at that time and was not expected to return until the spring of 1863. It was then up to the senior bishop in the province and that was Bishop Auguste Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Martin appointed Fr. Patrick Reilly, vicar general for the diocese, as the administrator for the Arkansas diocese.
Born on March 10, 1817, in County Meath, Ireland, Reilly was a seminarian in Ireland when he heard Bishop Byrne plead for missionaries for Arkansas. Reilly arrived in 1851 with two other seminarians and the Mercy sisters; the Arkansas bishop ordained him on St. Patrick's Day,1851. Reilly began serving as vicar general in 1855 and as rector of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in 1858. He tried earnestly to keep the diocese going and its institutions open during the Civil War. All three Mercy academies in Little Rock, Fort Smith, and Helena remained opened throughout the war. Mercy sisters ministered to both Union and Confederate troops in the fall of 1863 when the battle raged around Arkansas's capital. Between 1863 and 1866, there would be only four priests working in the state. News arrived in the summer of 1866 via a Catholic newspaper in Cincinnati that Fr. Edward M. Fitzgerald of St. Patrick's Church in Columbus, Ohio, would become Arkansas's second Catholic prelate. Reilly remained vicar general under the new bishop until poor health moved him to return to Ireland in 1881. He died in his native village on April 29, 1882.
Bishop Fitzgerald Era, 1866–1906. Edward M. fitzgerald was born in Limerick of an Irish father and a German mother sometime in October 1833. He arrived in America with his family in 1849 and the following year entered St. Mary of the Barrens Seminary in Perryville, Missouri. Two years later he transferred to St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati ordained him to the priesthood on Aug. 22, 1857. His only assignment as a priest was at a parish in Columbus, Ohio. On June 22, 1866, he received a letter from the Vatican naming him the second bishop of Little Rock. The 32-year-old priest initially rejected the appointment in a written response two months later. That December he received from Pope Pius IX a mandamus, an order to accept the position under holy obedience. Fitzgerald had by that time already changed his mind after attending the Second Plenary Council of the American Catholic bishops at Baltimore with Archbishop Purcell in October 1866. Consecrated bishop on Feb. 3, 1867, in Columbus, Ohio, Fitzgerald made it to Little Rock by St. Patrick's Day. Barely 33, he was the youngest prelate in the Catholic hierarchy of the United States, if not the world.
In late 1869 Fitzgerald was called to the First Vatican Council and needed financial assistance from Rome to attend. The Little Rock prelate earned a footnote in Catholic history by being one of only two bishops in the whole world—and the only English-speaking bishop—to vote against the declaration of papal infallibility made at this council. He was the first negative vote after 491 affirmations. Immediately after the vote he went to the front and submitted to the council's decision. In a public address a decade later, Fitzgerald explained that while he always believed in the doctrine, he did not think it expedient to declare it as it might hinder Catholic evangelization in the United States. His vote did not damage his career in the church. Pope Leo XIII, successor to Pius IX, offered him the archdioceses of Cincinnati and New Orleans, along with three or four other dioceses. Fitzgerald, however, stubbornly spurned all efforts to promote him or transfer him out of Little Rock.
Fitzgerald's career as bishop was an active one that spanned more than three decades. When he came in 1867 he had only six priests; by 1900 that number was 21 diocesan priests and 22 religious order priests belonging to the Order of St. Benedict or the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. New women's religious orders also arrived; what would become the Fort Smith Benedictines came in 1878, and the women who would become the Olivetan Benedictines arrived late in 1887. By the end of the 19th century, he had four women's religious orders, with 150 religious sisters, serving in the state. He had only two seminarians in 1867; by 1900 he had 25 studying at Subiaco Benedictine Monastery in Logan County, Arkansas. Arkansas's first Catholic hospital, St. Vincent's, opened in Little Rock in 1888, staffed then by the Sisters of Charity from Nazareth, Kentucky; it is still the state's oldest medical facility. The Mercy sisters opened St. Joseph's in Hot Springs in 1888, and the Olivetan Benedictines in Jonesboro opened St. Bernard's in 1900. Five years later, the Mercy sisters would open another hospital, St. Edward's, in Fort Smith. Fitzgerald constructed Arkansas's present St. Andrew's Cathedral at Seventh and Louisiana and dedicated it on Nov. 27, 1881.
