Faith of the Past Informs the Present
in the Diocese of Belleville
(Editor’s note: The following pages detail in abbreviated form, some of the people and events that have shaped the Diocese of Belleville today. It is our intent to highlight a few of those people and some of those events to shed light on who we are and from where we have come. In that way, we can look to the future with light and faith, standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us.)
The Indian missions of Holy Family in Cahokia and Immaculate Conception in Kaskaskia were the first Catholic communities in southern Illinois, almost two hundred years before the erection of the Diocese of Belleville in 1887. French missionaries from Quebec opened the Cahokia mission in 1699.
The Immaculate Conception mission was opened in northern Illinois by the famous missionary and explorer Pere Jacques Marquette in 1673. It moved to Kaskaskia around 1700, following an Indian migration. The parishes were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Quebec in modern-day Canada. During those early years of Catholic presence in what would become the Diocese of Belleville, the vast majority of Catholics were Indians, whose stability and presence was eventually decimated by colonial wars and the inexorable westward march of American expansion, including expulsion of the tribal Indians and their cultures.
French colonization supported the missionaries and often established friendly relations with many of the Indian tribes, though the interests of wealth and colonization often conflicted with those of the missionaries.
The pioneering of French missionary activity is largely relegated to little-remembered library editions. The extent of that historic ministry is reflected in the report that the Jesuit Father Claude Allouez, during 24 years of missionary work, baptized 10,000 Indians of 20 different nations in Illinois and Wisconsin. The vicissitudes of colonial antagonisms hugely influenced the role of the Catholic church in the Illinois territory.
Conflict between the French and English ended with the defeat of the French (and their Indian allies) and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending 160 years of French colonization in the “new” world. Influencing as significantly the fate of the Catholic church in the area was the exiling of the Jesuits from France the same year and shortly afterward from the French missions. The action left the Franciscan Luc Collet the only Catholic priest in the area from Vincennes (Indiana) to St. Genevieve (Missouri).
Father Pierre Gibault In 1768 Bishop Jean Olivier Briand of Quebec sent Father Pierre Gibault, the first diocesan priest to minister in the area after Father Collet died. He and Father Sebastian Meurin (the lone Jesuit to remain in the area but required to join the Capuchins and live west of the Mississippi in St. Genevieve) attended to the Catholic missions traveling almost constantly. Father Gibault (after whom Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo is named) became known as the Patriot Priest for encouraging residents in the area to support the American patriots in their efforts to wrest the area from the British. (The British control of the area lasted less than 15 years.) His effort angered both the British, who charged him with treason, and his bishop in Quebec, who ignored his later requests to return to Quebec because of failing health.
The defeat of the French, exiling of the Jesuits, but more importantly the Americanization of the territory along the Mississippi and the influx of settlers from the colonies, created a negative, if not prejudicial, attitude toward Catholics in the area, curtailing significantly the energies and motivations that created the first Catholic communities in the Illinois territory.
Even Father Gibault, the Patriot Priest, finally succumbed to the unwelcoming environment and moved to the more welcoming territory across the river. The parish at the French Fort Chartres and the Anne mission at St. Phillippe, established in the 1720s, were abandoned to the Mississippi floods. The mission of St. Joseph’s in Prairie du Rocher, also built in the 1720s, became an independent parish in 1765. Sulpician Father Gabriel Richard, an exile from the French Revolution, served the parishes in Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Prairie du Rocher from 1793 to 1799. He later went to Michigan, was an educational pioneer there, and became the first priest-Congressman of the new nation. The ministry of Father Donatian Olivier, who served the river parishes from 1799 to 1827, is testimony to the stagnation of the Catholic communities. Records indicate only once a month rituals for both baptisms and funerals.
