The Charism of Father Bishop as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners

Chapter 3

Reverend William Howard Bishop: Toward an Understanding of His Charism as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners
By Father Dan Dorsey
(Numbered notes, indicated in parenthesis, are listed at the end of this Web page.)

III. The Charism of Father Bishop as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners

We concluded our survey of Father Bishop’s “pre-Glenmary” years in the preceding chapter by outlining his faith-vision and his spirituality. The relationship between a founder’s faith-vision and his charism is, as was noted in the first chapter, one of the interdependence and co-extensiveness. The faith-vision is the “soil” in which the charism of a founder is nourished and develops, insofar as it is a vehicle for the action of the Holy Spirit and insofar as it actuates the founder’s own life.(1)

Based on our findings in the last chapter, and in light of our theological analysis of the term “charism of a founder” in the first chapter, we can now pose the following questions: What has our research revealed about the charism of Father Bishop? What have we learned about the “free gift(s) of the Holy Spirit” that were bestowed on Father Bishop for the “building up of the Body of Christ?” Since a charism, by definition, is dynamic and ultimately a mystery, our response to these questions will be in the form of a description of Father Bishop’s charism, rather than an attempt at a definition.(2)

The Charism of Father Bishop as Missionary
If the central axis of Father Bishop’s faith-vision is Christ, the Good Shepherd, then at the core and foundation of his charism is this grasp and understanding of the missionary nature of the Church. It is in our opinion the key to understanding his charism.

The Good Shepherd has but one concern: to feed, protect and bring all into the One Fold of His Father. The Holy Spirit’s gift to Father Bishop was a profound and unique clarity of vision of this mission of the Good Shepherd. His life, work, and words prophetically foreshadowed the doctrine that was articulated twelve years after his death by the Second Vatican Council:

The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary since according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.(3)

An excerpt from one of Father Bishop’s early sermons betrays the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and tersely embodies the object of his life’s work:

Every Catholic is imbued with the idea that a convert won to the faith in this world also adds jewels to his crown in the next, and every true and fervent Catholic, every Catholic who knows and loves his religion, who realizes that the true knowledge and love of God are the dearest treasures that the heart of man can possess—every such Catholic will labor and pray for conversions. Let us make no secret of this. One who has found a vast treasure which was meant for the whole human race to enjoy will not be excused for failing to try to bring his fellow-men to a knowledge of it. We have found such a treasure for we have drunk of the Water of Life, we have eaten of the Bread of Angels. We have Christ with us every day. Should we hesitate to show the world where he is to be found? Should we hesitate to pray that lovely prayer which was so dear to his heart, and pray it aloud so that all who have ears may hear: “That they all may be one, as Thou, Father in me, and I in Thee; that they may also be one in us.(4)

From the seed of those first years at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Father Bishop’s missionary vision and activity grew, developed and blossomed during this twenty years as pastor of St. Louis Church. In its earliest stage his missionary activity was primarily aimed at protecting and strengthening the existing Catholic flock and recapturing the “fallen-aways”: “Our aim is to protect and safeguard our own.”(5) However, slowly, but surely, his missionary vision expanded and deepened, “But to be truly missionary it is not enough to simply prevent losses from the Church,”(6) and his attention was increasingly focused on the lost and neglected sheep:

Yet as a matter of cold fact these millions among whom there is so much need of missionary laborers and no priests to break the bread of truth to them are even closer to us. They are our brethren and fellow citizens, sharing our own United States with us from birth to burial. They are as much Americans as we. How is it that we have delayed so long to see their needs and organize for their relief?(7)

A friend of Father Bishop’s commented on his maturing missionary vision as he was preparing to leave Clarkesville and take up residence in St. Martin’s County (Ohio) to begin his task of “organizing a group of priests to do missionary work in the rural sections of America”(8):

His vision is widened to embrace only national boundaries. His organization will be a more complex thing but be sure of this—the apostolic heart that could not be confined in a city, in a rural parish, or in an archdiocese, will spend itself and be spent in bringing Christ to the heart, mind, and lips of those in the country vastnesses, who, through no fault of their own, have as yet not loved him because they do not know him.(9)