Fitzgerald was instrumental in attracting some Catholic migration to the state and attempting to convert African Americans to Catholicism. Fitzgerald opened Arkansas's first black Catholic parish, in Pine Bluff in 1895, and had six black Catholic schools opened by that date, but only two were still operating a decade later. All his efforts yielded few results as the Arkansas Catholic population still stood at just one percent, virtually unchanged since 1860. On Jan. 17, 1900, Fitzgerald's active career came to an end; he suffered a stroke that kept him confined to St. Joseph's Hospital for the rest of his life. He celebrated his fortieth anniversary as bishop from his hospital bed in Hot Springs, just 18 days before he died on Feb. 21, 1907. His remains were placed under the cathedral he had built a quarter century earlier.
During Fitzgerald's confinement, the affairs of the diocese were conducted by Vicar General Fr. Fintan Kraemer, O.S.B. Kraemer was not an apostolic administrator because Fitzgerald was still alive and there was hope that he might recover. When that was no longer deemed likely, bishops of the New Orleans province recommended that the Vatican name his successor. On May 14, 1906, John B. Morris, then the vicar general for the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, received word that he was to become coadjutor bishop for Little Rock with right of succession upon Fitzgerald's death.
Bishop Morris Era, 1906–1946. Born near Hendersonville, Tennessee, on June 29, 1866, John Morris's parents were Irish immigrants; his father was a veteran of the Union army. They sent their eldest son to St. Mary College in Lebanon, Kentucky, where he earned a degree in 1887 and a year later entered the seminary to study for the Nashville diocese. Bishop Joseph Rademacher sent him to Rome where he was ordained to the priesthood on June 11, 1892. He returned to Tennessee in 1894. Bishop Thomas S. Byrne named him his personal secretary in 1895 and then rector of the cathedral in Nashville. In 1900 Morris was given the rank of monsignor and made vicar general for the Nashville diocese. Consecrated Arkansas's third bishop in Nashville on June 11, 1906, he was the first native-born Tennessean to be a member of the Catholic hierarchy.
Morris served as coadjutor bishop, running the diocese as soon as he came in the summer of 1906. When Fitzgerald died the following February, Morris automatically became his successor. Morris inherited a great deal of money from Fitzgerald and he used it to build up many Catholic institutions in the state. He started Little Rock College in 1908 in downtown Little Rock; it moved eight years later to Pulaski Heights, seven miles away. This attempt at Arkansas's second Catholic college would last only 22 years, as the outset of the Great Depression closed it. St. Joseph's Orphanage near North Little Rock opened in the fall of 1909 and it lasted for more than 60 years. Morris launched St. John's Home Mission Seminary in 1911 to train seminarians for both his diocese and others. When Little Rock College closed in 1930, Morris moved the seminary to the campus in Pulaski Heights. During the depression Morris opened St. Raphael's, a black Catholic orphanage near Pine Bluff, in 1932, but the institution was forced to close five years later. Blacks were reluctant to send their children to an organization run by whites and operated by a church to which they did not belong. St. Raphael's operated as a trade school until 1961. One heritage from Morris that has survived is the weekly diocesan newspapers that began publishing in 1911 and continued to operate at the start of the 21st century.