The first American bishop, John Carroll, was named the bishop of Baltimore, Md. in 1790 for all of the new independent nation. (Before the erection of the Belleville diocese in 1887, present counties were under the jurisdiction of Bardstown, Ky., Vincennes, Ind., St. Louis, Mo., Chicago and Alton, Ill.) The foundations for three parishes were established for small Catholic communities of Catholic immigrants in the early 1800s: St. Patrick’s in Ruma in 1818 (mostly Irish); St. Francis in St. Francisville in 1818 (French settlers from Vincennes); and St. Augustine of Canterbury in Hecker in 1824 (English). Pockets of Catholic immigrants were served by circuit riders, the most famous of whom was Father Elisha “Daddy” Durbin. Living in Kentucky, he rode thousands of miles on horseback to minister to Catholics in southeastern Illinois between 1822 and 1859. Another was the indomitable Irish apostle, Father Patrick McCabe, who, following the trails of peddlers and settlers, began the recorded history of at least a dozen future parishes.
Waves of Immigration The waves of immigration changed the landscape, fortunes and misfortunes of the new state of Illinois, established in 1818. Immigrants were pushed by political realities (such as Bismarck’s Kulturkampf in Germany) and tragedies (such as famine in Ireland) and pulled by the promise of jobs, land and freedom from oppression.
Consider two historical developments in the 1830s in southern Illinois: 1. One hundred and thirty years after the opening of the Cahokia mission only six Catholic parishes existed in southern Illinois. St. Boniface in Germantown opened in 1833 to serve early German homesteaders, and is still referred to as the mother church of the current 14 Clinton County parishes. By 1850, 17 new parishes had been established in the future Belleville diocese. And in the following decade history records the opening of 18 more. More than 20 were opened in the 1860s. 2. Chief Jean Baptiste Du Quoin, the son of a Frenchman and a woman of the Tamaroa tribe, was the first Catholic to set foot on Perry County soil. He had fought under the French General Lafayette in Virginia and received a citation from George Washington. He gave his name to a town closed to his descendants, after the remnants of his tribe of which his son, Louis Jefferson Du Quoin was then the chief, were moved west in the early 1830s.
The French Jesuit heritage of Indian Catholic missions was lost to history. The decades after the mid-1800s were the years of the immigrant, the railroad and the mines in southern Illinois. When Father Charles Klocke arrived in Du Quoin as Sacred Heart’s first pastor in 1868 he was the only priest stationed on the Illinois Central from Effingham to Cairo, serving missions in Pinckneyville, DeSoto, DuBois, Radom, Centralia, Odin and Sandoval. Twenty-five years later the original parish of 30 families had grown to over 300 families. St. Boniface in Germantown served as the only parish in Clinton County for 20 years. Fifteen years later six new parishes had opened in the county in Carlyle, Breese, Damiansville, Trenton, Aviston and St. Rose to serve the German immigrant Catholics concentrated in the county.
Parish Openings After the 1833 establishment of St. Boniface in Germantown parishes throughout southern Illinois were opened at a fast pace during the ensuing decades prior to the erection of the Diocese of Belleville in 1887: five in the 1830s; 10 in the 1840s; 17 in the 1850s; 21 in the 1860s; 21 in the 1870s; seven by 1887. Pockets of Catholic immigrants opened parishes throughout the area, but percentages of Catholics remained small especially in southern and southeastern counties. The opposite was true in the farming communities of Clinton County, for example, where almost all the German immigrant farmers were Catholic.
Immigrant dreams and promises were often met by the realities of life on the frontier of the fast and furiously growing state and country. Early railroad and mine camps were often beset by poor living conditions, disease, violence and alcohol. Cholera also took its toll on the early German immigrants in Clinton County. A large roadside cross on the Germantown-Breese road remains a permanent memorial to the plague. Catholic immigrants and their leaders were wary of the American Protestant culture that surrounded them. Their concerns were not unfounded. Catholic leaders were concerned that Catholic children’s faith and morals would be challenged and negatively influenced in the country’s public schools. Catholics were viewed as “papists,” first and reluctant Americans.
Early colonists’ wariness and sometimes blatant prejudicial attitudes and actions were not uncommon. The election of the first Catholic governor in Illinois in 1856 did not change those attitudes significantly. It was in this atmosphere that parish and national Catholic leaders developed an alternate private school system, with the goal of opening a Catholic school in every parish in the country. Political response to private schools was powerful, especially the continuation of the use of foreign languages in the schools, seen as subversive. In Illinois in 1889 a compulsory education law was passed, called the Edwards Law (the state superintendent of public education). The law mandated that each child (7 to 14) attend a public school, with instructions in English, at least 16 weeks a year, and a fine of $20 per child for not complying. (Edwards was not re-elected the following year, and in the volatile political atmosphere the legislature never acted on the law. It was repealed several years later.)
