Wilmington, Diocese of

views updated


When the diocese of Wilmington (Wilmingtoniensis ) was erected March 3, 1868, it was made a suffragan see of the archdiocese of Baltimore. At the time it comprised the state of Delaware which had been part of diocese of philadelphia) and the counties of Maryland and Virginia east of Chesapeake Bay which had been parts of the dioceses of baltimore and richmond, respectively). In all it covered an area of 6,211 square miles.

Early History. When the bishops of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1866, petitioned the Holy See to unite under a single jurisdiction the three outlying districts, which together constituted geographically the socalled Delmarva Peninsula, the area had a total Catholic population of 5,000. Of these, 3,000 were in the city of Wilmington and vicinity where Catholics had been located from at least the second quarter of the 18th century. The remainder were scattered mostly along the Maryland Eastern Shore where their forefathers had persevered stubbornly in the faith since shortly after the founding of the Maryland colony in 1634. Maryland Jesuits, who maintained missions on the Eastern Shore continuously for over 260 years (16391898), ministered to the Catholics of this peninsula. Mass was first offered in what is now the diocese on Kent Island, Md., in 1639. Outstanding establishments included St. Francis Xavier (1704), also called "Old Bohemia," in Cecil County, Md.; St. Joseph (1765), Talbot County, Md.; and in New Castle County, Del., St. Mary (before 1772), known as "Coffee Run." During the tenure (180440) of Rev. Patrick Kenny, Coffee Run became the foundation stone of the Church in the see city area. From that time on the Catholic population came to be concentrated there first because of Irish, then for a while French, and much later, German, Polish, and Italian immigration. In 1816 Kenny built the first Catholic church in the city of Wilmington, St. Peter's, now the cathedral. The Franciscans and Benedictines also served the area in the last quarter of the 17th century; the Sulpicians and Augustinians, in the last decade of the 18th century; and the Redemptorists, in the third quarter of the 19th century; the Daughters of Charity have been there since 1830.

First Bishops. When the first bishop of Wilmington, Thomas Andrew becker, of Richmond, was consecrated Aug. 16, 1868, there were eight priests, 18 churches, and an orphanage and school for girls conducted by the Daughters of Charity within his jurisdiction. Becker increased the number of priests almost threefold and doubled the number of churches, building especially in the rural areas. He founded an orphanage and school for boys, an academy for girls, and two parochial schools, admitting to the diocese the Visitandines, the Glen Riddle Franciscans, the Dominicans, and also the Benedictines expressly to found a church for the Germans, who had been entering the diocese in increasing numbers since 1857. The Catholic population rose to 18,000.

When Becker was transferred to Savannah, Ga., in 1886, Alfred Allen curtis of Baltimore was appointed second bishop and consecrated Nov. 14, 1886. Curtis liquidated completely the debts of the country parishes, at the same time successfully obtaining legislation in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to have all church properties incorporated individually. He asked the Benedictines to organize a church for the Polish, who had entered the diocese in 1883. The Josephites soon erected a church, orphanage, elementary school, and industrial school. During this time the Benedictine sisters came to the diocese, locating their motherhouse in Ridgely, Md., where they also opened an academy for girls. In 1893 the Ursulines took over the academy of the Visitandines, who returned to their primitive rule as cloistered choir nuns. Curtis convened the second diocesan synod and held regular clergy conferences. When he resigned for reasons of health June 10, 1896, the diocese was well established: there were 30 priests caring for 22 parishes and 18 missions; 12 seminarians; eight religious communities; three academies; nine parochial schools; three orphanages; and a monastery, for a Catholic population of 25,000.

