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Oklahoma, Catholic Church in

OKLAHOMA, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN

Located in the southwestern United States, Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907 as the 46th state. It is bounded on the north by Kansas and Colorado, on the east by Missouri and Arkansas, on the south by the Red River and Texas, and on the west by New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

History. The area, traversed by Coronado in the 16th century and explored by the Spanish and French in the 17th and 18th centuries, became the property of the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Federal policy very early designated it as a permanent home for the resettlement of various Native American tribes, and the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States were moved there (183045). Virtually the whole area was originally apportioned to these groups, but their tribal districts were later reduced, in part because of their support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Many other tribes were then relocated within what became known as Indian Territory. One unassigned portion near the center, which became known as the Oklahoma Territory, was opened to white settlement by the famous run of April 22, 1889. Meanwhile the U.S. government directed the native peoples to give up tribal title to their reservation lands and to take allotments as individuals. The resulting "surplus" lands were opened to whites between 1891 and 1906. This made it possible for the Twin Territories to be granted statehood on Nov. 16, 1907.

In Oklahoma, a traditional stronghold of white Protestant culture, residents of foreign birth were few before 20th century. The Southern Baptists constitute the most numerous church group; the Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ have sizable memberships. Numerous evangelical sects are very active, but the Jewish and Muslim populations are minimal. In the 2001 state population of 3,724,000, Catholics numbered 160,898, or about four percent of the total population of the state.

Missionary Activity. Although friars and priests had accompanied the Coronado and De Soto expeditions when they passed through the region in 1541 and 1542, no Catholic missionary activity was seen again until 1830, when the Jesuit Charles Van Quickenborne offered Mass at three sites in the northeast portion of the present state. Nominally under the bishop of St. Louis, Missouri, from 1826 to 1843, this vast country was visited occasionally by Jesuits from the Osage Mission in St. Paul, Kansas, who ministered to the army camps and native tribes. When the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, was erected in 1843, Oklahoma was included within its original boundaries. Priests from Fort Smith, Arkansas, made regular missionary tours through the western extension of the diocese.

Of the many tribes in the Oklahoma territory during the 19th century, only two were predominantly Catholic, the Osage and Potowatomi. The first Catholic church in Indian Territory was built in 1872 at Atoka, Choctaw Nation, by Rev. Michael Smyth of Ft. Smith, but he attended it irregularly. Permanent missionary activity began in 1875 with the arrival of French Benedictines from the Abbey of Pierre-que-Vire. Dom Isidore robot, briefly taking up residence in Atoka, was appointed the first prefect apostolic of the Indian Territory in 1876. (This was the only prefecture apostolic ever established in a region that was then part of the United States.) Among the Potowatomi, Robot founded Sacred Heart Mission, termed "the cradle of Catholicity in Oklahoma," and built boarding schools for boys and girls, the latter in the care of Sisters of Mercy from Lacon, Illinois. He was named an abbot honoris causa by Pope Leo XIII in 1879.

The Benedictine prefecture under Robot and his successor, Ignatius Jean, continued until 1891, when the first bishop, Theophile Meerschaert, a Belgian-born priest working in Mississippi, took over the administration of the Twin Territories. Although Meerschaert's title at first was Vicar Apostolic of the Indian Territory (18911905), in fact the Church was too late on the scene to do much effective evangelization of Native Americans, who were too disheartened and disorganized to respond to the white man's religion. Growth of the Church in Oklahoma would come with the arrival of Irish railroad workers, Italian and Polish coal miners, and German farmers.

The seat of the vicariate was located at Guthrie, the territorial capital following the land run of 1889, but in 1905 when the vicariate was elevated to diocesan rank and, styled the Diocese of Oklahoma, Bishop Meerschaert moved the see city to Oklahoma City, which was shortly to become the state capital. Counting his time as vicar apostolic, Bishop Meerschaert served in Oklahoma for almost 33 years (18911924). Under Meerschaert there was a rapid growth in the number of churches and missions, and a large increase in priests and sisters. An incident that occurred during his episcopate was to have lasting significance on the national scene. In 1917 the state legislature passed the so-called Bone-Dry Law, which forbade the import of alcoholic spirits into Oklahoma. (Manufacture of wine and liquor within the state boundaries was already forbidden by the Oklahoma constitution.) The diocese went to court, charging infringement of religion, and the state supreme court upheld the complaint in 1918. Ironically, this paved the way for national Prohibition, once the precedent for an exception on religious grounds was established in the Oklahoma case.

When Meerschaert died in 1924, he was succeeded by Francis Clement Kelley (19241948). Bishop Kelley, recognizing the growing importance of Tulsa to the life the state and the Church in Oklahoma, took steps to have the diocese redesignated as Diocese of Oklahoma and Tulsa in 1930. Kelley's successor was his close friend, Bishop Eugene J. McGuinness (19481957), who had served as coadjutor with right of succession since 1944. McGuinness in turn was succeeded by an Oklahoman, the pastor of the co-cathedral in Tulsa, Victor J. Reed (19581971). Shortly before his sudden death Bishop Reed had initiated discussions about dividing the diocese. Bishop John R. Quinn, his successor, carried the effort forward. In December 1972, Rome created a new ecclesiastical province. The metropolitan see was to be the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, with Quinn as the first archbishop (19721977). The suffragan sees were to be Diocese of Tulsa with Msgr. Bernard J. Ganter, chancellor of the Galveston-Houston diocese, as the first bishop (19721977), and the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, which was transferred from the Province of New Orleans.

See Also: oklahoma city, archdiocese of; tulsa, diocese of.

Bibliography: m. u. thomas, The Catholic Church on the Oklahoma Frontier, 18241907 (St. Louis 1938). t. e. brown, Bible-belt Catholicism: A History of the Roman Catholic Church in Oklahoma, 19051904, vol. 33. (New York 1977). j. d. white, Diary of a Frontier Bishop: The Journals of Theophile Meerschaert (Tulsa 1994). j. d.white, Getting Sense: The Osages and their Missionaries (Tulsa 1997); This Far by Faith: 125 Years of Catholic Life in Oklahoma, 18752000 (Strasbourg, France 2001). g. foreman, A History of Oklahoma (Norman, Okla. 1942). r. gittinger, The Formation of the State of Oklahoma, 18031906 (Norman, Okla. 1939). e. c. mcreynolds, A History of the Sooner State (Norman, Okla. 1954). Oklahoma Statutes, 1961, 3 v. (St. Paul 1961). Oklahoma Digest, 1890 to Date (St. Paul 1934 ).

[j. f. murphy/

w.c. garthoeffner/

j.d. white]

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