A Lifeblood Ministry A truncated and very incomplete summary of the history of the Belleville diocese needs to acknowledge the significant — probably the most significant —ministry in the development of faith communities in the immigrant church. Without the foundational ministry of women religious — and to a lesser extent of men religious — in education and health care the faith communities in the church of southern Illinois would not and could not have developed as they did. The living body of Christ stands on the shoulders of our ancestors. No ancestors were more important than they were and no analogies, no words can adequately describe their lifeblood contributions to the immigrant church.
The educational ministry of women religious began in the 1830s. The Sisters of the Visitation opened an academy in Kaskaskia in 1833; the Sisters of St. Joseph a school in Cahokia in 1935; and the Sisters of Providence a school in St. Francisville in 1842. The antagonisms and conflicts between private and public schools developed later, against the background of prejudicial attitudes toward Catholic immigrants. By 1890 seven religious communities staffed 34 schools, including the Precious Blood sisters, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Poor Handmaids, who in ensuing decades provided the educational experience for the majority of Catholic students in the diocese. The phenomenal growth of the Catholic school system in the diocese in the 20th century, climaxing in the 1950s and 1960s, assumed the generous and sometimes taken-for-granted response of religious communities whenever and wherever teachers were needed. The generosity and commitment of the often-called “good sisters” is recalled in conversations to this day, and especially today, as defining experiences of personal faith, both encouraging and demanding.
In a parallel ministry women religious were the pioneers in responding to the health needs of the immigrant population, eventually resulting in the opening of hospitals in East St. Louis, Belleville, Breese, Mt. Vernon, Centralia, Murphysboro, Red Bud, Cairo and Aviston. The legacy of that ministry continues today and Catholic health care institutions remain a major presence in the country’s health care system, as it does in southern Illinois. Also owned and/or staffed by women religious were facilities for the elderly and orphans, including St. John’s Orphanage.
A Hostile Environment
If immigrant dreams and promises were often threatened by harsh realities and a hostile environment, internal conflict in the immigrant church was also real. Immigrant Catholics didn’t leave their nationalism in their European countries, resulting in the historical standoff at the Irish St. Patrick Church in East St. Louis in the 1890s. After the death of the Irish pastor, Msgr. Peter O’Halloran, Bishop John Janssen appointed the German Msgr. William Cluse, vicar general, as the pastor. St. Patrick parishioners rebelled, first requesting in a petition with 3,000 names, their Irish assistant, Father James Downey be named. Bishop Janssen refused and an Irish guard blocked Msgr. Cluse from entering the church. After the bishop formally excommunicated the parishioners, they persisted, holding prayer services and rallies on Sundays. After several years the Vatican told the bishop to lift the excommunication and appoint an Irish pastor. He appointed Father Charles Sweeney.
In the late 1890s, while a significant percentage of Catholics were non-German more than 90 percent of the priests in the new diocese were German immigrants. Complaints of unequal treatment were not uncommon. In a metropolitan area like East St. Louis the majority of parishes were established as national, rather than territorial parishes. National devotional practices were retained and not easily blended into universal parish practices. Msgr. Cluse, after remaining in East St. Louis as the pastor of St. Henry’s, built a retirement home in Okawville, where he was instrumental (according to most accounts.) in the selection of Belleville’s second bishop, 40-year-old Father Henry Althoff, pastor of St. Barbara’s in Okawville and Msgr. Cluse’s former assistant at St. Henry’s.
The appointment was a disappointment to most priests in the diocese, who supported two competing candidates. Bishop Althoff’s long episcopacy (1914-1946) was hardly a time of peace and tranquility for many, if not most Catholics in the diocese. While the waves of immigration and the formation of new parishes slowed dramatically (there were 128 parishes in 1914) his 32 years as the diocese’s pastor were bracketed by the beginning of the First World War and the end of World War II.
