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Diocese of Richmond

Brief history of this suffragan of Baltimore, established July 11, 1820

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Richmond, Diocese of (RICHMONDENSIS), suffragan of Baltimore, established July 11, 1820, comprises the State of Virginia, except the Counties of Accomac and Northampton (Diocese of Wilmington); and Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig (partly), Dickinson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe (Diocese of Wheeling); and in the State of West Virginia, the Counties of Berkeley, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Mineral, Morgan, and Pendleton. It embraces 31,518 square miles in Virginia and 3290 square miles in West Virginia. Originally it included also the territory of the present Diocese of Wheeling, created July 23, 1850.

Colonial Period.—In the summer of 1526 a Spanish Catholic settlement was made in Virginia on the very spot (according to Ecija, the pilot-in-chief of Florida) where, in 1607, eighty-one years later, the English founded the settlement of Jamestown. Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, one of the judges of the island of San Domingo, received from the King of Spain, June 12, 1523, a patent empowering him to explore the coast for 800 leagues, establish a settlement within three years and Christianize the natives. In June, 1526, Ayllon sailed from Puerto de La Plata, San Domingo, with three vessels, 600 persons of both sexes, horses, and supplies. The Dominicans Antonio de Montesinos and Antonio de Cervantes, with Brother Peter de Estrada, accompanied the expedition. Entering the Capes at the Chesapeake, and ascending a river (the James), he landed at Guandape, which he named St. Michael. Buildings were constructed and the Holy Sacrifice offered in a chapel, the second place of Catholic worship on American soil. Ayllon died of fever, October 18, 1526. The rebellion of the settlers and hostility of the Indians caused Francisco Gomez, the next in command, to abandon the settlement in the spring of 1527, when he set sail for San Domingo in two vessels, one of which foundered. Of the party only 150 reached their destination.

A second expedition sent by Menendez, the Governor of Florida and nominal Governor of Virginia, settled on the Rappahannock River at a point called Axacan, September 10, 1570. It consisted of Fathers Segura, ViceProvincial of the Jesuits, and Luis de Quiros, six Jesuit brothers, and a few friendly Indians. A log building served as chapel and home. Through the treachery of Don Luis de Velasco, an Indian pilot of Spanish name, Father Quiros and Brothers Solis and Mendez were slain by the Indians, February 14, 1571. Four days later were martyred Father Segura, Brothers Linares, Redondo, Gabriel, Gomez, and Sancho Zevalles. Menendez, several months later, sailed for Axacan, where he had eight of the murderers hanged; they being converted before death by Father John Rogel, a Jesuit missionary.

Attempts to found Catholic settlements in Virginia were made by Lord Baltimore in 1629, and Captain George Brent in 1687. In the spring of 1634 Father John Altham, a Jesuit companion of Father Andrew White, the Maryland missionary, labored amongst some of the Virginia tribes on the south side of the Potomac. Stringent laws were soon enacted in Virginia against Catholics. In 1687 Fathers Edmonds and Raymond were arrested at Norfolk for exercising their priestly functions. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century the few Catholic settlers at Aquia Creek, near the Potomac, were attended by Father John Carroll and other Jesuit missionaries from Maryland.

American Period.—Rev. Jean Dubois, afterwards third Bishop of New York, accompanied by a few French priests and with letters of introduction from Lafayette to several prominent Virginia families, came to Norfolk in August, 1791, where he labored a few months, and probably left the priests who came with him. Proceeding to Richmond towards the end of the year, he offered in the House of Delegates, by invitation of the General Assembly, the first Mass ever said in the Capital City. His successors at Richmond, with interruptions, were the Revs. T. C. Mongrand, Xavier Michel, John McElroy, John Baxter, John Mahoney, James Walsh, Thomas Hore, and Fathers Homer and Schreiber.