The centrality of Christ is fundamental to Father Bishop’s missionary vision and in part explains his concern for those that are “lost” and “neglected.” The Good Shepherd has laid down His life for all of His sheep and in a special way He demonstrates His love for those sheep who have wandered from the fold. The faithful disciple of Christ must imitate the Good Shepherd and lay down his life for the “backwoodsmen, the mountaineers, the farms tenants, share-croppers, and day laborers”(10) because “they are human beings for whom the Savior died.”(11)

One of the chief characteristics of Father Bishop was his awareness of and concern for the poor, the unconverted, and the neglected. They are God’s “hidden treasure”(12):

Our country parishes are among these little things that deserve our constant attention, care and solicitude. They are small and poor but taken all together they contain a great number of souls. . .little things may be of great importance.(13)

The “great importance” of the “small and poor,” however, is often overshadowed by the “great corporations, great organizations, great cities, great crimes and great frauds.”(14) In describing the emblem of the league of the Little Flower, a three-petaled flower, he poetically reflects on the hidden beauty of the “small and poor”:

The flower is small like the small, isolated groups with which the League has to deal, like the little children of these little parishes, which are at once their greatest hope and their greatest anxiety. So small a flower is easily overlooked on the roadside. You hardly see it as you pass by. But pick it up and examine it, it becomes a thing of beauty. So too the country parish and the country child.(15)

A second characteristic of Father Bishop’s missionary vision was its rural orientation, which seems to be the direct consequence of his assignment to a rural parish. As pastor of St. Louis Church he was acutely aware of the unique set of problems that beset the Church and the inhabitants of rural America. In trying to bring these problems to the attention of an urban centered Church he reasoned that: “If the Catholic Church would attain its maximum influence in the cities, the faith in these country places must be nursed with the greatest care,”(16) because: “The cities, with an insufficient birth-rate to sustain their population even in normal times, draw their increase in native-born population from the country.”(17) In his attempt to convince the wider Church of the intrinsic value of life on the land, Father Bishop—like any enthusiastic salesman who is authentically convinced of the superiority of his wares—tended to idealize and romanticize the virtues of rural life.(18)

A significant question concerning Father Bishop’s charism confronts us at this juncture of our discussion: Which of the two characteristics of Father Bishop’s missionary vision (its rural orientation and concern for the neglected, poor, and unconverted) had the highest priority in his mind? In other words, should he have worked in a rural area if there was no “need?”; and would he have worked in an area that was very “needy” but not rural? From the evidence that we have examined, the answer to these two questions would be no. It is impossible to separate “neglected” and “rural” in Father Bishop’s thought and it would be a serious error to give one a higher priority than the other. Both must always be understood in light of his primary charism, “The conversion of America to the Church of Jesus Christ,” because both are grounded in that charism, and subsequently it is here that their meaning and substance are ascertained.

A final descriptive characteristic of Father Bishop’s mission vision is that of teacher. We have already discussed and documented the importance and value of education in his life and we might now extend that discussion by reflecting on Father Bishop as a teacher. The true mark of a teacher is not only the ability to impart knowledge but to change the way others think. Father Bishop changed the way the people of the Archdiocese of Baltimore thought.(19) He taught them from their own backyard, “a couple of hours drive from any city or town will bring you to sections where scattered Catholic flocks are wrestling with pioneer conditions to keep the faith.”(20) He taught the Catholic Church in the United States that there were “vast areas of the country priestless”(21) and that “millions of unbelievers”(22) that inhabited these areas had a “right” to expect that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached to them:

And yet there is a mission field much nearer our homes. . .that should command our attention not only from a motive of Christian charity but I dare to say from a motive of common justice.(23)

Father Bishop was a teacher because he only expanded and deepened his own mission vision, but he expanded and deepened the mission vision of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The Charism of Father Bishop as Laborer
The second most important word that describes Father Bishop’s charism is that of laborer. His zeal and single-mindedness are reminiscent of St. Paul: “Let it be known first of all that we are here to save souls. . .The Light must be spread.”(24) As an “unworthy” laborer in the Lord’s vineyard Father Bishop was well aware that only through “stability and perseverance” would the harvest slowly be reaped:

