Irish roots were firmly planted in Arkansas when the Diocese of Little Rock was established in 1843. The first bishop, Sisters of Mercy and hundreds of parishioners hailed from Ireland and established many of the first parishes, schools and hospitals in the state. A region initially described as a “suburb of hell” was slowly transformed into a missionary field that now has more than 156,000 lay Catholics, 134 priests, 102 permanent deacons and 170 religious serving 128 parishes.
The early growth of the diocese was possible because of the work of visionary bishops, the Benedictines and Sisters of Mercy and courageous lay Catholics. In recent years growth in the diocese is attributed in part to immigrants — this time from Mexico and Central America — who are building a new life in Arkansas.
Here are a few highlights of the past 175 years in Arkansas and the world.
1836: Arkansas became the 25th U.S. state.
1843: Diocese established Nov. 28 by Pope Gregory XVI, along with dioceses in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago.
1844: Andrew J. Byrne was consecrated diocese’s first bishop March 10. He arrived in Arkansas June 4 with two other priests.
1845: Diocese is estimated to have 700 parishioners and three priests.
1846: The first Cathedral of St. Andrew was consecrated Nov 1. During that year Bishop Byrne sought to have diocese dissolved and placed again under St. Louis.
1850: U.S. Census counted 1,600 Catholics in Arkansas, or 1 percent of the state.
1851: Sisters of Mercy came to Little Rock from Ireland to establish the Academy of St. Mary (now called Mount St. Mary Academy).
1861: As the Civil War began, some schools closed or were used to house soldiers.
1862: Bishop Byrne died June 10 in Helena. Diocese had no bishop for five years.
1867: Edward M. Fitzgerald was consecrated as the Diocese of Little Rock’s new bishop Feb. 3 in Columbus, Ohio. He was only 33 years old.
1870: Bishop Fitzgerald attended the First Vatican Council and famously is the only American bishop to vote against papal infallibility.
1881: Current Cathedral of St. Andrew consecrated in November.
1888: Charity Hospital, now called CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, opened in Little Rock and St. Joseph Hospital (now CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs) opened in Hot Springs.
1892: Diocese built up to 31 schools and 58 parishes. Thirty priests served 10,000 people.
1900: Benedictine sisters opened St. Bernard Hospital in Jonesboro.
1905: St. Edward Hospital (now Mercy Fort Smith) opened, named after bishop.
1906: John B. Morris named coadjutor bishop.
1907: Bishop Morris took office as bishop after Bishop Fitzgerald died of a stroke.
1911: The Southern Guardian (now called Arkansas Catholic) debuted March 25.
1911: Bishop Morris founded St. John Home Mission Seminary in Little Rock.
1913: Local priests pushed back against anti-Catholicism, including Father Boniface Spanke, OSB, who started the “Chapel Wagon” traveling to celebrate Mass and teach the Catholic faith in rural areas.
1915: Arkansas legislature passed Convent Inspection Act, allowing law enforcement to inspect Catholic institutions with or without notice. Anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in the state from 1910 to 1930.
1917: U.S. Catholic population was more than 16 million.
1918: A new Code of Canon law went into effect.
1922: Six priests and three deacons ordained at Subiaco Abbey, the largest class from the Benedictines.
1925: Father Albert L. Fletcher named spiritual head of St. John Seminary.
1925: 814,768 Catholics served in World War I, 1,048 from Arkansas. More than 16,000 Catholics died, 16 from Arkansas.
1926: About 200 Catholics joined Bishop Morris and several priests for the World Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, attended by 1 million people. The Diocese of Little Rock was believed to be the largest group from the South.
1927: Diocese had 25,000 to 26,000 Catholics, out of 2 million Arkansas citizens. Diocese of Little Rock had “a seminary, two colleges, several boys’ high schools, academies for girls, 45 parish schools, an orphanage, refuges and a home of the aged.”
1927: Subiaco Abbey and College burned down in December, an estimated $1 million loss.
1928: Little Rock College opened to women.
1930: St. John Seminary moved to Little Rock College buildings in Pulaski Heights. The college would operate alongside the seminary.
1930: Morris Preparatory opened in downtown Little Rock as a free Catholic school for boys, called Catholic High School in its official opening.
1932: Orphanage for black children opened in Pine Bluff.
1934: Bishop Morris released Lenten pastoral letter on marriage following rise in divorce and birth control.
1934: Seismograph recorded earthquakes at St. John Seminary.
1937: The local “Cathedral Hour” and national “The Catholic Hour” were broadcast on KARK radio.
1940: Father Albert Fletcher named auxiliary bishop.
1941: Pearl Harbor attacked and U.S. entered World War II.
1943: Diocese of Little Rock turned 100 years old Nov. 28.
1946: Bishop Morris, 80, diocese’s longest serving bishop, died Oct. 22.
1947: Father Albert L. Fletcher installed as bishop of Little Rock Feb. 11.
1948: New St. Vincent Hospital erected in Little Rock.
1950: Bishop Fletcher and 17 Arkansans made a seven-week pilgrimage to Rome for Holy Year and witnessed canonization of Blessed Maria Goretti.
1955: Vietnam War began.
1957: Central High Crisis causes division in Little Rock.