Institutionally, the Diocese of Little Rock grew during the four decades Morris was its bishop. In 1906 there were 60 priests and 200 sisters; four decades later there were 154 priests and 582 sisters. Where in 1906 there 29 schools with 2,702 students, by 1946 there were 80 schools with 7,750 students. And these schools were not only white schools. Morris had found only two black Catholic schools operating in 1906; by 1946 there were nine black Catholic parishes and seven of them had schools. From 1905 to 1945, the number of Catholic hospitals operating in the diocese increased from four to nine, with a bed capacity of a thousand. The number of Catholics in Arkansas did increase somewhat, going from just 1 percent in 1900 to 1.7 percent by 1940.
Known as a gifted orator, Bishop Morris was often asked to make speeches inside and outside of the diocese. In October 1932 he spoke at the dedication of the new building at Xavier University in New Orleans, the only predominately black Catholic college in the United States. In 1937 he gave one of the main addresses on the pope at the 1937 Eucharistic Congress in New Orleans. After an invitation from the American Legion in Arkansas, Morris gave a sharply worded attack on Nazi anti-Semitism after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Although his remarks were hardly noticed outside of Arkansas, no other American Catholic prelate made such a verbal broadside against Nazism at that time.
Morris's declining health forced him to ask for an auxiliary bishop. The Vatican agreed and they named the Little Rock bishop's candidate, Vicar General Albert Lewis Fletcher. Fletcher was born in Little Rock on Oct. 28, 1896. His father was a member of one of Arkansas's most prominent families and his mother was of German background. Both his parents were converts and Albert was their oldest child. His father was a physician who moved his family from Little Rock to Paris (Ark.) in Logan County and Tontitown in Washington County. Albert Fletcher was graduated in 1917 from Little Rock College with a degree in chemistry. He immediately entered St. John's Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 1920. He then attended the University of Chicago, which awarded him a master's degree in chemistry in 1922. He taught chemistry at Little Rock College and eventually served as its president for two years. In 1926 he became chancellor for the diocese and seven years later Morris appointed him vicar general. He was notified of his appointment on Dec. 11, 1939, and, on April 25, 1940, at a ceremony at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Little Rock, he became auxiliary bishop. He was the first native-born Arkansan to be raised to the American Catholic hierarchy.
Morris continued to head the diocese over the next six years, yet day-to-day operations were performed by his auxiliary bishop. The aging prelate lived to witness the centennial of the diocese on Nov. 28, 1943, and he celebrated his fortieth anniversary as bishop in June 1946. He died a few months later on Oct. 22, 1946, and his remains were placed under the cathedral. As auxiliary bishop, Fletcher did not have the right of succession. On Dec. 11, 1946, he was notified by telephone that he was to be the fourth bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock. He was formally consecrated on Feb. 11, 1947, at St. Andrew's Cathedral.
Bishop Fletcher Era, 1947–1972. Both his predecessors, Fitzgerald and Morris, had been builders who had each served as bishop for 40 years. Fletcher, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken gentleman, came to serve as Arkansas's Catholic prelate in a tumultuous quarter century of racial and religious change.
Fletcher's first decade rather quiet, the seminary was expanded, a Catholic bookstore opened, and the number of Catholics in Arkansas topped two percent in 1860 for the first time in history.
A major storm erupted over the integration of Little Rock public schools in the fall of 1957. Though often cautious and slow, Fletcher believed in gradual peaceful integration. He published a catechism deploring racial segregation and discrimination as violations of justice and charity. He oversaw the integration of Catholic schools and hospitals, but one unintended consequence was the closing of several black Catholic parishes and schools between 1962 and 1972.
Fletcher attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, which met during the autumns of 1962–65. While he never addressed the council, he wrote 13 interventions or amendments, and nine were accepted by the council. After the council, Bishop Fletcher and a priest professor at St. John's seminary got into a dispute concerning a series of articles the priest published in the local newspaper. The priest asserted incorrectly in the spring of 1967 that the papacy would change its views of birth control, which would lead to the "demythologizing" of the papal office. Bishop Fletcher suspended him and the priest appealed to Rome, which decided in favor of the bishop the following year. That summer of 1967, Bishop Fletcher closed St. John's because of the difficulty in getting new qualified faculty to teach. The old seminary grounds became home to the chancery, diocesan offices, and the Catholic newspaper.