Anti-German Reactions Anti-German reactions erupted at times into ugly incidents, such as the kidnapping, tarring and feathering of the pastor at Christopher on Palm Sunday in 1918, notwithstanding the fact that over 3,000 young men from the Belleville diocese served in the armed orces during the war. In East St. Louis violence was not directed toward immigrants suspected of German sympathies, but toward American blacks who had moved into the city in the early years of the 20th century seeking work, resulting in attitudes of resentment and fear.
In the summer of 1917 a white mob stormed the black ghetto burning, looting and killing in one of the nation’s worst race riots. In 1921 the St. Augustine Mission for the Colored, a segregated black parish, was opened. It was closed in 1960 as the church, not without opposition, moved toward integration. In 1918 the Spanish influenza severely strained hospitals and emergency health facilities. Prohibition, beginning in 1919, created its own negative reaction and turmoil. In southern Illinois the Ku Klux Klan was a foreboding and often violent and anti-Catholic presence and at times a political power. The gangs established a subculture.
Labor unrest, especially in the mines, was severely confrontational and sometimes violent. Bishop Althoff established the diocese’s deaneries, sent pastors an agenda for catechetical sermons and held a diocesan synod in 1920, which set pastors’ and assistants’ salaries. He also bought property in Belleville, later the site for St. Henry’s Seminary and the introduction of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The “roaring” 20s introduced changes viewed with concern or opposition by diocesan leaders. The widespread introduction of the automobile, movies and dance halls changed the cultural landscape. It was also the first decade after women were given the right to vote in 1920 — viewed as an historical anomaly today. The decade ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.
Bishop Althoff was a quiet and retiring man, known as a disciplinarian, whose policies and directives included Sunday afternoon devotions (Vespers and Benediction) in all parishes. He viewed many of the cultural changes as disturbing, tempting the faith and morals of Catholics, especially the young. At the same time biographical sketches note his sense of humor in private gatherings. He was an extraordinary linguist, fluent in at least six languages. His 32 years of leadership have been referred to as an era of stabilization, though his leadership was marked by the times — not least the experiences of the Great Depression.
Depression/ Unemployment With unemployment at 30 percent, and sometimes nearing 50 percent in the all-important mining industry in southern Illinois, life changed everywhere and in every way. Poverty ruled. Survival became the challenge for families and parishes alike. (Over a period of 15 years only one small parish — St. Martin of Tours in East St. Louis — was opened as a mission parish in 1938.) Agriculture, the dominant industry of the time, fared little better than the mines, further aggravated by a drought in the 1930s. The 1930s were also a time of the growth of Catholic organizations in the diocese and in parishes, with huge demonstrations of Catholic pride and involvement — seriously increasing their legacy of charity during the devastating years of the Great Depression.
On Dec. 8, 1941 the United States declared war against Japan and two days later against Germany and Italy. The patriotism of American Catholics, many now third generation Catholics, was not questioned. In a letter to Catholics in the diocese Bishop Althoff said: “In the spirit of patriotism … we pledge to our country our devoted allegiance and loyal support.” In the waning years of his episcopacy his leadership was again marked by the times.
The post-war era and the 29-year episcopacy of Bishop Albert Zuroweste coincided. It was a new era of growth and opportunity institutionally and individually. The GI bill opened a college education to many; suburbs developed; war industries had ended the Great Depression. By any measure the 1950s were expansive years, though the Korean War is also part of its history.
In retrospect Bishop Zuroweste saw his major accomplishments in the field of education. Four new diocesan high schools were built: Mater Dei in Breese, Assumption in East St. Louis; Althoff in Belleville and Gibault in Waterloo. (The bishop’s decree denying the sacraments to Catholics not sending their children to Mater Dei left a legacy of anger and spiritual turmoil, with lingering effect to this day.) The bishop’s first building drive was for new buildings at St. John’s Orphanage, where he had been the superintendent.
A Proud Decade The 1950s was a proud decade for Catholics in the diocese, ending with the election of the first Catholic president. The church was no longer an immigrant church, though the diocese supported the immigration of a number of World War II displaced families.
At the same time Catholics were homogeneous in their beliefs and largely in their priorities and allegiances. Catholics were Catholics. Examples of the post-immigrant, post war church in the diocese are the formation of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO); opening of Camp Ondessonk; the building of King’s House of Retreats; the incorporation of Catholic Charities in 1947; the launching of Operation Understanding, an ecumenical outreach, in 1956.