Later Bishops. Curtis remained as administrator apostolic until the election of his successor, John James Monaghan, of Charleston, S.C., who was consecrated May 9, 1897. Monaghan established seven new parishes and seven missions, and opened eight new schools. He held the third diocesan synod in 1898. In 1903 the Little Sisters of the Poor established a home for the aged, and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales opened a school (Salesianum) that for many years was the only secondary school for boys in the diocese. In 1924 the Oblates established a church and school for the Italians; earlier Bp. Stephan S. Ortynski, of Philadelphia, opened two parishes and an orphanage for Ukrainian Greek Catholics. St. Francis Hospital and nurses' training school were built and placed under the care of the Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle. When illness caused Monaghan to resign, July 10, 1925, John Edmond Fitz Maurice, of Philadelphia, was appointed fourth bishop and consecrated Nov. 30, 1925. The period of his episcopacy was characterized by a considerable growth in population and industrial development in the suburban and rural areas. The Catholic population of the diocese rose from 34,000 to 85,000. Eighteen new parishes were founded, eight in the country and nine in the suburbs of Wilmington, as well as eight missions. Nineteen elementary and nine secondary parochial schools were started, located in almost every section of the diocese. Three academies were begun: Archmere (Norbertines), secondary school for boys (1932); Padua (Franciscans), secondary school for girls (1957); and St. Edmond's Academy (Brothers of Holy Cross), primary school for boys (1959). Located in Cambridge, Md., the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart organized a visitation and catechetical instruction program for the Eastern Shore parishes where there were no parochial schools. Nine new religious communities came into the diocese, among them the Irish Capuchins who founded St. Patrick's Monastery near the city of Wilmington. Fitz Maurice also directed the founding of a Catholic charities and child welfare program (1932), the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, an effective religious vocation program, the Catholic Forum of the Air, the Catholic Youth Organization, and the Catholic Educational Guild; the Knights of Columbus councils increased from one to ten. At his retirement, March 2, 1960, he became titular archbishop of Tomi, and Michael William Hyle, of Baltimore, who had been consecrated Sept. 24, 1958, as coadjutor with right of succession, succeeded to the see March 2, 1969.

Bishop Hyle was an exponent of civil rights, and during his tenure a new inner city program was developed in Wilmington. In 1964 he initiated the Diocesan Development Program, which provided for the building of St. Mark Diocesan High School. Hyle was present in Rome for Vatican Council II, attending the entire first, second, and third sessions, and upon his return, he demonstrated an eagerness to implement the new directions given to the church by the council. He established the diocesan newspaper, The Dialog, in 1965, and a Newman Center was established at the University of Delaware in 1962.

The sixth Bishop of Wilmington, Thomas J. Mardaga, was installed on April 6, 1968. He too concentrated on the reforms required by Vatican Council II, participating fully in efforts toward Christian unity, implementing liturgical reforms, and establishing parish councils. He created a diocesan Department of Finance, completed the building of St. Mark High School, and initiated a ministry for migrant workers. He founded several new parishes, among them: Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bear (1971), St. Ann in Bethany Beach (1972), and Holy Family in Ogletown (1979).

Mardaga was succeeded by Bishop Robert E. Mulvee, who was installed April 11, 1985. During his ten-year tenure the Catholic population increased to 165,000. He founded three new missions, including Mary Mother of Peace in Millsboro (1986), conducted a five-year planning process, called "A Church To Serve," and emphasized collegiality in ecclesiastical dealings.

The eighth Bishop of Wilmington, Michael A. Saltarelli, was appointed on Nov. 21, 1995. Among many priorities, he has promoted pastoral ministry to Hispanics and an increase of church vocations. In 1998 he established St. Thomas More High School in Magnolia, and in 1999 he founded a new parish, St. Margaret of Scotland in Glasgow. Through a diocesan-wide Capital Campaign, he planned to add new churches and schools to accommodate a rapidly increasing membership. In 2000 the population of Delaware was 783,600, of which 18 percent (205,000) was Catholic.

Bibliography: d. devine, "Beginnings of the Catholic Church of Wilmington, Delaware" Delaware History, 28 (19992000): 323344. c. a. h. esling, "Catholicity in the Three Lower Counties, or Planting of the Church in Delaware." Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 1 (March 1886): 11760. t. j. peterman, Catholics in Colonial Delmarva (Devon, Penn. 1996); The Cutting Edge of Life of Thomas Andrew Becker, the First Catholic Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware and Sixth Bishop of Savannah, Georgia, 18311899 (Devon, Penn. 1982); Catholic Priests of the Diocese of Wilmington, A Jubilee Year 2000 Commemoration (Devon, Penn. 2000). r. e. quigley, "Catholic Beginnings of the Delaware Valley," History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, j. e. connelly, ed. (Philadelphia 1976). p. j. schierse, Laws of the State of Delaware Affecting Church Property (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 428 (Washington 1961).

[e. b. carley/

t. j. peterman]