Tradition tells us that at an early date, probably at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Alexandria had a log chapel with an unknown resident priest. Rev. John Thayer of Boston (see Archdiocese of Boston) was stationed there in 1794. Rev. Francis Neale, who in 1796 constructed at Alexandria a brick church, erected fourteen years later a more suitable church where Fathers Kohlmann, Enoch, and Benedict Joseph Fenwick, afterwards second Bishop of Boston, frequently officiated. About 1796 Rev. James Bushe began the erection of a church at Norfolk. His successors were the Very Rev. Leonard Neale, afterwards Archbishop of Baltimore (see Archdiocese of Baltimore), Revs. Michael Lacy, Christopher Delaney, Joseph Stokes, Samuel Cooper, J. Van Horsigh, and A. L. Hitzelberger.

Bishops of Richmond.—(I) Right Rev. Patrick Kelly, D.D., consecrated first Bishop of Richmond, August 24, 1820, came to reside at Norfolk, where the Catholics were much more numerous than at Richmond, January 19, 1821. The erection of Virginia into a diocese had been premature and was accordingly opposed by the Archbishop of Baltimore. Because of factions and various other difficulties, Bishop Kelly soon petitioned Rome to be relieved of his charge. He left Virginia in July, 1822, having been transferred to the See of Waterford and Lismore, where he died, October 8, 1829. Archbishop Marechal of Baltimore was appointed administrator of the diocese.

Rev. Timothy O’Brien, who came as pastor to Richmond in 1832, did more for Catholicism during his eighteen years’ labor than any other missionary, excepting the Bishops of the See. In 1834 he built St. Peter’s Church, afterwards the cathedral, and founded St. Joseph‘s Female Academy and Orphan Asylum, bringing as teachers three Sisters of Charity.

The Right Rev. Richard Vincent Whelan, D.D., consecrated March 21, 1841, established the same year, on the outskirts of Richmond, St. Vincent’s Seminary and College, discontinued in 1846. Leaving Rev. Timothy O’Brien at St. Peter’s, Richmond, the Bishop took up his residence at the seminary, and acted as president. In 1842 Bishop Whelan dedicated St. Joseph‘s Church, Petersburg, and St. Patrick’s Church, Norfolk, and the following year that of St. Francis at Lynchburg. In 1846 he built a church at Wheeling and, two years later, founded at Norfolk St. Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum. Wheeling was made a separate see, July 23, 1850, and to it was transferred Bishop Whelan.

Right Rev. John McGill, D.D., consecrated November 10, 1850, was present in Rome in 1854 when the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed. By pen and voice he opposed Knownothingism. In 1855 Bishop McGill convened the First Diocesan Synod. During the yellow fever plague of the same year, Rev. Matthew O’Keefe of Norfolk and Rev. Francis Devlin of Portsmouth won renown; the latter dying a martyr to priestly duty. In 1856 St. Vincent’s Hospital, Norfolk, was founded. Alexandria, formerly in the Baltimore archdiocese as part of the District of Columbia, but ceded back to Virginia, was annexed to the Richmond diocese, August 15, 1858. In 1860 the bishop transferred St. Mary’s German Church, Richmond, to the Benedictines. During the Civil War Bishop McGill wrote two learned works, “The True Church Indicated to the Inquirer”, and “Our Faith, the Victory”, republished as “The Creed of Catholics”. The bishop established at Richmond the Sisters of the Visitation, and at Alexandria the Sisters of the Holy Cross. He also took part in the Vatican Council. Bishop McGill died at Richmond, January 14, 1872.

(4) Right Rev. James Gibbons, D.D. (afterwards archbishop and cardinal), consecrated titular Bishop of Adramyttum to organize North Carolina into a vicariate, August 16, 1868, was appointed Bishop of Richmond, July 30, 1872. He established at Richmond the Little Sisters of the Poor, and St. Peter’s Boys’ Academy. Erecting new parishes, churches, and schools, making constant diocesan visitations, frequently preaching to large congregations of both Catholics and non-Catholics, Bishop Gibbons, during his short rule of five years, accomplished in the diocese a vast amount of religious good. Made coadjutor Bishop of Baltimore, May 29, 1877, he succeeded Archbishop Bayley in that see, October 3, 1877.

