West Virginia, Catholic Church in
WEST VIRGINIA, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Catholic Beginnings. The first significant Catholic presence in West Virginia can be established in the years immediately following the American Revolution. The pioneer Catholic families are believed to have settled in the lower Shenandoah Valley, a region of West Virginia that is known as the Eastern Panhandle. Although Catholics had been settling on the Maryland/Pennsylvania side of the border of what was then western Virginia since the first part of the 18th century, few had crossed over into the lower Shenandoah Valley. The initial reluctance of Catholics to settle in Virginia can be directly related to the anti-Catholic laws enacted there during colonial times, when the practice of their religion was declared illegal and behavior towards Catholics was openly hostile. Catholic advance into Virginia appears to begin after the restrictions on their religion had been removed by the state legislature with the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.
Priests from Maryland and Pennsylvania visited the Catholics who had settled in the Eastern Panhandle during these initial years. A letter written by a Reverend Denis Cahill in 1795 tells of the conditions he encountered in western Virginia. Based in Hagerstown, Maryland, Cahill traveled into western Virginia, getting as far as Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of some 70 miles. He ministered to the Catholic families he encountered, organizing them into formal missions, and initiating the building of churches. He reported finding Catholics throughout the Eastern Panhandle, including the towns of Harper's Ferry, Martinsburg, and Shepherdstown.
The Eastern Panhandle remained the center of Catholic activities until the second decade of the 19th century when a small community was formed in the city of Wheeling, located in the region of western Virginia known as the Northern Panhandle. Although a Catholic presence had been established there in the early part of the 19th century, it was not until an influx of immigrants around 1818 that their numbers were large enough to form a parish. Many of these immigrants were Irish laborers who had worked on the National Road project. They were soon joined by a number of Germans who were drawn to the city for its opportunities in the skilled trades.
With the exception of the Catholic communities in the Eastern and Northern Panhandles, western Virginia was described at this time as an "unorganized spiritual wilderness." In Preston County, a small community of German immigrants had settled near what is now Howesville, built a church for the families to worship in, and arranged for a priest to come and visit them. Their experience, however, remained the exception. Most Catholics who settled in western Virginia during this period arrived on their own and settled at great distances from one another. Religious communities such as the Jesuits and Redemptorists sent missionaries into this region where they attempted to locate the Catholic families that had settled there. Priests from neighboring dioceses also traveled into western Virginia to say Mass and minister to the Catholic families, but their visits were all too infrequent and their numbers too few to visit the region regularly.
The turning point in the history of Catholicism in western Virginia came with the arrival of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad project in the mid-1840s. Just as the National Road project brought Catholics to the Northern Panhandle, so the B&O Railroad brought Catholics to the undeveloped interior region of western Virginia. Stretching from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, Virginia, the location of Catholic families in this territory can be easily established. The laborers and their families founded new communities along the path followed by the railroad. The affordable prices of western Virginia's land persuaded many laborers to give up their itinerant lives and begin anew as farmers.
Establishment of the Diocese of Wheeling. Encouraged by the increase in the number of Catholics settling in western Virginia as well as the region's promising future, the bishop of Richmond, Richard V. Whelan, petitioned the Holy See for the creation of a new diocese. Until that time, the Catholics of western Virginia had been under the spiritual care of the Diocese of Richmond, which encompassed the entire state of Virginia. On July 19, 1850, Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Wheeling, naming Whelan its first ordinary. At the time there were just four churches within its borders (St. James, Wheeling; St. Patrick, Weston; St. Mary, Wytheville; St. John, Summersville); one chapel, the German Settlement in Preston County; and a Catholic population of about five thousand.
The Allegheny Mountains were used to set the initial boundaries of the new diocese. At its founding in 1850, the diocese had both a different name and borders from the ones it possesses today. The eight counties of the Eastern Panhandle remained with the Diocese of Richmond and 17 and a half counties of southwestern Virginia constituted the Diocese of Wheeling. The outbreak of the Civil War and the creation of the new state of West Virginia in 1863 meant that diocesan and state boundaries were distinct from one another for over 100 years. It was not until a 1974 decree, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, that the diocesan borders were realigned to accord with those of the state. The 17 and a half counties in Virginia that had initially been part of the Diocese were transferred to the Diocese of Richmond, as were the eight counties of the Eastern Panhandle incorporated into the Diocese of Wheeling. The name of the diocese was also redesignated at this time to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Bishop Whelan devoted the remainder of his life to the building up of the Catholic Church in West Virginia. At his death in 1874, the diocese claimed 46 churches, seven chapels, nine schools, one seminary, one hospital, 31 priests, and 109 women religious with a Catholic population estimated at 18,000.
John J. Kain (1840–1903) was appointed to succeed Bishop Whelan in 1875. Bishop Kain's years in the diocese were devoted to meeting the needs of the newly arrived immigrants who came in search of labor in West Virginia's mines and factories. He continued his predecessor's efforts of constructing the churches and schools, and remained in Wheeling until his appointment as archbishop of St. Louis in 1893.
