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Toolen, Thomas Joseph


Archbishop; b. Baltimore, Md., Feb. 28, 1886; d. Mobile, Ala., Dec. 4, 1976. Ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal James Gibbons in Baltimore, Sept. 27, 1910, after studies at St. Mary's Seminary there, he spent a year studying canon law at the Catholic University of America and then served St. Bernard's Parish, Baltimore, for 15 years. Toolen was appointed archdiocesan director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in 1925, and on May 4, 1927, consecrated by Archbishop Michael Curley as the sixth bishop of mobile.

The diocese of Mobile in 1927 contained 66 counties in Alabama and ten in northwest Florida with a Catholic population of 48,000 served by 48 diocesan and 94 religious priests. Diocesan schools had a census of 7,800 and from 11 communities 339 sisters staffed schools, hospitals, and orphanages. The 43 years of Toolen's leadership saw the diocese grow threefold. Catholics numbered 135,600, and clergy, 200 diocesan, 210 religious. The bishop gave priority to Catholic education so that diocesan schools enrolled 23,000 and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine programs were organized for both children and adults. Religious communities of women active in the diocese grew to 37, and 885 sisters worked not only in traditional ministries but also in such new fields as centers for social service at Mobile, Birmingham, Pensacola, Montgomery, and Huntsville. As the South emerged from the Great Depression, Toolen set about a program of rebuilding and expansion. More than 700 units of new construction marked his administration, including 189 churches, 112 elementary and high schools, and 23 health care facilities. Missions were opened and parishes established in rural areas to bring Catholic life for the first time to 28 counties.

A strong spokesman for Catholics in the face of ku klux klan attacks in the late 1920s, the bishop also championed racial justice in a segregated society. Parochial facilities and educational opportunities for African Americans were improved and pioneer efforts in social service and hospital care made racial history in Alabama. Both Pius XII and John XXIII cited Toolen for this work, the former pontiff conferring upon him the title of "Archbishop ad personam " in 1954. He took forceful action by ordering the integration of all Catholic schools in the diocese in 1964, stating in a pastoral letter, "I know this will not meet with the approval of many of our people, but in justice and charity, this must be done." The archbishop's refusal to endorse black activism often connected with violence in the 1960s diminished his effectiveness in the eyes of many.

Upon Toolen's resignation in 1969, his see, designated in 1954 as "Mobile-Birmingham," was divided to form a diocese for north Alabama. The archbishop remained active in religious, civic, and social affairs until his death. Flags flew at half-mast throughout the state to mark his funeral in Mobile.

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