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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Catholicism in the South: Barriers broken

If the Deep South is the Bible Belt and Mississippi is it's buckle, then we have a pretty good vantage point for observances of Southern Catholicism. In this region, we're seeped in the evangelical persuasion of Christianity (something with which I'm very personally familiar), so it's often easy to forget that the very first European settlers and Christian missionaries in the Deep South were Catholics (gasp!). In fact, Catholicism has the longest continuous history of any organized religious tradition in the South (we've been here since 1513!). This is the latest in a series of posts which highlight Catholicism in the South.


I was recently in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi for my job. As I always do, I sought out the "sights" in my spare time and, in the process, came across the story of Joseph Bowers and the St. Augustine Seminary of Bay Saint Louis.

On August 22, 1953, Joseph Oliver Bowers made history. He was consecrated as a Roman Catholic bishop in the church of Our Lady of the Gulf in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. He was, of course, not the first Catholic bishop to be consecrated in the state. What was revolutionary about his consecration was that Bishop Bowers is a black man. Yes. That August day witnessed the first consecration of a black man to the office of Catholic bishop on US soil. And it happened in the seaside parish church of a small Mississippi town.

Bishop Bowers in 2010.
Today, Bishop Bowers, at 101, is one of the world's oldest bishops (the third-oldest, to be exact; Bishop Antoine Nguyen Van Thien of Vietnam is the oldest, at age 105). Bishop Bowers resides on the small Caribbean island of Dominica. He was born on the island in 1910. He felt a call to the priesthood at an early age and in 1928, he moved to the US to attend seminary at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay Saint Louis, Miss.

Originally founded in 1920 in Greenville, Miss. by the Divine Word Missionaries, St. Augustine was moved to Bay St. Louis in 1923. Its purpose was to train African American men to become priests because, like many schools at the time, the Catholic seminaries in the US did not accept blacks. St. Augustine was the first US seminary to accept African Americans.

Bowers graduated from St. Augustine and was ordained a priest in 1939. He served until 1952 as a priest with the Divine Word Missionaries. In January of 1953, Bowers was appointed bishop of Accra in Ghana, West Africa. He was consecrated a bishop by Cardinal Francis Spellman, Archbishop of New York in a Mass at Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church in Bay Saint Louis. He was the first black man to be ordained a bishop in the US.

Fr. Augustus Tolton
It should be noted that Bishop Bowers was not the first man with African ancestry to be ordained a bishop in the US. In 1875, James Augustine Healy was named bishop of Portland, Maine. Healy was of mixed-race ancestry: his father was Irish and his mother was a mulatto. Bishop Bowers was also not the first black priest in the US. That distinction belongs to Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery in antebellum Missouri and was ordained to serve the Catholic diocese of Quincy, Illinois in 1886.

In many ways, it seems appropriate that Mississippi should be the place where the first black bishop was ordained on US soil. It is the embodiment of the American South and the South was home to many milestones in African American Catholic history. Here are a few other interesting Southern stops in African American Catholic history:

1565: Slave and free blacks help to found the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida - the first permanent European settlement in the US.

1842: Sisters of the Holy Family, the second religious order founded for black women, is founded in New Orleans by Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin.

1909: The Knights of Peter Claver is founded in Mobile, Alabama to provide a fraternal and mutual aid organization for black Catholic men.

1916: The Franciscan Handmaids of Mary, a new religious order founded to teach black children, is founded in Georgia as a reaction to the state legislature's efforts to criminalize the education of blacks by white teachers.

(Edited to add links, 1/23/2012 - Brad)