Like Morris, Bishop Fletcher asked for an auxiliary bishop and the Vatican agreed to name Fletcher's close associate, Lawrence P. Graves to the position. Graves was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, on May 16, 1916. He entered St. John's Seminary in 1936 and was sent to Rome for his theological education in 1938. He returned from Rome in 1940 and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Morris in June 1942. Graves eventually went to Catholic University of America to earn a master's degree in 1947 in canon law. He returned to begin teaching in the seminary until 1961 when Bishop Fletcher choose him to travel with him to the Second Vatican Council; Graves was also serving then as chancellor. On April 25, 1969, at St. Andrew's Cathedral, he became the second native Arkansan to become a Catholic bishop. New rules mandated that a bishop retire at the age of 75. Bishop Fletcher submitted his resignation to Rome in January 1972, perhaps hoping that the Vatican would name his auxiliary bishop his successor. History did not repeat itself as Rome named a priest from Savannah, Georgia as Arkansas's fifth bishop. After his retirement, Fletcher lived in his home in Little Rock until declining health forced him to be moved to the rectory next to St. Andrew's Cathedral. He collapsed at a local diner on Dec. 6, 1979, and was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was buried with his predecessors under the cathedral. Auxiliary Bishop Graves was later named bishop of Alexandria-Shreveport in 1973, but he had to retire after nine years due to ill health. He died in Alexandria, Louisiana, in January 1994.
Bishop McDonald Era, 1972–2000. Andrew J. McDonald was the 11th of 12 children and was born on Oct. 24, 1923, in Savannah, Georgia; he attended major and minor seminaries in Baltimore. On May 8, 1948, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Savannah. He earned a degree in canon law at the Catholic University of America in 1949 and then was sent to Rome for two additional years of theology. Returning to Savannah in 1951, McDonald served as chancellor and pastor at one of the largest parishes in Savannah. Notified of his appointment as bishop of Little Rock on June 11, 1972, he was consecrated bishop at Savannah's St. John the Baptist Cathedral on September 5 of that year.
In time McDonald became noted for his concern for the poor, the unborn, and immigrants, and as one who made a strong effort to better relations with non-Catholic religious groups. In 1982 the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock became a member of the Arkansas Interfaith Conference of Churches and Synagogues. During McDonald's era a lay couple, Fred and Tammy Woell, launched the Little Rock Scripture Study Program in the summer of 1974. Aided by diocesan priests and Benedictine Jerome Kodell, a scripture scholar, they prepared materials for individual and group study. In 1977 Bishop McDonald gave his official approval for the program and it offices moved into the old seminary, the headquarters for the various diocesan agencies. By 1986 the program entered a partnership with the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota, which distributes the program across the United States and throughout the Englishspeaking world. On Nov. 28, 1993, the diocese began a year-long celebration of its sesquicentennial anniversary. Along with the celebration, the diocese published the first history of Catholic Church in Arkansas. On Nov. 1, 1996, Bishop McDonald commemorated the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the first cathedral and the 296th anniversary of the first Mass ever said in the state of Arkansas.
Although Bishop McDonald reached the age of 75 in October 1998, the mandatory retirement age, he continued in office until January 2000, when it was announced that his successor would be the Reverend J (ames) Peter Sartain, a pastor in the Diocese of Memphis. Born June 6, 1952, in Memphis, he began his seminary training in 1971 at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. He studied theology in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood in October 1978. Up to the time he was named the sixth bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock, Sartain had served in various capacities in Memphis— pastor, chancellor, and vicar general. It would be up to this native of Memphis, Tennessee, to lead the Diocese of Little Rock into the second millennium.
Bibliography: diocesan historical commission, The History of Catholicity in Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark. 1925). j. m. woods, Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark. 1993).
[j. m. woods]