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Messmer, Sebastian Gebhard


Archbishop, canonist; b. Goldach, Switzerland, Aug. 29, 1847; d. Goldach, Aug. 3, 1930. He attended the diocesan college of St. George near Saint-Gall, Switzerland, and the University of Innsbrück, Austria. Following his ordination on July 23, 1871, Bp. James R. Bayley invited him to teach theology and canon law at Seton Hall College, South Orange, N.J., where he remained for 18 years. He also did pastoral work and served as chaplain to St. Mary's orphanage, Newark, N.J. He was chosen to draft the decrees prior to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore and to act as one of the council secretaries. He also helped to prepare the report of its deliberations for publication in 1886 and received an honorary D.D. from the pope for his efforts. In preparation for the assignment in 1889 to teach canon law at The Catholic University of America, he went to Rome where he earned a D.C.L. from the Collegio Appollinare. His tenure at the Catholic University ended with his appointment in 1891 as bishop of Green Bay, Wis. He attributed responsibility for his removal to the faculty who knew that he had been opposed to the establishment of the University.

His ten-year stay in the Wisconsin diocese resulted in the building of a number of parochial schools, academies, asylums, and hospitals. He sided with the Germans in the controversies between the Irish and German Catholics. He attacked the Bennett Law (1893) requiring compulsory education in the English language and championed the placement of Marquette's statue in the national capitol (1897). He promoted rural settlement and a Catholic summer school for the West, and sponsored the american federation of catholic societies. He was a lifelong Republican, a foe of prohibition, women's suffrage, and socialism, holding that socialism was the basis of many labor unions. In 1903 he was transferred to Milwaukee as archbishop.

In his long administration of the Milwaukee Archdiocese (190330), there was a rapid expansion of parish schools, hospitals, sanitariums, and institutions for dependents. He gave generous support to Marquette University and Mt. Mary College, Milwaukee, Wis. As a result of his initiative, a chaplain was provided for the Catholic students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1906) and a superintendent of schools for the archdiocese was appointed. His articles appeared in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, American Ecclesiastical Review, American Catholic Historical Review, Pastoral Blatt, and Salesianum. Among his works are Praxis Synodalis (1883); he also edited: Canonical Procedure in Criminal Cases of Clerics (1886), from the German by Franz Droste; Spirago's Method of Christian Doctrine (1901);W. Devivier's Christian Apologetics (1903); and the Works of the Rt. Rev. John England, 7 v. (1908). Messmer's Outlines of Bible Knowledge (1910 and 1927) was based on A. Bruell's Bibelkunde. His honorary degrees included a D.D. from the University of Breslau in 1923 and L.L.D. from Marquette University in 1925. He was a curator of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for many years.

Bibliography: b. j. blied, Three Archbishops of Milwaukee (Milwaukee 1955).

[p. l. johnson]

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