Oklahoma City, Archdiocese of
OKLAHOMA CITY, ARCHDIOCESE OF
By reason of a bull of Pope Paul VI (Dec. 13, 1972), the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa was divided and Oklahoma City (Oklahomapolitana ) was designated the metropolitan see (Feb. 6, 1973). The state of Oklahoma had been established as a vicariate apostolic in 1891 and as a diocese in 1905 with Oklahoma City as the diocesan seat. In 1930 the see was redesignated the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. At the time that the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was established (February 1971), Tulsa was made a diocese, and it together with the Diocese of Little Rock, AR, became suffragans of the new archdiocese. At the time when the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was first established there were about 65,000 Catholics in a total population of 1.5 million; in 2001 the population of the area increased to 2.2 million and the number of Catholics to 98,000.
When the Diocese of Little Rock, AR was erected (1843) it included the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Priests from Fort Smith, AR made regular missionary tours through the western extension of the diocese. In 1872, through the efforts of Father Michael Smyth, the first Catholic Church in Oklahoma was built at Atoka, then the terminus of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad. Three years later, Bp. Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock assigned the whole Indian Territory to the Benedictine Isidore robot, the first priest to take up permanent residence in Oklahoma. On July 9, 1876, Piux IX established the Territory as a prefecture apostolic and named Robot first prefect. When he resigned in 1886, he was succeeded by another Benedictine, Ignatius Jean (1886–1890).
Diocesan Development. After the opening of a large portion of the area to white settlers in 1889, the Holy See, on May 29, 1891, raised Oklahoma to the status of a vicariate apostolic and appointed Theophile Meerschaert, then vicar general of the Diocese of Natchez, MS, vicar apostolic with episcopal rank.
Forty-four years old at the time of his appointment, Meerschaert would serve in Oklahoma for 32 years. It was a period of rapid growth in the number of churches and missions and a large increase in the ranks of the clergy and religious. Originally his seat was at Guthrie, the territorial capital following the Land Run, but on Aug. 17, 1905, the Diocese of Oklahoma was erected and the bishop's headquarters was moved to the rapidly growing town of Oklahoma City—which would became the state capital in 1910, three years after Oklahoma achieved statehood.
Bishop Meerschaert died in 1924 and was succeeded by Monsignor Francis Clement Kelley, founder and president of the Catholic Church Extension Society. One of the most illustrious churchmen to work in Oklahoma, he was the author of 17 books on a wide variety of subjects. As bishop he managed the Church's transition from a predominately rural population to an urban one, opening parishes in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and suppressing several dozen marginal country parishes across the state. He recognized the growing importance of Tulsa to the Church's life. Early in his episcopate he considered moving the episcopal seat there, but in 1930 he settled for a redesignation: the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, naming the Church of the Holy Family (built in 1914) in Tulsa as the co-cathedral.
During the Depression, Kelley managed to keep the diocese financially solvent through publishing and by giving retreats and lectures around the country. (He was jokingly known as the bishop from Oklahoma.) Although his first years were marked by energetic efforts at expansion, the economic crisis of the 1930s made further initiatives inadvisable. Meerschaert had despaired of attracting American vocations, choosing instead to bring in priests and seminarians from Europe, particularly his native Belgium. Kelley ordained the first two Oklahoma-born diocesan priests in 1928. Relatively few ordinations followed in succeeding years, although Kelley promoted postgraduate studies in Rome and Louvain, and this led to several innovations, such as street preaching, and the introduction of the Young Christian Worker and Christian Family movements, begun in Belgium under Joseph Cardijn. (The first American unit of the Young Christian Workers was at Ponca City, OK).
In 1942 Kelley suffered a series of strokes and was a semi-invalid until his death in 1948. In 1944 Rome appointed as apostolic administrator, Bishop Eugene J. McGuinness, until then the bishop of Raleigh, NC. McGuinness led the Oklahoma church during the expansive postwar years, opening many new hospitals, parishes, and schools. He also campaigned forcefully for vocations. "You have given me your money," he would tell parishioners, "now give me your blood!" The result was an astounding increase among seminarians and religious women. Kelley had begun a junior seminary in 1928, but by the time it was ready to open, he had no funds to operate it. McGuinness established a temporary institution near Oklahoma City, then made plans for a permanent complex, which opened in 1958, a few months after his death. When the bishop began his episcopate in Oklahoma, there were 11 seminarians. Within a few years of the new seminary's inauguration, it had an enrollment of 128. Ordination ceremonies for 10 or 11 priests were common during the McGuinness years.
On Dec. 5, 1957, Monsignor Victor J. Reed, rector of Holy Family Co-Cathedral in Tulsa, was appointed auxiliary bishop of the diocese. Soon afterward, on December 27, Bishop McGuinness suffered a fatal heart attack. The Holy See appointed Reed to succeed him and he was consecrated as the fourth diocesan ordinary on March 5, 1958.
The defining issues for his episcopate were the Second Vatican Council and the war in Vietnam. Bishop Kelley had bequeathed a rich intellectual heritage, and one result was that Catholics in Oklahoma were better prepared for the changes that ensued from the Council. In 1966, St. Gregory's in Shawnee was the scene of the first diocesan council held in the United States after Vatican II. At the same time, Bishop Reed was assailed from two fronts within the diocese. On the one hand were those enraged by what they viewed as the Church's betrayal of its traditions, while on the other there were priests and sisters who became disenchanted with the bishop because they were looking for change beyond what he could authorize. A sudden drop in vocations obliged him to close McGuinness's seminary after only ten years in operation. The manifold pressures may have contributed to his sudden death on Sept. 8, 1971, at the age of 65.
At the time he died, Reed had already begun meetings with a view to dividing the diocese. His successor, Bishop John R. Quinn, the former auxiliary of San Diego, CA, carried this effort forward, with the result that on Dec. 19, 1972, Rome announced the creation of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the establishment of the Diocese of Tulsa, and the combining of these two with the Diocese of Little Rock to form a new ecclesiastical province. Quinn was named the first archbishop.
Even before the diocese was divided, Quinn had to resolve a difficult situation involving "experimental parishes" in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He requested an evaluation from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Washington, DC. Informed that the two parishes were not serving the purposes for which they were formed, he terminated both communities. Another of his accomplishments was in 1974 to resurrect the diocesan newspaper that had been discontinued, as The Sooner Catholic. Subsequently, it went on to receive many awards for excellence from the Catholic Press Association.
When Archbishop Quinn was named archbishop of San Francisco early in 1977, he was replaced in Oklahoma by Archbishop Charles A. Salatka, the former bishop of Marquette, MI. Consecrated as auxiliary bishop of Grand Rapids in 1962, Salatka was among the youngest bishops at Vatican II. At his retirement 30 years later, he was the eldest surviving bishop who had seen service at the council. In his 15 years in Oklahoma City, he consolidated the archdiocese's fiscal holdings and developed its outreach to an expanding Hispanic population. Bishop Eusebius J. Beltran, who had served as bishop of the Tulsa diocese since 1978, was named to succeed Archbishop Salatka when he retired in 1992. Archbishop Beltran took office on Jan. 22, 1993. Since then he has continued the initiatives of his predecessor toward Hispanics, while extending the archdiocese's outreach toward youth.
Bibliography: m. u. thomas, The Catholic Church on the Oklahoma Frontier, 1824–1907 (St. Louis 1938; Univ. microfilms 1940). j. d. white, This Far by Faith: 125 Years of Catholic Life in Oklahoma, 1875–2000. (Strasbourg 2001).
[w. c. garthoeffner/
j. d. white]