It is not rapid and spectacular growth that will be desired, but slow, substantial progress, building solidly on each new advance, never going into a region without the determination, with God’s help, to conquer it for Christ.(25)

The grace of being a tenacious and zealous laborer proved to also be a thorn in the side of Father Bishop’s flesh.(26) His virtues of zeal and tenacity were often reduced to the vices of stubbornness and “pigheadedness.”(27) One might also present an argument that Father Bishop was an overzealous laborer who spent an insufficient amount of time and energy developing his interior life.(28)

The thorn in the side of his flesh withstanding, however, the spirit of being a tenacious and zealous laborer was indeed a grace from God. So powerful was this grace that when Father Bishop became convinced of the righteousness of a project or idea he was willing to abandon everything to “fly in the face of angels and saints.”(29)

Father Bishop was a dedicated man; one might even call him stubborn. He had ideas and he stubbornly stuck to them. Many another man might be discouraged, but he just looked grim and went ahead, no matter what suggestions about failure were presented.”(30)

It was this grace that seems to have been instrumental in his ability to inspire and attract other people:

At first impression he would not be the kind of person that would have great leadership. He was not demonstrative, he was not dramatic. He was very sober and quiet in his way of studying things; but after you had known him a little while, you could feel that he was going to keep at it and that sense of determination that he had, I imagine, would have impressed many people.(31)

The words of St. Paul offer perhaps the best summary of this dimension of Father Bishop’s charism: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?. . .God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”(32)

The Charism of Father Bishop as Conversion to the One Fold
An integral part of the charism of a founder is that it is given for the “building up of the Body of Christ.” This grace of God is evident in Father Bishop’s deep awareness and concern for the entire Body, his sense of the greater Church, and his commitment to the task of strengthening the Body where it was the weakest:

The distinctive thing about Father Bishop was his sense of the Gospel need in the rural areas. So many people just look after their own little patch. That wasn’t his way. He looked at the hardest situation. . .the situation nobody gave much attention to.(33)

Conversion of the United States to the One Fold of Jesus Christ was Father Bishop’s overriding concern and the focus of his energies. It is here that he displays a classical Augustinian viewpoint by continually contrasting the depravity of the city of man (modern society) with the goodness of the city of God (the Church): “the battle lines are forming now for the great contest that will be waged between Christianity and paganism.”(34) Conversion, therefore, to the city of God, the One Fold, is the only hope for the modern world.(35) In a rather poignant diary entry he reflects:

The disease of the world is self-love. How to cure it? By charity on a tremendous scale, i.e., self-giving for God and fellow man. Who can teach such charity? Only the Church. Can we restore the world by social justice? No. World must have spiritual foundation for social justice. That is Catholicity. We must win men to the Church to build new, social order. To save world’s body we must save its soul.(36)

The impetus to convert America to the One Fold is not motivated by a desire to glorify the earthly Church but rather to give praise to the eternal Church of Jesus Christ; “We are not building a noble temple of stone that will last until doomsday. We are building up thousands of living temples of the Holy Ghost.”(37) The “soul of the world” is always the primary concern of the Church, even when it is attending to the temporal needs of those among whom it labors:

One of the aims of the society will be to do all that it reasonably can do to help the people improve their temporal welfare, in order to win their confidence for the sake of the higher service it will hope to render them.(38)

The “higher service” to which the Church aspires is to feed the lost, neglected, and poor sheep with the bread “that lasteth unto life eternal.”(39)

An effect of this gift of grace in Father Bishop’s life is revealed in his approach to Protestant Christians. Notably absent from all of his writing that we examined is any kind of polemical rhetoric. On the contrary, he consistently displayed a markedly charitable attitude toward them. There is no doubt that Father Bishop thought of Protestants as separated from the One Fold, but in contrast to those without faith, he viewed Protestants as believers whose faith was “incomplete.”(40) Converting them to the Church of Jesus Christ would be to share with them the “fullness” of faith. Father Bishop also believed that many Protestants had been infected by the “disease” of the world (as, in his opinion, had many Catholics) and he approached his “Protestant brethren” with the “deepest sympathy” because he was aware of the “difficulties under which they are laboring.”(41)

What has our research revealed about “the gift(s) of the Holy Spirit” that were given to Father Bishop by God for “the building up of the Body of Christ?” The fundamental gift of the Holy Spirit seems to be Father Bishop’s sense of mission, which was characterized by its rural bias and solicitude for the neglected. The grace of the Holy Spirit can be further delineated as a spirit to labor in the harvest for the conversion of all the Father’s children in the United States to the One Fold of his Son, Jesus Christ.


