Bishop Jean-Pierre Augustin Verot (1870-1877)
Historian Michael Gannon, Ph.D., has called Bishop Augustin Verot the “rebel bishop” of the United States Civil War era and the enfant terrible of the first Vatican Council (1870).
When the Holy See created the Diocese of St. Augustine on March 11, 1870, Frenchman Augustin Verot was named its first bishop. Verot was deeply interested in seeing Catholicism flourish in the Southern States of the U.S., having worked many years below the Mason-Dixon Line. Born in Le Puy, France, in 1805, Verot joined the Society of St. Sulpice as a young man. The Sulpicians, as they were commonly known, were well known for administrating seminaries for the training of diocesan priests. From 1830 to 1857, Father Verot taught theology and philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary College in Baltimore.
In early 1858, Verot was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Florida and ordained bishop. In 1861 he was given the added responsibility of taking the helm at the Diocese of Savannah, Ga. Later that year, Bishop Verot preached a sermon in defense of slavery, tempering his message by indicating that the abuses of slavery needed to be wiped out and the system humanized. Bishop Verot’s thinking earned him the label “rebel bishop” throughout the Union and the North. His early endorsement of slavery did not obscure his sympathy for human rights after the war.
During the First Vatican Council he became a vigorous advocate for the rights of African-American freed slaves. He also argued for greater cooperation between Catholics and Protestants. These two themes were combined when Bishop Verot enlisted the help of the Sisters of St. Joseph from Le Puy, France, to establish Catholic schools for the sons and daughters of freed slaves – many of whom were Protestant Christians.
In 1870, Verot took on the Florida episcopacy full-time. He was a man of extraordinary zeal, courage and energy. The newly-erected Diocese of St. Augustine measured more than 58,000 square miles and stretched from the Georgia Border to Key West and east of the Appalachicola River in Florida’s Panhandle. Bishop Verot, 65-years-old when he accepted the bishopric, traveled the length of the diocese on horseback, often sleeping under the stars on the way to visit Catholic families throughout the peninsula. He celebrated Mass in the homes of Catholics with visitations and a reliance on God allowed Bishop Verot to weather the challenges of the Florida missionary trail.
The decade of the 1870’s marked the beginning of Florida’s “pioneer Catholicism.” During this period, the church workers struggled to overcome long distances, deprivation, poverty and institutional paucity. Regardless, Bishop Verot was always positive about the prospects of Florida’s growth and success. “It has a delightful climate,” he wrote in 1859, and the land “which can be had for one or two dollars per acre will repay the industrious Catholic settler.”
Bishop John Moore (1877-1901)
In 1877, another foreigner was appointed to the episcopacy in St. Augustine. John Moore, an Irishman, received his theological education in Rome where he became inspired to work in the Southern United States. Moore was ordained for the Diocese of Charleston and worked in the South for many years before his episcopal appointment to Florida in 1877. In 1887, Moore undertook massive repairs to St. Augustine’s Cathedral after it was gutted by fire. He raised a great deal of money for the venerable old Cathedral from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, among them Florida railroad magnate Henry Flagler.
One of Bishop Moore’s most astute decisions was his invitation to religious order priests and nuns to serve Florida’s Catholics. Noticing the vast distances between his episcopal seat in North Florida and the growing economy and cities in the South – Bishop Moore recruited religious to meet quickly the burgeoning needs of the diocese. He enlisted the Benedictines to open a monastery and school, the progenitors of St. Leo’s Abbey and College. The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, broke ground on schools in Tampa and parishes in Miami and Key West. Priests and sisters from Moore’s native Ireland were also recruited – a move that would have perennial repercussions as scores of Ireland’s sons and daughters continued to fulfill their vocational ministries in Florida for generations to come. And all along, Bishop Moore was continuing and expanding Catholic outreach to African-American children and adults.
Bishop William John Kenny (1902 – 1913)
The last “pioneer bishop” of Florida was William J. Kenny, the diocese’s first bishop born in the United States. His appointment is also notable since Father Kenny was a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine before he became its bishop.
As a pastor of downtown Jacksonville’s Immaculate Conception Church, Father Kenny became active in civic organizations and community service associations.
During the great Jacksonville fire of 1901, for example, Father Kenny assumed a leading role on the city’s Emergency Relief Committee and was placed in charge of the committee’s Bureau of Information. Whether helping the poor, refugees from disaster or the sick, Bishop Kenny’s early ecumenical civic activity created a higher profile for Florida Catholics as they integrated into the ever-growing population.
In May of 1902, Father Kenny was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore – a sign of the esteem with which he was held in both his home diocese and the church at large. Bishop Kenny served the diocese from 1902 until 1913. During this time, he expanded the recruitment of Irish priests and sisters, re-organized diocesan offices and upgraded the missionary evangelization efforts to Florida’s interior and smaller towns. Bishop Kenny more than doubled diocesan fund-raising and began to seek funds from sources other than Northern dioceses.
