Our Catholic Forebearers

Catholics, perhaps more than any other local group, have a history and existence that is tightly woven together with that of the Bay area. Their story begins with the 1702 founding expedition, when a French group that included the Rev. Paul du Ru, S.J. perched upon what is now 27-Mile Bluff, establishing Fort Louis de la Louisiane overlooking the Mobile River. Within two years, a parish was formally erected, and the melodically named Henri Roulleaux de la Vente was charged with pastoral duties.

During the Colonial period, when the territory’s French flags flew, nearly 350 local Catholics fell under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Quebec. In 1763, when the French and Indian War concluded with the Treaty of Paris, the Gulf Coast was ceded to the British under terms of the settlement. The French colonials staunchly continued practicing their Catholic faith, and petitioned “for the free exercise of their religion, including the maintenance of a church and bells.”

In 1780, Spain saw an opportunity to wrest the territory from the British, and they did just that, as Bernardo Galvez swept east from Louisiana. Under the Spanish rule, ecclesiastical duties fell to the Diocese of Santiago de Cuba.

Baptismal books were written in Spanish, and the parish was titled Yglesia de Purissima Conception. An auxiliary to the bishop visited Mobile in 1791, and counted the population at 733 residents, 320 of who were white. In 1793, records show that the church was located on Royal Street, remaining there until it was destroyed by fire in 1827.

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The Reluctant Bishop

The magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is now the best-known symbol of Catholicism in the Port City. Michael Mastro

Meanwhile, in Lyons, France, Bishop Louis William Dubourg was busy soliciting volunteers to join him in Louisiana. His recruiting prospectus read: “We offer you: No Salary; No Recompense; No Holidays; No Pension. But: Much Hard Work; a Poor Dwelling; Few Consolations; Many Disappointments; Frequent Sickness; a Violent or Lonely Death; an Unknown Grave.”

Undaunted, a 20-year-old named Michael Portier was the first of 30 volunteers. After a 65-day boat ride across the Atlantic, the ship Caravane docked in Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 7, 1817 (which happened to be Portier’s 21st birthday), unloading the travel-weary, yet optimistic, missionaries.

Just one year later, Portier was ordained by Dubourg and was sent to New Orleans via Natchez, Miss.

Catholics in Mobile – by now an American city – had written out the “Articles of Government and Constitution” during November of 1822, which called for five trustees, appointed annually, to manage the parish. Limited financial resources and population made this a very heavy burden.

The leadership in Rome was seeking someone to head the new jurisdiction in Alabama and the Floridas, a total population of about 6, 000 Catholics, mainly in Mobile, Pensacola and St. Augustine. It came as a surprise to many – especially Portier himself – when he was selected as the vicar apostolic of this coastal region, at the green age of 31. He first balked at the promotion, feeling unworthy. “His motive for this action, ” wrote then Rev. Oscar Lipscomb in his dissertation on Portier in 1963, “was grief and worry, not so much at the work and sacrifice involved, but at the formidable dignity of the episcopate and all that it required in a man. A sense of inadequacy also arose from [his] knowledge of his own extreme youth and limited experience.”

His nomination was met with further skepticism in the church. Dubourg, who had recruited Portier from France, wrote in protest, “Though virtuous and talented, the Rev. Michael Portier is still far from possessing that gravity, moderation, self-control, ecclesiastical knowledge, prudence and experience, which a bishop must have, particularly in this country, where he must depend upon himself alone.” Dubourg’s true motives for such a harsh appraisal — he had seemingly heaped praise upon Portier in all other instances — cannot be stated, though some speculation exists that he was upset that his own recommendations never materialized.

But approval for the young priest far outweighed any negativity — his supporters included Cardinal Joseph Fesch, uncle to Napoleon — and Rome issued orders that Portier was to become the first bishop of Alabama and the Floridas. He was so consecrated on Nov. 5, 1826.

A Test of Faith

“Where will I establish myself? How shall I provide the necessities of life? Will it be possible for me to found new churches and establish a seminary?” worried Portier in a letter to his Catholic leadership. “All these things now escape me.”

He arrived in Mobile on Dec. 20, 1826, to find only one priest in the lone parish, a very shabby church, and himself faced with the monumental task of growing the diocese from that little seed.

However, Pope Leo XII extended the Roman jubilee for the world that year, which gave Portier the chance to drum up excitement about the Catholic faith. He successfully rallied local Catholics to upgrade the rundown Royal Street church. He got trustees to lease him enough property for a substantial church. This progress eased his initial concerns, as did the economic potential of the Port City. “Mobile should become an important city for commerce and even for religion, ” he observed in a letter to a fellow bishop. “If Catholics were counted by their number (2, 000 faithful), a very bad church, some considerable properties, a people buried in speculations, a pastor who is a good preacher, but as inconstant as a weather vane, and an almost incurable base of indifference, this is what Mobile presents.”

