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Mobile, Archdiocese of


Erected as diocese of Mobile (Mobiliensis ) on May 15, 1829, it was designated the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham on July 9, 1954. On Nov. 16, 1980, the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese and the Metropolitan See of the Province of Mobile, comprising the states of Alabama and Florida. Formerly suffragan of New Orleans, the archdiocese comprises the lower 28 counties in Alabama and has an area of 22,969 square miles. In 2001 Catholics number some 5 percent of the total population of 1.6 million.

Catholic Origins. The arrival of Catholicism in the region traces its origins to early Spanish and French explorations and permanent settlements at Pensacola, Fla., in 1696, and Mobile, Ala., in 1702, where a parish was erected on July 20, 1703, with Henry Rolleaux de la Vente as first pastor. The parish registers, virtually intact from 1704, faithfully mirror the unsettled conditions of those early days. Secular and religious priests in turn acted as pastors as the territory passed from French through British into Spanish hands. Ecclesiastical responsibility shifted from Quebec, Canada, to Santiago de Cuba and, in 1793, to a mainland diocese with the see at New Orleans. After the Gulf Coast area became part of the U.S., the states of Alabama and Florida were erected into a vicariate apostolic in August 1825, and Michael portier was chosen to head the new jurisdiction.

Diocesan Growth. Portier developed and ordered religious life in the area, which was raised to a diocese in May 1829, and in 1850 reduced in size. He was notably successful in founding institutions of education and welfare, and by the time of his death in 1859 there were, exclusive of the staff of Spring Hill College, ten priests serving nine parishes and nine mission stations. Catholic population had grown from about 6,000 to an estimated 10,000, most of it centered in the southern part of the diocese.

John Quinlan (182683) was consecrated as the second bishop of Mobile in New Orleans on Dec. 4, 1859. A native of County Cork, Ireland, Quinlan immigrated to the U.S. in 1844, was ordained for the Diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1852, and two years later became rector of the diocesan seminary. His early years in the South were spent amid the confusion of the Civil War, and the remainder of his life was devoted to improving the status of the Church through the difficult years that followed. Quinlan secured a supply of clergy from Ireland, repaired the war losses, continued construction on the cathedral, and increased the number of parishes and mission stations to 36. Resident pastors were placed in the northern part of the diocese for the first time, due largely to the introduction in 1876 of Benedictines from St. Vincent Abbey (now Archabbey), Latrobe, Pa. This group formed the nucleus from which St. Bernard Abbey and College later developed. By the time of Quinlan's death his clergy had increased to 45, about evenly divided between secular and religious, to care for a Catholic population of about 18,000. The diocese was, at the same time, burdened by crushing financial obligations.

The third bishop, Dominic Manucy (182385), was born in St. Augustine, Fla., and had been ordained by Portier in 1850. He was consecrated by Quinlan in 1874 for the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville, Tex., but was transferred to Mobile in March 1884, while yet retaining the administration of his former jurisdiction. Ill health, combined with the difficult situation in Mobile, led Manucy to resign before the year's end.

Jeremiah O'Sullivan (184496), a native of Ireland and priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Md., was consecrated fourth bishop of Mobile, Sept. 20, 1885. Although he was successful in extricating the diocese from its financial difficulties, his years were necessarily characterized more by retrenchment and consolidation than by new gains. Towers were added to the cathedral and conditions prepared for later growth throughout the area, but the estimated Catholic population suffered a slight decline.

Edward Patrick allen, who followed Bishop O'Sullivan, was consecrated in Baltimore on May 16, 1897. Prior to that he had been president of Mt. St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Md. During Allen's 30-year rule, the Catholic population grew to 48,000, while churches and clergy increased threefold. New efforts were made in rural districts, and the Josephite fathers ministered to a large African American population. Much was accomplished in the fields of education and welfare in Mobile through the benefactions of the McGill family of that city.

Growth continued during the administration of Thomas Joseph toolen, consecrated the sixth bishop of Mobile in Baltimore, May 4, 1927. During his episcopate 69 parishes were established and 154 churches built to keep pace with notable gains in urban as well as rural Catholic populations. Of the 77 counties within his jurisdiction, those without churches were reduced from 49 to 19. Outside of the Mobile district, the diocese was divided into three deaneries: North Alabama, centered at Birmingham where, since 1954, St. Paul's Church had been the cocathedral; Central Alabama, the area around Montgomery; and Northwest Florida, dominated by Pensacola. The number of priests had increased threefold to provide for a like growth in Catholic population.

Social welfare services were efficiently organized under a Bureau of Catholic Charities, and a diocesan school system was annually responsible for the education of more than 25,000 students. Adequate Catholic hospital facilities exist in the major cities, and, since 1934, the diocese had an independent newspaper, The Catholic Week. Toolen's success in coping with such growth, and special attention given to the needs of Black Catholics in the area merited for him the title of archbishop ad personam (1954). In 1968 the Pensacola Deanery was added to the Diocese of St. Augustine. Archbishop Toolen resigned on Oct. 8, 1969, at which time the see was divided into the Diocese of Mobile and the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. Toolen died on Dec. 4, 1976.

John C. May (b. 1922), an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, was installed as the seventh Bishop of Mobile on Dec.10, 1969. He effectively fostered liturgical and standard changes provided for by Vatican Council II and gave renewed emphasis to the Church's social apostolate (housing and health care). The new parishes were established mostly in rural areas and a number of missions. Significant advances were made in social integration in diocesan organizations with notable success in the parish at Selma, Ala. Despite a number of school closings and consolidation, two new elementary units were established. A diocesan pastoral council was formed in 1974 and lay leadership emerged in parish and diocesan structure. A program for the retirement of lay employees was put into place. Ecumenical initiatives bore fruit in collaboration for direct help to the needy and a Jewish-Christian Dialogue began in Mobile, the longest ongoing such exercise nationwide. In 1979 Bishop May ordained the first class of permanent deacons for the diocese. He was appointed as Archbishop of St. Louis on Jan. 29, 1980.

On Nov. 16, 1980, Oscar H. Lipscomb, a native of Mobile (b. 1931, ord. 1956) was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Mobile. The new province, erected that same day, consists of the states of Alabama and Mississippi, with Jackson, Biloxi and Birmingham as suffragan sees. Reported Catholic population has grown but slightly. Notable decreases occurred in rural areas, but there is currently a Southeast Asian and significant Hispanic presence. An office for Hispanic Ministry addresses the latter, while only one new parish has been established, older parishes have built permanent or new churches, the result of increased substantial Catholic populations. The number of diocesan priests has remained stable with more than average success in the program for priestly formation. Currently, the fourth class of permanent deacons is preparing for ordination. Catholic high and elementary schools enroll 6,498 students, and other programs for youth religious education count 4,376. Jesuit Spring Hill College, the oldest in Alabama, has a student body of 1,005. The social apostolate has grown with new centers in Montgomery, Dothan, and Robertsdale, and Pro-Life offices serve in the Mobile, Montgomery, and Dothan areas.

Bibliography: m. t. a. carroll, A Catholic History of Alabama and the Floridas (New York 1908). m. kenny, Catholic Culture in Alabama: Centenary Story of Spring Hill College (New York 1931).

[o. h. lipscomb]

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