On February 28, 1927, his 41st birthday, Thomas J. Toolen was appointed Mobile’s sixth Catholic bishop. The city was still making repairs from a September hurricane that had winds estimated at 110 miles per hour.
Toolen’s archdiocese consisted of the entire state of Alabama, as well as a portion of northwest Florida. Unlike Mobile, with its French and Spanish colonial history, the remainder of Alabama was heavily Protestant. Over the next 40 years, he would oversee tremendous growth and implement numerous changes in his diocese. And during this entire period, Mobile would be happily spared from the destruction of a direct hit from a hurricane.
A New School and Maternity Hospital
One of Toolen’s earliest accomplishments was to establish a girls’ Catholic high school in 1928. McGill Institute had opened its doors on Government Street in 1896, but its student body was entirely male. The girls’ school was built on land adjoining St. Mary’s Church on Lafayette Street in Midtown and was named Bishop Toolen High School to honor its creator.
In 1929, he dedicated the new Allen Memorial Home on Lafayette Street, directly behind Providence Hospital. Designed as a maternity hospital, it was named for Toolen’s predecessor, Edward Allen. In time, it became a home for unwed mothers and cared for abandoned infants and children up to age 7.
Toolen traveled around the state where his attire often drew the attention of the locals. On a train platform in rural Alabama, one of his associates got tired of the stares they were receiving and removed his hat, smiled, and said, “See, no horns!” Ultimately, Toolen would be credited with establishing 200 churches around Alabama.
An Unpopular Decree
Things did not always go smoothly. In 1941, the Bishop decided that all Catholic children should attend parochial schools rather than public. Toolen decreed that any Catholic parents who sent their offspring to public schools would be denied communion. He announced, “Catholic parents must send their children to Catholic schools. Parents who do not obey are rebellious and should be treated as such.”
If those parents had not thought of themselves as rebellious before, Toolen’s decree had them rebelling in full force. The economic depression was far from over, and the bishop ultimately reversed his unpopular ruling.
Martin de Porres Hospital
In 1947, Toolen established the first African-American hospital in Alabama: Martin de Porres. It was also the first hospital that permitted black physicians to work alongside their white counterparts — a rarity in the South at the time.
Toolen announced the end of racial segregation in all Catholic schools in his diocese in 1964. This was national news at the time, and he stated, “I ask all our people to accept this decision as best for God and country.”
After more than 40 years as Mobile’s bishop, Toolen retired in 1969. It has been estimated that he traveled a staggering 1 million miles visiting churches and missions in his diocese, and he was the oldest active bishop in the country. He died seven years later at the age of 90 and is buried in the crypt beneath the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
During Toolen’s long tenure, Mobile had been spared the sort of hurricanes that had repeatedly struck the city earlier in the century. Barely three years after his death, things changed with the catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Frederic, followed by other storms. In the wake of these devastating storms, a half-joking, city-wide myth slowly formulated, connecting the Bishop’s 42-year tenure to Mobile’s recently shattered stormless era. So, while Toolen accomplished many things during his time in Mobile, it may be the hurricane-free decades for which he is best remembered.