Loras, Jean Mathias Pierre

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Missionary and educator, first bishop of dubuque, Iowa; b. Lyons, France, Aug. 30, 1792; d. Dubuque, Feb. 19, 1858. He was the tenth of eleven children of Jean Matthias and Étiennette (Michalet) Loras. His father, one of the councilors of Lyons during the unsuccessful Girondist revolt against Jacobin Paris at the height of the French Revolution, was guillotined on Nov. 3, 1793. Although 16 other relatives also died during the Reign of Terror, the widow Loras continued to shelter fugitive priests and to reject the extremes of the French Revolution.

Early Career. In 1799 Jean Mathias, in the company of his brother-in-law, was received in audience by pius vi, in exile in Valence. With his brother Jacques, he enrolled (1803) in the presbytery school of Rev. Charles Balley at Ecully, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his schoolmate (St.) John B. vianney. As a student at St. Irenaeus Seminary, Lyons, he was associated with two future archbishops of Baltimore, Md., Ambrose Maréchal, professor of dogmatic theology, and James Whitfield, an Englishman and fellow student. Although ordained for the Archdiocese of Lyons on Nov. 12, 1815, he continued on at the minor seminary at Meximieux, to which he had been sent as instructor the previous year, and became superior in 1817. In 1824 he was appointed superior of the larger minor seminary at L'Argentière, but he resigned three years later to work as a home missioner in the Lyons archdiocese. When Bishop Michael Portier of Mobile, Ala., returned to his native Lyons in 1828 in search of clergy and funds, Loras decided to volunteer for service in America. He sailed from Le Havre on Nov. 1, 1829, and for seven years worked in Alabama as pastor of the cathedral in Mobile, vicar-general of the diocese, and superior of the newly founded (1830) Spring Hill College.

Bishop of Dubuque. Loras, chosen first bishop of the newly created see at Dubuque, was consecrated on Dec. 10, 1837, by Portier in the cathedral at Mobile. The new bishop did not arrive in Dubuque until April 18, 1839, having spent the intervening months in Europe in search of clergy and funds. Almost immediately he began his long series of missionary voyages among whites and natives living in the isolated outposts of his vast diocese, and in the area east of the Mississippi River provisionally in his charge. During these years, his closest friends were Bishop Joseph rosati of St. Louis, Mo.; Joseph crÉtin, a former pupil of his at Meximieux, who served as vicargeneral of Dubuque and whom Loras nominated as first bishop of St. Paul, Minn.; and the missionary Samuel mazzuchelli, OP, who had come to Dubuque in 1835 and continued to work in the diocese after the arrival of Loras.

When government resettlement of Native Americans outside of Iowa ruined what had at first been a fruitful mission field, particularly among the Winnebagoes at Fort Atkinson, and French Canadian immigration virtually ceased, Loras conceived a plan to people Iowa with Irish and German Catholic settlers. As early as 1841 he sent Judge Charles Corkery and two other Dubuque laymen to establish contacts with Irish immigrants in the East. Although acute tension between the preponderantly French clergy and the Irish laity marked the years from 1843 to 1845, Loras finally succeeded in recruiting Irish missionaries, and the crisis passed. To further assuage the Irish grievance, Loras in 1853 initiated plans to have Clement Smyth, the prior of the Irish Trappists whom he had induced to settle at New Melleray near Dubuque in 1849, chosen as his successor. Smyth was consecrated coadjutor with right of succession on May 3, 1857.

With generous grants from mission societies in Lyons, Vienna, and Munich, Loras was able to build numerous mission churches and, with unusual foresight, to buy parcels of land for future parishes. As early as 1839, despite a chronic shortage of priests, he had organized a diocesan college with a view to training a native clergy and shortly afterward, a cathedral boys' school, which was matched in 1843 with a cathedral girls' school, staffed by the newly arrived Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During 1850 and 1851 he directed the building of Mt. St. Bernard Seminary south of Dubuque.

Although he retained great affection for his native Lyons, to which he paid a final visit during a trip to Europe in 1848 and 1850, Loras nevertheless stoutly rejected the offer of a French bishopric and developed through the years a genuine love and understanding for the United States. His gracious manners and accent were always those of a Frenchman, but his breadth of view and directness reflected the influence of the American frontier. He is buried in the crypt of the cathedral in which he had offered the first Mass on Christmas Day 1857, when his final illness was already upon him.

Bibliography: m. m. hoffmann, Church Founders of the Northwest: Loras and Cretin, and Other Captains of Christ (Milwaukee 1937); "The Roman Catholic Church in Iowa," Palimpsest 34 (Aug. 1953): 337400.

[w. e. wilkie]