Early Missionaries.—The first missionaries in Nebraska were priests of the Society of Jesus, who, from about 1838, occasionally visited the native Indians, many of whom received baptism. In 1851 the Holy See cut off from the Diocese of St. Louis all the country north from the south line of Kansas to Canada, and west from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, and erected it into the Vicariate of the Rocky Mountains, with Rt. Rev. John B. Miege, S.J., as first vicar Apostolic (see Diocese of Leavenworth). On January 6, 1857, this vicariate was again divided, and a new vicariate called the Vicariate of Nebraska was erected, Bishop Miege being authorized to govern it until the appointment of a resident vicar Apostolic of Nebraska.
The first resident vicar Apostolic was the Right Rev. James Miles O’Gorman, D.D., b. near Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. 1804, took the Trappist habit at Mount Melleray, Co. Waterford, November 1, 1839, and was ordained priest, 1843. He was one of the band who came to Dubuque, Iowa, in 1849 to establish New Melleray (see Cistercians). In 1859 he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska, and on May 8 of the same year was consecrated titular Bishop of Raphanea by Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis. The vicariate at this time embraced the present State of Nebraska, the Dakotas west of the Missouri River, Wyoming, and Montana east of the Rocky Mountains. On his arrival at Omaha, Bishop O’Gorman found in his vast jurisdiction a Catholic population of some three hundred families of white settlers living along the river counties, and a few thousand Indians, chiefly in Montana. There were in the entire territory, two seculars, and one Jesuit priest in Montana in charge of the native tribes.
During the fifteen years of his episcopate Bishop O’Gorman labored to provide for the needs of his scattered flock. He placed priests in the more important centers of population, and in the sixties, priests of the vicariate ministered to the Catholics of Western Iowa. During his administration the Sisters of Mercy were established at Omaha, the Benedictines in Nebraska City, and the Sisters of Charity in Helena, Montana. At his death (July 4, 1874) his jurisdiction contained 19 priests, 20 churches, and a Catholic population of 11,722.
The second vicar Apostolic was the Right Rev. James O’Connor, D.D., b. at Queenstown, Ireland, September 10, 1823. At the age of fifteen he came to America. He was educated at St. Charles’s Seminary, Philadelphia, and in the Propaganda College, Rome, where he was ordained priest in 1848. The following year he was appointed rector of St. Michael’s Seminary, Pittsburgh, and in 1862 rector of St. Charles’s Seminary, Overbrook, Pennsylvania. In 1872 he was appointed pastor of St. Dominic’s Church, Holmesburg, Pennsylvania. In 1876 he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska, and on August 20 of the same year he was consecrated titular Bishop of Dibona by Bishop Ryan of St. Louis. During his episcopate the vicariate developed with wonderful rapidity. The construction of the Union Pacific Railway in 1867, and more especially the extension of the Burlington Railway in the seventies and eighties, opened up Nebraska to colonists, and white settlers began to pour in from the Eastern states. It became the duty of the new vicar to provide for the growing needs of the faithful, and the yearly statistics of the vicariate show how successful were his labors. In 1880 the Dakotas were erected into a vicariate, and on April 7, 1887, Montana was cut off.
Diocese of Omaha.—On October 2, 1885, the vicariate was erected into the Diocese of Omaha, and Bishop O’Connor was appointed its first bishop. The new diocese embraced the present States of Nebraska and Wyoming. On August 2, 1887, the Dioceses of Cheyenne and Lincoln were erected, leaving Omaha its present boundaries. Through the generosity of the Creighton family, Bishop O’Connor was enabled to erect a Catholic free day college in the city of Omaha. On its completion in 1879, the bishop, who held the property in trust, deeded over the institution to the Jesuit Fathers, who are since in charge and hold the property as trustees (see Creighton University). Bishop O’Connor also introduced into his jurisdiction the Franciscan Fathers, the Poor Clares, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Benedictines, and the Sisters of Providence. A most important work in the bishop’s life was the foundation, in conjunction with Miss Catherine Drexel, of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in 1889 (see Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; also “Indian Sentinel”, 1907). Bishop O’Connor also helped to establish a Catholic colony in Greeley Co., and (1889) the Cath. Mutual Relief Soc. of America.
The present bishop is the Right Rev. Richard Scannell, D.D., b. in the parish of Cloyne, Co. Cork, Ireland, May 12, 1845. Having completed his classical studies in a private school at Midleton, in 1866 he entered All Hallows College, Dublin, where he was ordained priest February 26, 1871. In the same year he came to the Diocese of Nashville and was appointed assistant at the cathedral. In 1878 he became rector of St. Columba’s Church, East Nashville, and in 1879 rector of the cathedral. From 1880 to 1883 he was administrator of the diocese, sede vacante. In 1885 he organized St. Joseph‘s parish in West Nashville and built its church. The following year he was appointed vicar-general, and on November 30, 1887, was consecrated first Bishop of Concordia by Archbishop Feehan.
On January 30, 1891, he was transferred to Omaha. During his administration the diocese shows the same wonderful growth that characterized this territory in the time of his predecessors. Parishes, parochial schools, and academies have more than doubled in number. The diocesan priests have increased from 58 to 144, and the religious from 23 to 37. The old frame churches are fast being replaced by structures of brick and stone, and a fine cathedral of the Spanish style of architecture is in process of erection. The Creighton Memorial St. Joseph‘s Hospital, costing over half a million dollars, has been erected, and a new hospital—St. Catherine’s—has just been opened, a home of the Good Shepherd has been established, and Creighton University has been many times enlarged. Bishop Scannell introduced the following orders: (men) the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, who conduct a flourishing college; (women) the Sisters of St. Joseph, of the Presentation, of the Resurrection, of St. Benedict, of the Blessed Sacrament, of the Good Shepherd, the Dominicans, Felicians, Ursulines, and Franciscans.
Pioneer Priests.—Fathers Kelly, Daxacher, Hartig, Ryan, Cannon, Powers, Erlach, Curtis, Hayes, Byrne, Groenebaum, Uhing, Lechleitner. The following filled the office of vicar—general or administrator:—Very Rev. Fathers Kelly, Curtis, Byrne, Choka, and Rt. Rev. Msgr. Colaneri, the present vicar-general and chancellor.
Statistics.—Priests, secular 144, regular 37; parishes, 117; university, 1, students 856; college, 1, students 150; academies for young ladies, 10, pupils 1127; parochial schools, 77, pupils 479; orphan asylum, 1, orphans 145; Good Shepherd Home, 1, inmates 210; religious orders of men, 3, members 77; religious orders of women, 17, members 427; hospitals, 5; Catholic population (1910), 85,319. (For early explorations see Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.)