Reflecting on the work of bishops

Lessons from great churchmen of the past bode well for U.S. Catholic Church in the future

We had a priest in the Nashville diocese, Father Aaron T. Gildea, who was ordained to the sacred priesthood on June 8, 1929. Many of our readers have never heard about him as he never served in the church of eastern Tennessee.

But two other priests, both ordained June 14, 1929, will be remembered by our older folk with the fondest of memories: Father John Harold Shea, a member of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville as a child and founding pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga in 1937, where he led the people of that city’s second parish until he was transferred to Memphis some 20 years later; and Father Christopher Power Murray, native of Nashville who served during the 1930s as pastor of the Harriman Missions and was assigned to Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville in summer 1941. He also served as superintendent of Knoxville Catholic High School, where he led construction of the original gymnasium and science laboratory. He left East Tennessee in 1955 and served in what are now the Nashville and Memphis dioceses before God called him home on Dec. 2, 1985.

Old-time priests rumored that Father Gildea memorized the Official Catholic Directory (sort of like St. Thomas Aquinas memorizing the entire Bible). I have no personal knowledge of this as Father Gildea died on March 31, 1961, and I was not ordained a priest until May 27 of that same year. However, when the new edition of the Official Catholic Directory is published each year (I received my copy on July 20) I think of that rumor that now has become legend about a priest who lived during the middle of the 20th century who was blessed with such a phenomenal memory.

My first inspection of the 2012 OCD was to refresh my memory of the archbishops of Baltimore. I would suspect that the first one, Archbishop John Carroll, and the ninth one, James Cardinal Gibbons, are better known to the average “pew “Catholic than the other 14 who have led the see of Baltimore since 1790 (unless the last two, Archbishop (now Cardinal) O’Brien, 2001-2011, and Archbishop William E. Lori, appointed March 20 of this very year, are better known to us because they are contemporary and we can access them via modern media at our disposal these days).

These columns have treated, at least by way of mention, the first archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll; the first bishop of Bardstown (now Louisville), Benedict Joseph Flaget; the first bishop of Nashville, Richard Pius Miles, OP; and our founding bishop of Knoxville, Anthony J. O’Connell. Since I find that so many of our people are quite uninformed on the role played even in civil affairs by our American bishops I hope to mention off and on the names and dates of service of bishops who helped make the Church in the United States the Body of Christ that it is today.

The second archbishop of Baltimore, Leonard Neale, became its auxiliary bishop on Dec. 7, 1800. This was the first such ceremony in the English-speaking United States as Archbishop Carroll had been consecrated in England.

I draw heavily on the Catholic Encyclopedia for the following information about Archbishop Neale. He was born at Port Tobacco, Md., on Oct. 15, 1746, and died in Baltimore on June 18, 1817. He was born of an old Maryland family, son of William and Anne Neale. At about the age of 12, he was sent to Europe to obtain his education under Catholic auspices, a privilege he could not enjoy in the colony. After his course at St. Omer’s in French Flanders he entered the Society of Jesus on Sept. 7, 1767. At the time of the suppression of the Society in 1773, he was a priest and still engaged in the study of theology. He then went to England and from there to Demerara in British Guiana as a missionary.

In 1783, he returned to Maryland and was assigned to the mission of Port Tobacco, his birthplace. When the yellow fever plague of 1793 in Philadelphia took the lives of Lorenz Graessel, who had been named coadjutor bishop of Baltimore, and Francis Anthony Fleming, OP, Neale went to Philadelphia and was soon named its vicar general by Bishop John Carroll. During Neale’s ministry in that city, he met Miss Alice Lalor and helped her to found the first community of Visitation Nuns in the United States.

In 1798 Bishop Carroll called Father Neale to the presidency of Georgetown College.  While retaining this post, he was selected as Carroll’s coadjutor and was consecrated bishop of Gortyna in the procathedral of St. Peter’s in Baltimore on Dec. 7, 1800. Bishop Neale joined Archbishop Carroll in 1803 in writing to Gabriel Gruber, superior of the Jesuits in Russia, to present the petition of the former to be joined with the Society of Jesus still existing in White Russia. Moreover, Neale’s support of this project continued until the viva voce restoration was effected in 1806. He likewise rejoiced with the Jesuits at their final and complete restoration throughout the world in 1814.

When Carroll died on Dec. 3, 1815, Neale succeeded to the metropolitan See of Baltimore, receiving the pallium from Pius VII the following year. One of his first acts was to request from the Holy See the formal approval of the Visitation community at Georgetown. His episcopate was sorely tried by schisms in Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C. Burdened by these troubles, he sought a coadjutor and selected the Sulpician, Ambrose Marechal. The latter’s appointment as titular bishop of Stauropolis on July 24, 1817, came about a month after the archbishop’s death. Neale is buried in a crypt beneath the altar of the convent chapel of the Visitation Convent in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Our bishops have been great churchmen from the beginning (Sts. Peter and Paul got them off to a good start).

I think that you will see an extraordinary leadership displayed by those serving the American Church in the decades to come. Pray for them, help them, love them. n

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