As bishop, he showed extraordinary solicitude for Florida’s African-Americans. Bishop Kenny built the first African-American parish in the state, St. Benedict the Moor in St. Augustine (1911). The Catholic school program established by Bishop Verot – with its policy of accepting all African-Americans regardless of their religion – was maintained and improved through the generosity of St. Catherine Drexel, and her sisters.
Bishop Michael Joseph Curley (1913-1921)
Bishop Michael Joseph Curley was from Althone, Ireland and attended the Urban College of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. The college was known informally as the “College for the Spread of the Faith,” and was a missionary seminary that prepared Bishop Curley well for his work in Florida.
At age 25, the newly ordained Father Curley was given his first Florida parish, St. Peter’s in DeLand. All told, his parish comprised 7,200 square miles and was one of the largest on the East Coast.
Named bishop on April 3, 1914 he impressed Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a man of zeal, good judgment and one who “was not afraid to act.” During the early years of his episcopacy, these qualities would be pressed to the limit. By the early 1910’s, anti-Catholicism was on the rise in Florida. Bishop Curley aimed to educate Floridians about Catholicism and show the manifest bigotry of the Klu Klux Klan. In 1916, when three Sisters of St. Joseph were arrested for teaching African-American children in their convent school, Bishop Curley vowed to take his fight to the Supreme Court.
During World War I, Bishop Curley encouraged Catholics to support their fighting men overseas. In 1914, he established the Diocesan Catholic War Council, a group that gave spiritual guidance to Florida’s Catholic soldiers heading off to war. The bishop spoke at Liberty Bond rallies and at the end of the Great War celebrated the “Solemn Field Military Mass” in Battery Park, N.Y. – the largest memorial Mass for Allied dead up to that time. One of the youngest bishops in the American hierarchy, at age 42, Michael Curley was tapped to succeed Cardinal James Gibbons as Archbishop of Baltimore. “Many considered that his comparative youth would prevent his appointment,” the New York Times reported, overlooking the success of his Florida experience. Later, he would recount that he spent some “of the happiest years” of his life as a priest and bishop in Florida.
Bishop Patrick Joseph Barry (1922-1940)
Patrick Barry was named the fifth bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine on April 22, 1922. Like Bishop Curley, he was an Irishman and educated at seminaries there. Recruited for work in the “Florida Missions” out of St. Patrick Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, he was ordained in 1895.
Shortly after his arrival in Florida, he was made assistant pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Jacksonville. While in Jacksonville, he undertook chaplaincy work to American troops headed south to fight in the Spanish-American War. Friendly and skillful, in 1917 he was appointed rector of the Cathedral in St. Augustine.
As bishop, he showed great prudence and managed to steer the diocese off the shoals of bankruptcy during the Great Depression. In fact, the diocese managed to prosper spiritually and temporally under his direction. In 1931, he instituted an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Leche located on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios in order to draw attention to the long Catholic heritage of the Catholic Church in St. Augustine. In June of 1932 he sailed with New York’s Cardinal Patrick Hayes to attend the World Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland.
Bishop Barry was zealous in his building-up of the faith in Florida. As a parish priest, he knew what it was to travel the long distances of the diocese and attend to parish needs. In October 1934, Bishop Barry met with Pope Pius XI, who “expressed his interest in the work of the church” in Florida. Part of that work was the bishop’s dedication to Catholic education in Florida. During the 1930’s he worked with his sister, who had become a Dominican Sister of Adrian, Mich. and rose to Mother Superior of the order. She founded Barry College (now Barry University) in Miami Shores.
Mother Gerald Barry, Bishop Patrick Barry and their brother William, also a Florida priest, combined their considerable talents to make historic contributions to Catholic higher education in Florida. In May 1940, these accomplishments were recognized by the State of Florida when Bishop Barry was asked to deliver the commencement address at Florida State College for Women, now Florida State University. The first Catholic bishop in the state ever to receive such an invitation, Bishop Barry encouraged the students to strive for Christ’s peace in a world clouded by imminent war.
Archbishop-Bishop Joseph Patrick Hurley (1940-1967)
Joseph Patrick Hurley was named Bishop Barry’s successor in October 1940. An American in the diplomatic service of the pope, he came to St. Augustine from Rome, the very heart of the Catholic Church. Bishop Hurley would lead the diocese for 27 years, guiding Florida’s Catholics from World War II through the social dislocations of the 1960’s. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, the 46 year-old bishop was a strong foe of Nazism and used his new episcopal rank to swing American Catholics toward American interventionism.