1959: The Guardian ran a six-editorial series analyzing race relations.
1962: Pope John XXIII opened Second Vatican Council. Bishop Fletcher attended council sessions.
1963: Pope John XXIII died and Pope Paul VI was elected June 21.
1963: President John F. Kennedy assassinated Nov. 22.
1965: Second Vatican Council ended.
1965: First concelebrated Mass, besides ordinations or episcopal celebrations, held with abbot and 12 monks at Subiaco Abbey March 26, an innovation of Vatican II.
1967: St. John Home Mission Seminary closed in Little Rock.
1967: Cursillo movement began in Arkansas with 42 taking course.
1967: Mass canon in English approved Oct. 22.
1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated April 4; Bishop Fletcher declared a day of mourning for diocese.
1968: Bishop Fletcher asked all parishes to establish councils of lay people
1968: Pope Paul VI approved permanent diaconate program for United States.
1969: Father Lawrence P. Graves ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock. (He later became bishop of Alexandria, La., in 1973 and died in 1982.)
1972: Bishop Fletcher retired. Bishop Andrew J. McDonald installed as bishop of Little Rock Sept. 7.
1973: Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States Jan. 22.
1975: Vietnam War ended April 30.
1975: Bishop McDonald asked faithful to open hearts to Vietnamese refugees coming to Fort Chaffee in western Arkansas. At least half of the 24,000 refugees were Catholic. Parishes sponsored refugees and Catholics donated rosaries, medals and crucifixes.
1976: 55,991 Catholics lived in Arkansas, about 7 percent of population
1977: First Pontifical Respect for Life Mass held Jan. 23 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew.
1977: Bishop McDonald announced permanent diaconate program for diocese.
1978: Pope Paul VI died Aug. 6.
1978: Pope John Paul I elected and died 33 days later. Pope John Paul II elected first Polish pope Oct. 16.
1979: Bishop Fletcher died Dec. 6 at age 83.
1980: Fort Chaffee became Cuban refugee resettlement center, processing 25,390 Cubans in two years.
1980: Arkansas Diocesan Scripture Study (now Little Rock Scripture Study) gained nationwide and worldwide recognition. LRSS had 10 Bible studies by the fall.
1981: First class of 21 deacons ordained Nov. 7 at Cathedral of St. Andrew.
1981: Pope John Paul II shot and wounded in assassination attempt.
1982: Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) visited Abba House in Little Rock in June.
1983: Council for Black Catholics formed in diocese.
1985: Father Joseph Biltz honored with Urban League of Arkansas Outstanding Service award for promoting world peace and economic and social justice.
1986: At the newspaper’s 75th anniversary, The Guardian was renamed Arkansas Catholic.
1991: Diocese ordained first black priest, Father Warren Harvey.
1991: First diocesan Encuentro held for Hispanic Catholics Sept. 29.
1993: Hundreds attended opening of diocese’s sesquicentennial celebration.
1994: Following Vatican decision, Bishop McDonald approved girls to become altar servers.
1995: Cathedral of St, Andrew celebrated its sesquicentennial Nov. 1 and dedicated McDonald Hall.
1997: Mother Teresa died Sept. 5.
2000: Jubilee Year began in the diocese and world.
2000: Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop Andrew J. McDonald’s resignation and named Father J. Peter Sartain of Memphis as new bishop Jan. 4.
2001: Msgr. George Tribou died Feb. 2 after teaching at Catholic High for 51 years.
2001: Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
2002: Clergy sex abuse scandal comes to light. Bishop Sartain issued a pastoral letter on clergy sexual abuse in March. Bishops approve the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
2005: Pope John Paul II died April 2.
2006: Bishop Sartain assigned to Diocese of Joliet, Ill. Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert served as diocesan administrator.
2007: Six of eight sisters in the Monastery of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge in Hot Springs were excommunicated for refusing to drop ties with a heretical organization.
2008: Father Anthony B. Taylor of Oklahoma City installed as bishop of Little Rock June 5. Bishop Taylor released a pastoral letter on immigration.
2011: Bishop Taylor’s “Open Your Hearts in Welcome” initiative announced, focusing on four areas: English translation of New Roman Missal; Natural Family Planning; welcoming newcomers including youth, retirees and refugees; and welcoming God’s call in life
2012: Diocesan House of Formation for seminarians dedicated on the campus of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock Sept. 20.
2012: Year of Faith kicked off in Universal Church.
2013: Pope Benedict XVI resigned Feb. 28, citing his age. Pope Francis elected as pope March 13.
2013: Diocese reached 41 seminarians, the highest number since 1965.
2014: Bishop Emeritus Andrew J. McDonald died April 1 at 90 years old.
2014: Year of Consecrated Life began Nov. 30
2015: Hundreds from diocese traveled to New York City, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia to see Pope Francis on first visit to U.S.
2016: Pope Francis declared extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Official Door of Mercy for state dedicated at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock.
2016: St. Teresa of Kolkata declared a saint Sept. 4.
2016: St. John Center in Little Rock marked 100th anniversary.
2017: More than 200 Arkansans attended Blessed Stanley Rother beatification in Oklahoma City Sept. 23. First church in world named after him in Decatur.
2018: Bishop Taylor celebrated 10 years as bishop June 5.
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