A Church of Immigrants. As was true for much of the U.S. Catholic Church, West Virginia Catholicism was an immigrant church. At the time the diocese was founded in 1850, immigration was dominated by the Irish and Germans, who were brought into the region as laborers on the great public and private works projects of the 19th century. Others were attracted by the region's affordable land and Wheeling's prospects as a vital commercial center. Within 50 years, however, the Irish and Germans were outnumbered by their co-religionists from such countries as Russia, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the diocese experienced its largest influx of immigrants, the majority of whom were employed as unskilled laborers in the emerging industries of the age: coal, steel, oil, natural gas, and timber.
Patrick J. Donahue (1849–1922) was bishop of the diocese during its greatest period of growth. In the 28 years he served as bishop, the Catholic population more than tripled, rising from approximately 20,000 when he was appointed in 1894 to over 62,000 at his death in 1922. Much of this growth took place in the decade between 1900 and 1910 when the Catholic population increased by over 20,000, and half of the nearly 150 parishes and missions that were founded during Donahue's reign were established.
To serve the growing Catholic population, Donahue invited religious communities to send priests, brothers, and sisters to serve, some of which continue to maintain a presence in the diocese, including the Marist Fathers, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Ursuline Sisters, the Dominican Sisters, and the Sisters of the Poor Child of Jesus. He also appealed to the missionary colleges in Ireland to send priests, and he made several trips to Europe to recruit priests who could speak in the native languages of the immigrants who were arriving in the diocese. By 1922 the number of priests serving in the diocese had more than tripled, increasing from 36 to 115, and the number of women religious had more than doubled from 143 to 340.
Donahue was succeeded by Bishop John J. swint (1879–1962), who had been appointed his auxiliary earlier that year. Swint was a native of Pickens, Randolph County, the son of immigrants who were among the first Catholics to settle in central West Virginia. He came to office during the period of "brick-and-mortar Catholicism." It was a time when the attention of the Catholic community was turned from meeting the immediate needs of arriving immigrants to establishing an institutional infrastructure to serve them.
When Swint died on Nov. 23, 1962, he had been bishop of the diocese for 40 years. During this period, the Catholic population had almost doubled, from over 62,000 Catholics in 1922 to nearly 110,000 in 1962. He devoted much of his energy to meeting the material needs of the Catholics in the diocese, through the building of churches and schools, and by promoting the development of the Catholic health care system and social outreach programs. At his death close to 100 churches, a new cathedral, one college, 52 elementary and high schools, and five hospitals had been established under his leadership. The title of "Archbishop ad personam" was conferred on him by Pius XII in recognition of his contributions to the development of the Church in West Virginia.
Bishop Joseph H. Hodges (1911–85) succeeded Archbishop Swint as the fifth bishop of the diocese in 1962. His participation in the Second Vatican Council would prove to be a defining moment in his life and lead to his becoming a major source of renewal and reform for the diocese. He dedicated his episcopacy to implementing the reforms of the council, which encompassed all aspects of Church life and led to new initiatives in the areas of social justice, evangelization, and ecumenism. He was a leader in the state's ecumenical movement and an outspoken advocate in the cause of social justice for all West Virginians. He was a driving force behind the 1975 pastoral letter issued jointly by the Roman Catholic bishops of Appalachia, "This Land Is Home to Me," which addressed the issues of economic and political powerlessness among the people of the region. He died on Jan. 27, 1985, after serving as bishop of the diocese for 23 years.
Contributions of Religious Orders. The arrival of the first religious preceded the founding of the Diocese. The Visitation Nuns came to Wheeling in 1848 to open an academy for young women at the invitation of Bishop Richard V. Whelan. Wheeling Female Academy (Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy) opened on April 10, 1848, with 30 students enrolled. It was the first of three academies established by the order in the diocese [De Sales Heights Academy, Parkersburg, and Villa Maria Academy, Abingdon (later Wytheville)]. Originally located near the cathedral, the academy and convent relocated outside of Wheeling in 1865, where it continues to operate. The Visitation Nuns also established St. Joseph's Benevolent School (Wheeling Catholic Elementary School) for the children of St. James Parish in 1848. The school continues to serve the children of Wheeling's inner city, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling have maintained a presence at the school since 1865.
Concern over the staffing and administration of Wheeling Hospital, founded by Bishop Whelan and Dr. Simon Hullihen in 1850, brought a second religious order to the diocese in 1853. Whelan had petitioned the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Missouri, in 1852, to found a convent in the diocese. Their decision to accept his invitation would have tremendous implications for the development of the diocese. Shortly after their arrival the Sisters of St. Joseph expanded their ministry to include education and social ministries. Over the course of their history in the diocese, the sisters have administered four hospitals (Wheeling Hospital, St. Mary Hospital, Clarksburg, St. Joseph Hospital, Parkersburg, and St. Francis Hospital, Charleston), two orphanages, over 60 parish schools, and numerous catechism and social outreach programs.
An effort to reorganize the governance of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in the United States led to the members of the Wheeling convent establishing an independent motherhouse in 1860, and calling themselves the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling. Membership in the community peaked in the 1960s with close to 300 Sisters. At the end of the 20th century, however, the community comprised about 100. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling are the only religious order to be incorporated in the diocese.