The diocese opened a mission in Guatemala. Missions and missionaries were not new to the diocese, with the Adorers present in China, South America and Africa; the Oblates in the Philippines and South America; the Notre Dames in Japan and Africa.
In the 1960s the diocese and parishes were marked by historical upheavals that could not have been imagined just a few years earlier. Pope John XXIII, succeeding Pope Pius XII in 1958, opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 with the intention of renewing and reforming the church, “opening the windows,” and bringing the church up to date. After four sessions 16 documents were issued outlining major liturgical changes, positive attitudes toward ecumenism, an emphasis on religious liberty, collaboration in leadership roles, from the universal church in episcopal conferences, to dioceses in presbyteral councils, to parishes in parish and financial councils and shared ministry. Change did not come easily, and the cohesiveness of a Catholic culture was no more. Tags such as liberal, conservative, traditional, cafeteria, social justice, pro-life, Vatican II and Pope John Paul II clergy became part of the Catholic lexicon.
The interpretation of the council itself is debated. The upheavals of the 1960s included the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution, all involving dramatic changes in attitudes and action, with demonstrations, arrests and confrontations. The 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” reiterating the church’s teaching on artificial birth control as morally untenable was extremely disruptive and is seen as ignored today by the vast majority of Catholic women of child-bearing age. As the decade ended priests began to leave the active ministry, as did religious women and men.
Civil Rights Movement The civil rights movement changed the two communities with a significant number of black residents. In East St. Louis, with blacks moving out of the ghetto, whites moved out of the city, as did major businesses. Once a city of 12 Catholic parishes and as many parish schools, the only Catholic parishes in the city today are St. Augustine of Hippo and the Lithuanian Immaculate Conception. In the river town of Cairo racial tensions erupted in 1969. The United Front of Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and religious women supported efforts for black equality and justice.
Catholic Urban Programs, responding to a wide area of needs in East St. Louis, was established in 1973, with Joseph Hubbard as the founding and continuing coordinator, who had long been an active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the outreach organization active in many parishes today. The Poor Handmaids opened the Daystar Community Program in Cairo in the late 1970s to respond to similar needs.
“Call them accomplishments, goals, efforts, beginnings — the things Bishop Cosgrove began in the diocese of Belleville were family things, justice things, people things. They were part of a vision — clumsy and clear at the same time — the way human efforts usually are.”
Those words in a biographical sketch summarized the approach and priorities of the fourth bishop of the Belleville diocese, William Cosgrove, installed in October of 1976. He was more comfortable being with people then being for people, a friend said. A folksy weekly “Hello” column in The Messenger revealed the soul of a bishop. It was called trivial by some, appreciated by most, but read by all.
He hoped to “heal a wounded East St. Louis,” and for six months lived in St. Regis rectory in the city. The first diaconate class of 23 was ordained in 1980.
The annual and continuing Christmas dinner for shut-ins and the elderly was begun. The first Office of Worship and Office of Peace and Justice were opened. The latter no longer exists. But the annual farm blessings do. He began his Christmas celebrations with Mass at St. Clair County jail, a tradition continued by Belleville bishops for several decades.
Renewal Programs In the late 1970s there was a growing involvement in renewal programs, including a parish renewal program in which half the parishes participated, Teens Encounter Christ, Quest, Cursillo, Worldwide Marriage Encounter and Residents Encounter Christ weekends. The current marriage preparation programs were initiated. The annual March for Life on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion became an annual pilgrimage for a number of diocesan Catholics.
Due to failing health Bishop Cosgrove announced his retirement in May of 1981; The diocese’s fifth bishop, John Wurm, was installed in November of 1981. Two years later he was diagnosed with liver cancer and died in April of 1984. In a whirlwind schedule of pastoral visitations to diocesan parishes and institutions, “Bishop Wurm traveled 20,000 miles during the first eight months of his episcopacy, visiting the 130 parishes, 60 schools, seven hospitals, five prisons, and several nursing homes,” according to a biographical sketch by Father John Myler.