After World War II, Pope Pius XII brought Hurley back to the papal diplomatic service and appointed him the regent ad interim to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. With the appointment, Bishop Hurley became the first American raised to the rank of nuncio (ambassador) in the history of papal diplomacy. In Yugoslavia, he diplomatically battled Marshall Joseph Broz Tito, who aimed to suppress the Catholic Church during the era of the Cold War. After his diplomatic career ended in 1950, Bishop Hurley was given the title of Archbishop (ad personam) in recognition for his service to the Holy See.
During much of Hurley’s episcopacy, from 1940 to 1958, the Diocese of St. Augustine comprised virtually the entire state of Florida. And during this period, the state experienced unprecedented growth. Once described as a bishop “wiser than a tree full of owls,” Hurley predicted the future of Florida Catholic growth and initiated a comprehensive plan of real estate procurement for parishes.
Sophisticated purchasing strategies, the use of airplanes to circle cities from the air and gauge suburban sprawl, were employed. Nicknamed “ten-acre Joe” by some priests, land purchasing through the 1940’s and 1950’s confounded many at the time, but proved invaluable as the Sunshine State’s Catholic population exploded through the 1960’s and 1970’s.
A man of prayer, social conscience and international experience, Archbishop Hurley’s foresight has proved invaluable as all dioceses of Florida look to the future so as to bear fruit on Florida’s “good ground.”
Bishop Thomas Joseph McDonough (Auxiliary: 1947-1957)
In March 1947, with Bishop Hurley serving in Belgrade, Pope Pius XII named diocesan Chancellor Thomas Joseph McDonough auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. Universally admired and respected by his fellow priests, McDonough would later go on to serve as the Bishop of Savannah, Ga. (1957) and later as Archbishop of Louisville, Ky. (1967). At the time of his installation Bishop McDonough was 35 years old, then the youngest member of the American hierarchy.
The post-World War II period saw great waves of new Floridians arrive in the state, many of them Catholic. During his years of service to the Diocese of St. Augustine, Bishop McDonough was responsible for a great deal of land purchasing, fund-raising and church building. His youth and energy were of immense aid to a diocese stretched to the limit. While Bishop McDonough was auxiliary between the years 1947 and 1957, the diocese grew by more than 100,000 registered Catholics.
Bishop McDonough’s capable administration and compassionate style prepared him for leadership in other places. Bishop McDonough’s work with African-Americans in St. Augustine allowed him, nearly 20 years later, to sign and eagerly support the pioneering civil rights “Pentecost Statement” of the Bishops of the Atlanta Province. Issued in mid-1965, the statement decried racial strife and condemned racial discrimination as a contrary to Christian thinking and action.
Bishop Paul Francis Tanner (1968-1979)
In February 1968, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Luigi Raimondi announced that Peoria, Ill. native Bishop Paul F. Tanner was to be the new bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine.
Educated at Marquette University – Kenrick Seminary, and St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, Father Tanner was an exceptional assistant pastor in Milwaukee and a strong supporter of the Catholic Youth Organization. His work with Catholic youth drew the attention of his superiors and in 1941 he was named assistant director of the Catholic Youth Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C.
From 1945 to 1958, then Msgr. Tanner was the Assistant General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, holding the position of General Secretary from 1958 to 1968.
Ordained a bishop in 1965, he came to Florida from the administrative hub of the American church and the wealth of experience he gained in the nation’s capital. He served Florida well as social and ethical issues of national import began to affect the state’s Catholic community.
Bishop Tanner was one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the 1973 Untied States Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion on demand. In 1975, Bishop Tanner was on the forefront of an effort to have the U.S. Congress adopt a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution. The move underscored Bishop Tanner’s leadership on the sanctity of human life and his allegiance to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. In concert with this philosophy, Bishop Tanner never failed to promote the church’s teaching against capital punishment. The prodigious number of prisons in Florida compelled Bishop Tanner to speak out against the attack that state executions posed to the “incomparable dignity of the human person.” As a signer of the 1972 Florida Bishop’s Statement on Capital Punishment, he courageously presaged the emerging position of Pope John Paul II on capital punishment.
Bishop Tanner also re-oriented the church in North Florida to changes occurring within the church. As St. Augustine’s first bishop after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), he was eager to implement the changes suggested by the Pope and Council. Along these lines, Bishop Tanner established a Liturgical Commission, an Office for Pro-Life Activities, encouraged the establishment of Parish Councils and championed the rights of immigrants and the poor.
Charles R. Gallagher, Ph.D., is a Jesuit with the New England Province. He is a former archivist for the Diocese of St. Augustine (1997-1999) and author of, Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P.Hurley and Pope Pius XII, which won the John Gilmary Shea Prize, an annual award given by the American Catholic Historical Society. He is also author of Cross & Crozier: A History of the Diocese of St. Augustine. Father Gallagher, ordained for the Jesuits on June 12, 2010, has been assigned to the Department of History at Boston College.