The Capuchin Friars were the first men's religious order to serve the diocese. Bishop Kain first invited the Friars to administer the diocese's German national parish, St. Alphonsus, Wheeling, in 1884. Through their work at St. Alphonsus, the Capuchins established an important apostolate among the German community and ministered to German-speaking immigrants throughout the Northern Panhandle. In 1900, they expanded their mission by taking over Sacred Heart Parish in Charleston and the missions it was responsible for in the Kanawha Valley. Today, the parishes that stand as witness to their labors include St. Francis of Assisi Parish, St. Albans, Christ the King Parish, Dunbar, and Our Lady of the Hills Parish, Elkview. Although the order has withdrawn from both Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral and St. Alphonsus, they continue to administer St. Anthony in Charleston, which now serves as the main residence of the Friars in southern West Virginia.
The Marist Fathers are another religious community with longstanding service in the diocese. Bishop Donahue first invited the Marist Fathers in 1898 to administer the newly founded St. Michael's in Wheeling. Their ministry was soon expanded when they agreed to take responsibility for the diocesan parishes and missions in central West Virginia. Holy Rosary, Buckhannon; St. Anne, Webster Springs; and Holy Family, Richwood are among the parishes that the Marist Fathers founded during their labors in this region. They continue to serve in Wheeling and central West Virginia. They are assisted in their work by diocesan priests, the Divine Word Missionary Fathers, the Sisters of St. Anne, the Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Marist Fathers were also responsible for bringing the Pallottine Missionary Sisters into the diocese in 1912. Together they built and staffed the first Catholic schools and hospitals in central West Virginia. The hospitals at Richwood and Buckhannon were the first of four established by the Pallottine Missionary Sisters in the diocese. The Pallottine Missionary Sisters expanded their ministry in 1923 when they agreed to establish a hospital in Huntington. St. Mary's Hospital has since distinguished itself as one of the finest medical facilities in the state. The sisters also maintained their commitment to education when they arrived in Huntington by staffing parish schools in the southern region of the diocese.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, a Canadian congregation of women religious now known as the North American Union of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, were invited to establish a community in Wheeling by Bishop Donahue in 1899. Good Shepherd Home for Young Ladies was founded by the Sisters in order to care for young women who were at risk or in need of financial and emotional support. Over its history, Good Shepherd Home took in over 10,000 young women from across the state and surrounding communities, without regard to religious affiliation. Our Lady of the Valley School, as it came to be known, was closed in 1972. The Sisters transferred the property to the diocese at this time and the building was converted into Good Shepherd Home for the Aged, through a financial bequest from Miss Clara Welty. The Sisters continue to maintain a presence at the home.
Other religious congregations that have made significant contributions in West Virginia include the Sisters of Divine Providence, Sisters Auxiliaries of the Apostolate, Daughters of Charity, Ursuline Sisters, Dominican Sisters, Passionist Fathers, Jesuit Fathers, and Marist Brothers.
Catholic Contributions in West Virginia. The Catholics of West Virginia have made tremendous contributions to the communities in which they live. They have been engaged in many charitable activities, including the establishment of hospitals and orphanages to care for the most vulnerable members of society. The diocese has become the second largest provider of social services in the state, operating 16 programs, ranging from disaster and emergency relief to pregnancy and parenting classes, with offices established in every region of the state.
The Catholic school system in West Virginia, which includes eight high schools and 27 elementary schools in addition to a number of preschool and day care programs, began in 1838 and is the largest privately run school system in the state. It provides education in the Catholic tradition for all students in a nurturing, Christ-centered environment.
In 1955 the diocese's only Catholic college was founded. The Jesuit Fathers accepted Archbishop John J. Swint's invitation to administer the college and within four years it became a reality. Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) was established as a coeducational liberal arts college in the Jesuit tradition. It is located on 60 acres of property that was purchased by the diocese from the Visitation Nuns of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy. Ground was broken for the first building on Nov. 23, 1953, and the college was dedicated two years later, on Oct. 23, 1955, with 90 students enrolled in its first class. The diocese financed the construction of the college's first three buildings, which were named after the three Bishops most closely associated with its founding: Richard V. Whelan, Patrick J. Donahue, and John J. Swint. The first women's dormitory, completed in 1959, was dedicated to Miss Sara Tracy in recognition of her significant contributions to the college. In the over 45 years of Wheeling Jesuit University's existence, the Jesuit traditions of educational excellence and service to others have guided all of its programs. The university has an enrollment of close to 1,900 students, offering degrees in 28 majors.
From Wheeling Hospital, recognized to be the first hospital founded in West Virginia, to the Children's Health Care Clinic in Pineville, the Catholic health care system has benefited tens of thousands of the state's citizens and has provided the people of West Virginia not only with quality health care for the past 150 years, but with a ministry of healing rooted in Catholic tradition that embraces the spiritual values of compassion, hospitality, and reverence for the sanctity of human life.
Bibliography: m. b. bradley et al., "State Summary, Table 3: Churches and Church Membership by State and Denomination, 1990," Churches and Church Membership in the U.S., 1990 (Atlanta 1992) p. 35.
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