The devastating fire of 1827 consumed 10 blocks of homes and businesses (an estimated 220 buildings total), and destroyed the church. The disaster compounded the need for money and seminarians, so Portier made the trek back across the Atlantic to raise both.

The trip to Rome and France was a booming success. He returned with 10 volunteers and enough funds to build a seminary and a cathedral. “I have obtained much more than I could have hoped for, ” he wrote to Bishop Rosati in St. Louis. “A domino factum est istud et est mirabile in oculis nostris (This has been made by the Lord and is wonderful in our eyes).”

In 1830, Portier began acquiring lands just west of the city, up on a large hill; high ground that was above the grips of yellow fever. William Robertson donated 20 acres, and the city generously helped Portier buy another 380 acres. A final 220 acres were later purchased from Robertson for $2, 100, thus completing the grounds for what would become Spring Hill College, the state’s first such institution.

Mathias Loras was made president of the school, which attracted around 30 students to its inaugural class in 1830. Classes were held in temporary structures while seminarians, priests and even Portier provided the hard labor of construction. “Our good bishop, with axe in hand, ” wrote one seminarian, “was always in the lead.”

Portier then aimed his focus and energies at building a convent, necessary for the Catholic education of girls and young women. The church had recently received a donation of a two-story cottage and an orange grove, which was generating $200 per year. The 27 acres, located 3 miles west of the city, was an ideal location, and Mobile citizens immediately enrolled their daughters in the burgeoning school, which, like Spring Hill College, began holding classes in temporary buildings while permanent ones were being constructed.

With the momentum of these two grand successes squarely behind him, Portier next turned to what would become the symbol of Catholic faith in Mobile: the Cathedral. In late November of 1835, they laid the first cornerstone of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at its current location on Claiborne Street. Claude Beroujon, who designed and oversaw the building of the college and the convent, would do the same for the Cathedral.

They faced delays due to an outbreak of yellow fever and a lack of funds that followed the Panic of 1837. The interruptions were discouraging, but as the Port City’s population and relevance increased, so did the need for an adequate place of worship — one priest wrote to Rome in 1846 that the current structure on Conti Street was only sufficient for one-seventh of the Catholic population.

Soon the economy picked up, as did the construction of the magnificent building that, upon completion, became the largest building in Mobile. In 1850, the consecration ceremony was held. “Everybody says that my church is worthy of its object, ” Portier remarked, “and I believe for my part, especially after 12 years of work and worry, that I accomplished my mission.”

Portier served until his death in 1859, and was buried beneath the cathedral. He had set the Catholics up for success, through his tireless efforts and enthusiasm. The bishop, once thought to be too young and inexperienced, enjoyed a remarkable career and became the father of Catholicism in Mobile.

Building the Congregation

Archbishop T.J. Toolen, pictured here with some Toy Bowl players, built more than 189 churches in 40 years with the diocese. “He hated not to build something that was needed, ” says Archbishop Lipscomb.
Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

By 1883, the Diocese of Mobile boasted a Catholic population of 18, 000. In the 1920s, almost half of Mobile’s 60, 000 residents were members of the diocese. When World War II brought an influx of shipbuilders and workers in the 1940s, the Catholic population jumped to nearly 40, 000.

The diocese now had many parishes – distinctly defined geographical areas centered around a church, school and other services. Growing up Catholic in Mobile meant that your social, spiritual and educational life evolved around the church. Schools from different parishes interacted with each other through organized dances and sporting events. “They kept us busy, ” says Anna Crow, who was born and raised Catholic in the Bay area. “I guess it’s why I know so many people.” Crow is the matriarch of a large Catholic family; she has 6 children, 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

“It was so easy when you went to high school; the church provided a source of close friendships, ” she says.

Things came full circle for the Catholic community in Mobile when one of its own, Oscar Lipscomb, was ordained and subsequently assigned to his native city. Born in 1931, the McGill graduate went to Rome at the age of 19, studying there for six years. “I had to move because I thought I knew it all, ” Lipscomb says.

After serving as priest for the Diocese of Mobile for 24 years, Lipscomb was named the first archbishop for the new coastal archdiocese. It was a unique situation for Lipscomb to preside over ceremonies, like confirmations, weddings, even the funerals, of friends and family he’d known since birth.

Today, the archdiocese spans 28 counties, nearly 23, 000 square miles, in lower Alabama. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi took over for Lipscomb in 2008. The Catholic population continues to grow; it’s now nearly 70, 000 strong.

One might wonder whether Portier would be humbled or proud – or possibly both – to see that, despite disaster, disease and economic hardship, his vision of a vibrant Catholic community faith has been realized.

text by Stephen Potts

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