(1) Mary Milligan, “That They May Have Life: A Study of the Spirit Charism of Father Jean Gailhac, Founder” (Dissertatione ad Doctoratum, Pontificiae Universitatis Gregorianae, 1975): 32.
(2) John Carrol Futrell, “Discovering the Founder’s Charism,” The Way Supplement 14 (autumn 1971 :65.
(3) A.G.D. no. 2; trans. by Flannery :814.
(4) Sermon, Second Sunday after Easter, untitled, April 22, 1917, p. 1.
(5) The Little Flower, vol. 3, no. 4, January 1929, p.5.
(6) The Little Flower, vol. 5, no. 1, April 1930, p. 1.
(7) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 1, February 1938, pp. 1,4.
(8) The Little Flower, vol. 12, no. 1, summer 1937, p. 4.
(9) lbid., p.2.
(10) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 1, February 1938, p. 1.
(11) lbid., p. 4.
(12) Cf. The Little Flower, vol. 2, no. 1, April 1927, p. 1.
(13) The Little Flower, vol. 1, no. 4, January 1927, p. 6.
(14) The Little Flower, vol. 1. 4, January 1927, p. 4.
(15) lbid., p. 1.
(16) The Little Flower, vol. 2, no. 4, January 1928, p. 1.
(17) William Howard Bishop, “A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missioners to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United State,” The Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 94, no. 4 (April 1936): 340.
(18) Cf. William Howard Bishop, “A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missions to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States.” The Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 94, no. 4 (April 1936): 341: The Little Flower, vol. 3, no. 4, January 1929, p.1.
(19) The Little Flower, vol. 12, no. 1, summer 1937, p. 2
(20) The Little Flower, vol. 5, no. 1 April 1930, p. 3.
(21) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 1, February 1938, p. 1.
(22) Cf. The Challenge, vol. 1, no 3, Christmas 1938, p. 5.
(23) The Little Flower, vol. 12, no. 1, summer 1937, p. 1.
(24) The Little Flower, vol. 5, no. 1, April 1930, p. 1.
(25) William Howard Bishop, ” A Plan for an American Society….,” op. cit., p. 346
(26) The use of this image refers to the experience of St. Paul in 2 Cor. 12:7-10.
(27) This is the consensus in the interviews that were conducted with those who knew Father Bishop. The interviews are in the Glenmary archives.
(28) As we mentioned in the last chapter, this is a vague area due to lack of data about Father Bishop’s interior life. It is this lack of data, however, that could serve as the basis of a viable argument that Father Bishop’s interior life was underdeveloped because of the emphasis he placed on work.
(29) Diary, May 3, 1937.
(30) Interview with Rev. Msgr. Joseph Schmidt, P.A., code 013, p. 1.
(31) Interview with Rev. Msgr. John Cartwright, code 083, p. 2.
(32) 1 Cor. 1:20, 27.
(33) Interview with Rev. Horace McKenna, S.J., code 089, p. 5.
(34) The Little Flower, vol. 10, no. 3, winter 1935-1936, p.4.
(35) Cf. William Howard Bishop, “A Plan for an American Society….,” op. cit., p. 340-342.
(36) Diary, February 11, 1939.
(37) The Little Flower, vol. 5, no. 2, July 1930, p. 1.
(38) Cf. The Challenge, vol. 3, no. 2, spring 1940, p. 4: William Howard Bishop, “A Plan for an American Society….,” op. cit., p. 346.
(39) Landward, vol. 4, no. 2, summer 1936, p. 4.
(40) Cf. The Challenge, vol. 2, no. 2, summer 1939, p. 1.
(41) The Little Flower, vol. 2, no. 1, April 1927, p. 2.