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Diocese of Belleville

Diocese in Southern Illinois (USA)

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Belleville, Diocese of, comprises that part of southern Illinois, U.S.A., which lies south of the northern limits of St. Clair, Clinton, Marion, Clay, Richland, and Lawrence counties, an area of 11,678 square miles. This territory was formerly a part of the Diocese of Alton, but upon the demise of Bishop Baltes, of that see, a new diocese was erected, January 7, 1887, with the episcopal see at Belleville, St. Clair Co. The Rev. John Janssen, who had held the office of vicar-general successively under Bishop Juncker and Bishop Baltes of Alton, was appointed first bishop of the newly erected diocese on February 28, 1888, and consecrated on April 25, 1888. The standing of the new diocese at that time is shown by the following statistics: secular priests fifty-six; regular four; churches with resident priests fifty-three; missions with churches twenty-nine; academies three; parochial schools fifty-three; children attending 5,395; orphan asylum 1; orphans 30; hospitals 3. The Catholic population was about 50,000 and remained almost stationary for a number of years. The mining industries in the southern part of the diocese are fast developing, so that, with immigration, the population has increased to 56,200, with bright prospects for the future. The diocese has 100 secular and two regular priests; eighty-two churches with resident priests; thirty-two missions with churches; eighteen chapels; twenty-four ecclesiastical students; a high school for boys; two academies for young ladies; sixty-seven parochial schools with 5,033 pupils; an orphan asylum with 112 orphans; eight hospitals; and a house for the aged. The following religious communities are represented in the diocese: Brothers of Mary, Sisters of Christian Charity, Sisters of St. Dominic, Franciscan Sisters, Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, School Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Christ, Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sisters of St. Joseph, Polish Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Loretto, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of the Precious Blood, Servants of Mary, Ursuline Sisters, and White Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Olive.

To this diocese belong some of the oldest missions of the West. The records of the church of Kaskaskia date from the year 1695 and give the name of the Rev. Jac. Gravier, S.J., as the missionary priest. The Jesuits continued to attend to the wants of the Indian tribe of the Kaskaskias and of the French, and alternately the Jesuit Fathers De Beaubois, Le Boullenger, Tartarin, Aubert, and Meurin had this territory as the field of their apostolic labors. Father Meurin was the last Jesuit doing missionary work at Kaskaskia; the order was suppressed in his time. He died at Prairie du Rocher and is buried at Florissant, Missouri. The Rev. P. Gibault who in 1768 came from Quebec was the first secular priest, who as resident pastor of Kaskaskia had charge also of the large surrounding territory, and who became vicar-general of the territory of Illinois. He continued his arduous labors until 1791, the time of his death. Until 1820 the Lazarist Fathers were in this field; after that the work was continued by secular priests. The old town of Kaskaskia, with its statehouse and church, has been swallowed up by the Mississippi River and about two miles farther inland a new town and a new church have been built up.

The organization of the congregation of Prairie du Rocher coincides with the building of the first Fort Chartres on the banks of the Mississippi in 1720. The Rev. J. Le Boullenger, chaplain of the militia stationed at the Fort, was placed in charge of the congregation. The church, built by the people, was placed under the protection of St. Anne. In 1743 the Rev. J. Gagnon, S.J., took charge of the mission and labored there until his death in 1755. His remains were interred by the side of the altar in the chapel in the cemetery. This chapel was built in 1734, and placed under the patronage of St. Joseph. When the river inundated one corner of the newly built stone structure at Fort Chartres and threatened the village and St. Anne’s church, the Fort was evacuated, the village deserted; its inhabitants sought the high ground at the foot of the bluffs, and the cemetery chapel became the parish church and served as such until 1858, when a brick church was erected. Among the missionaries who worked there, the names of Gabriel Richard (later Delegate to Congress from Michigan); Doutien Olivier (who lived to be ninety-five years of age); Xavier Dahmen, and John Timon (later Bishop of Buffalo, New York) deserve special mention. The early records of the old church of Cahokia have been lost, and accurate data can be found from the year 1783 only. At that time the religious wants of the Catholics of Cahokia and the surrounding territory, including St. Louis across the river, were attended to by Father De Saintpierre. When in 1843 the Diocese of Chicago was erected, Cahokia, Prairie du Long, Belleville, Shoal Creek (now Gercnantown), Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and Shawneetown were the only parishes in the territory now comprised by the Diocese of Belleville.


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