With the growing number of lay catechists, the Catechist Certification program was initiated in 1982. St. Nicholas Parish in O’Fallon was opened the same year, the last to be established in the diocese, and the first since 1962.
Bishop James Keleher became the diocese’s sixth bishop in December of 1984. Growing up on the farm remained the experience of less and less families, as small family farms were abandoned because of economic realities. In 1987 and 1988 the diocese celebrated its 100th anniversary. Betty Burnett’s centennial history “A Time of Favor” ends with this sentence: “Catholics in the Belleville Diocese now look to the future with an optimism born of their strong faith and proud heritage.” But there were clouds on the horizon; and future cloudbursts that were not envisioned.
In 1984 St. Henry Seminary closed. Seminary enrollment and ordinations dwindled. Thirty priests had been ordained for the diocese in the 1970s, with 24 in present assignments. Currently assigned diocesan priests ordained in the 1980s number 9; the number from the 1990s is 8, the same as the first decade of the 21st century.
In 1985 the Daughters of Charity began an after-school ministry in East St. Louis’ housing projects. The Poor Clares opened a monastery in Belleville in 1986.
Educational Decisions Major educational decisions were made in East St. Louis in 1990. Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School replaced the existing elementary schools in the city.
Assumption High School was closed. St. Teresa’s Academy had been closed in 1974 and had merged with Assumption. Notre Dame Academy had merged with Althoff in the 1960s. As the diocese’s second century began there was an emphasis on planning for the future — given the priest shortage — on more collaboration and clustering of parishes.
The ministry formation program was initiated. But initial planning hadn’t taken into account the eventual loss of 10 percent of diocesan clergy due to the sexual abuse crisis. Bishop Wilton Gregory was appointed as the seventh bishop of Belleville in December of 1993 and was installed in February of 1994. Still in his mid-forties he had been a Chicago auxiliary bishop for 10 years and was the fourth black bishop in the country to head a diocese. He was introduced at a Dec. 29, 1993 news conference, where he addressed the continuing abuse crisis, on which he would later put a national stamp.
As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he guided the bishops’ response to the crisis and the adoption of the Dallas Charter in 2002. In the aftermath of the crisis child protection policies were developed. A new form of parish ministry was introduced in the diocese in 1994 with the appointment of Brenda Pehle as the parish life coordinator of St. Joseph Parish in Lebanon. There are currently six PLCs in the diocese. A process was begun in 1995 leading to the formation of a Diocesan Pastoral Council, which was completed in 1996 with the first meeting in Columbia.
Sister Parishes The diocesan relationship with Guatemala parishes continued with 31 parishes participating in sister relationships with Guatemalan parishes. The year 2000, the beginning of a new millennium was also a Year of Jubilee with a diocesan celebration on the Du Quoin fairgrounds. Many parishes continued to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and the need for collaboration and changing ministerial leadership. Cluster parishes shared in ministerial and educational programs. The RENEW program continued as small faith communities in a number of parishes. The Adorers merged their three provinces into a single national province. As one millennium was ended, a growing concern in the new millennium was the absence of a growing number of parishioners, especially the young, at Sunday Masses.
At the same time the demographics of the diocese continued to change with a growing influx of Hispanic Catholics, not always welcomed by an earlier century’s immigrants. At mid-decade Bishop Gregory was promoted to the archdiocese of Atlanta. Bishop Edward K. Braxton was installed as the eighth bishop of the diocese in June of 2005. In 2006 he welcomed the first international priests to the diocese. Today 20 extern priests are in ministry in the diocese.
In June 2006 Bishop Braxton published a pastoral letter “We Are His Witnesses: Our Spirit-Filled Mission as the Church in Southern Illinois,” which was sent to every Catholic family in the diocese. As the diocese celebrated its 125th anniversary Bishop Braxton wrote a pastoral letter called “Embracing the Future With Hope” announcing a pastoral plan for parish renewal and restructuring, which may necessitate reducing the number of parishes by 15 or 20. Phase II of the plan will begin this month and end in February of 2013. The Catholic family in southern Illinois now begins a new quarter century of its history, which will present its own challenges, but will bring to it the faith and often the resilience of past generations.
— Rafe Middeke