(5) Right Rev. John Joseph Keane, D.D. (afterwards archbishop), consecrated, August 25, 1878. Gifted with ever-ready and magnetic eloquence, Bishop Keane drew great numbers of people to hear his inspiring discourses. He held the Second Diocesan Synod in 1886, and introduced into the diocese the Josephites and the Xaverian Brothers. Bishop Keane was appointed first Rector of the Catholic University, Washington, August 12, 1888, created titular Archbishop of Damascus, January 9, 1897, and transferred to the See of Dubuque, July 24, 1900.

(6) Right Rev. Augustine Van De Vyver, D.D., consecrated, October 20, 1889, began an able and vigorous rule. On June 3, 1903, he publicly received the Most Rev. Diomede Falconio, Apostolic Delegate, who the following day laid the cornerstone of the new Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of the most artistic edifices in the country, designed by Joseph McGuire, architect, of New York. A handsome bishop’s house and a pastoral residence adjoin the cathedral. The latter was solemnly consecrated by Msgr. Falconio on November 29, 1906. The event was the most imposing Catholic ceremony in the history of the diocese. Besides Cardinal Gibbons, and the Apostolic Delegate, there were present 18 archbishops and bishops. Bishop Van De Vyver convened a quasi-synod, November 12, 1907, which approved the decrees of the Second Synod and enacted new and needed legislation. In 1907 the Knights of Columbus held at the Jamestown Exposition their national convention and jubilee celebration, participated in by the Apostolic Delegate, and several archbishops and bishops; while the following year the St. Vincent de Paul Society held a similar celebration in Richmond. In June, 1909, St. Peter’s (Richmond) handsome new residence and the adjoining home of the McGill Union and the Knights of Columbus were completed, at a total cost of about $50,000. In the following autumn St. Peter’s Church (the old cathedral) celebrated the diamond jubilee of its existence. With it, either as bishops or as priests, are indelibly linked the names of Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishops Keane and Janssens, and Bishops Van De Vyver, Whelan, McGill, Becker, Keiley, and O’Connell of San Francisco. Most Rev. John J. Kain, deceased Archbishop of St. Louis, had also been a priest of the diocese. Bishop Van De Vyver introduced into the diocese the Fathers of the Holy Ghost; additional Benedictine and Josephite Fathers and Xaverian Brothers; the Christian Brothers; additional Sisters of Charity; the Benedictine and Franciscan Sisters; Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, of the Blessed Sacrament and of the Perpetual Adoration. Under his regime have been founded 12 new parishes, 32 churches, 3 colleges, 4 industrial schools, 2 orphan asylums, 1 infant asylum (colored), and many parochial schools.

Notable Benefactors.—Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fortune Ryan, of New York, the former donating, the latter furnishing, the imposing Sacred Heart Cathedral (nearly $500,000), together with other notable benefactions. Mrs. Ryan has built churches, schools, and religious houses in various parts of the state. Other generous benefactors were Right Rev. Bernard McQuaid, D.D., Joseph Gallego, John P. Matthews, William S. Caldwell, Mark Downey, and John Pope.

Statistics.—(1911): Secular priests, 50; Benedictines, 10; Josephites, 6; Holy Ghost Fathers, 2; Brothers, Xaverian, 35; Christian, 12; Sisters of Charity, 60; of St. Benedict, 50; Visitation Nuns, 23; Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, 20; of the Holy Cross, 20; Little Sisters of the Poor, 18; Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, 18; of St. Francis, 12; of Perpetual Adoration, 10; parishes with resident priests, 35; missions with churches, 48; colleges, 3 (I colored), academies, 9; parochial schools, 26; industrial schools, 4 (2 colored); orphan asylums, 4; infant asylums, 1 (colored); young people attending Catholic institutions, 7500; home for aged, 1 (inmates, 200); Catholic Hospital, 1 (yearly patients, 3000).

Catholic Societies.—Priests’ Clerical Fund Association; Eucharistic League; Holy Name; St. Vincent de Paul‚Ä¢ League of Good Shepherd; boys’ and girls’ sodalities; tabernacle, altar, and sanctuary societies; women’s benevolent and beneficial; fraternal and social, such as Knights of Columbus, Hibernians, and flourishing local societies. Of parishes there are one each of Germans, Italians, and Bohemians, and 4 for the colored people. Catholic population, 41,000. The causes of growth are principally natural increase and conversions, there being little Catholic immigration into the diocese.


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