The National Catholic Rural Life Conference

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.)

II. The Life of Father Bishop, 1915-1939 (con’t)

1923-1935: The National Rural Life Conference
Five weeks after opening his parochial school in Clarkesville, Father Bishop attended the first meeting of the National Rural Life Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Twenty-five years after that inaugural convention, Father Bishop reflected on the reasons that had motivated his attendance.

That very year, my sixth as pastor at Clarkesville, we had built a rural Catholic school in a locality where, judging by all sane standards of finance, no such thing should have been attempted. With the burden of its support on my hands and the many sided problem of rural inequality and insufficiency harassing me, who should be any more interested than I in a conference which was to discuss these questions that seem to challenge all rural pastors from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So I hopped a train and went.(47)

The problem of rural education had been the issue out of which the entire rural movement in the United States Catholic developed.(48) Fr. Edwin B. O’Hara who was the head of the recently created Rural Life Bureau of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference articulated the three main goals of rural movement. The first goal was to make farming a better business: it sought to make farming profitable enough to support families. The second goal was to enhance for the multitudes the joy of living in the country. For too long isolation, drudgery, and lack of educational opportunities had been a way of life in rural areas. Finally, there was the rural movement’s goal to extend the kingdom of God on earth. This third goal was based on the belief that the best and most effective way the Church could aid in the solution of the rural problems was by promoting religion in rural communities.(49)

The St. Louis Conference adopted six resolutions in response to these goals. While it is not important to list the resolutions, their emphasis was on education as the primary weapon to be employed in combating the problems of rural America. This educational emphasis had two prongs. First, there was the need to educate the general Catholic population on the unique set of problems that were faced by their fellow believers living in rural areas; and secondly, there was the need to improve Catholic education in rural areas.(50) The tenor of this first Conference was “predominantly missionary”(51) with “social and economic studies. . .entirely subordinated to the main thought which was the extension of religious help to rural people.”(52)

The St. Louis meeting of the N.R.L.C. marks a significant moment in Father Bishop’s life and development. The N.R.L.C. expanded his horizons and as a member of the Board of Directors, and later president of the Conference, Father Bishop was provided with a national forum for his ideas. Being in contact on a national level with other priests who shared similar concerns and problems, encouraged Father Bishop to think in terms of national responses and solutions to the issues and problems that were confronting rural America.(53)

Perhaps more importantly the N.R.L.C. supported and fueled Father Bishop’s missionary enthusiasm by expanding his vision of rural education. “Religious vacations schools” now joined Catholic schools as the primary vehicles for missionizing rural America. After the St Louis Conference the missionary dimensions of the Church occupied a permanent and important part of Father Bishop’s conviction and rhetoric and he increasingly saw the Church’s role in rural areas through “missionary colored glasses.”

The dividends of Father Bishop’s expanded vision appeared almost immediately. Since November of 1922 the League of St. Louis had aided the parochial school in Clarkesville. In June of 1924 Father Bishop extended the vision of the League to aid all rural parochial schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The name of the League was changed to the League of the Little Flower and according to an agreement between Father Bishop and Archbishop Curley the newly formed League would “unite all diocesan activities in behalf of the Country Missions and schools under the head of the League of the Little Flower.”(54)

Two years later, in April of 1926, Father Bishop published the first issue of The Little Flower. The purpose of “the little paper” was to promote “the big message” of the League of the Little Flower: the aid and support of Catholic education in the rural areas of the archdiocese. The paper appeared five times a year and, in addition to being its publisher, Father Bishop was also the paper’s compiler and editor. Skilled in using the printed word for persuasion he now had a diocesan wide audience for his “big message.”(55)

One of Father Bishop’s more important talents was his ability, via the printed word, to communicate his message in a clear, simple, and understandable manner. The first issue of The Little Flower is illustrative of this point. On the first page he lucidly outlines the purpose of the League in terms of problem and solution: “the malady we face is that the faith has been losing its hold upon our country people and the remedy is to build Catholic schools wherever possible.” League members will participate in the “remedy” by “offering masses, communions, novenas, and prayers” and by aiding in “the gathering of funds in the Annual Diocesan Collection.”(56)

The dominant theme of The Little Flower during the ten years that Father Bishop was its editor was that the rural areas of Maryland were mission territory and deserved the help and aid of all of the people of that Archdiocese of Baltimore:

Is it worth all the sacrifice that is required to make sure that none of these fine children are lost to the faith through the lack of religious training? If the children of India and China are worth the sacrifice of vast sums and the consecrated toil of unselfish missioners to save, what about the farm children of our own Maryland who will be its citizens of a future day? When the Savior said, “Go and teach all nations,” He did not say that we should omit our own.(57)

He believed that the harvest that would be reaped from such an effort would be a “strong and sturdy Catholic citizenry.”(58)

Father Bishop was convinced that a missionary effort in the rural sections of Maryland would provide the antidote to the many problems that harassed Catholicism in both rural and urban areas alike. “Leakage” from the faith, anti-Catholic bigotry, communism, capitalism, and a declining Catholic population in the cities were a number of the questions he believed plagued the Church.(59) Perhaps Father Bishop’s greatest success in the League of the Little Flower did not lie in solving or alleviating the multitude of problems facing the Church in rural Maryland, but rather in making the people of the archdiocese “home mission conscious.”(60)

In order to make the priest of the archdiocese more “home mission conscious” Father Bishop organized the first diocesan rural life conference in the United States in October of 1925. Modeled after its national counterpart, the N.R.L.C., Father Bishop hoped to bring together both country and city priests who were interested in the problems and issues that confronted the rural priest. Also, like its national counterpart, the Baltimore Diocesan Conference stressed education as the means to deal with these problems.(61)

During this time when Father Bishop was deeply involved in The League of the Little Flower and the N.R.L.C. he was also attending the local problems that beset his parishioners and the Clarkesville community. He was constantly exploring methods and ways to improve the lives of those who earned their living from the land. He tried to upgrade the livestock in Clarksville area.(62) He organized a co-operative to market local eggs.(63) He started a 4-H club.(64) The credit union that he organized is probably his most enduring accomplishment.(65) Although Father Bishop had been born and raised in a city, and consequently had acquired a majority of his knowledge about farming from books, he nonetheless was an adamant “friend of the farmers, the poor farmers.”(66) His ideas at times were grandiose and naïve in their conception, but is motivation could not be faulted. Moved by a love for the farmers and the land they worked, Father Bishop labored tirelessly to improve their lot.(67)

The year 1928 was significant in Father Bishop’s life, and in the lives of all the Catholics in the United States because it marked Herbert Hoover’s victory over Governor Al Smith of New York for the presidency of the United States. Anti-Catholic hatred and bigotry had smoldered in American society since the nation’s inception and Smith’s Catholicism had fanned those coals of prejudice and ignorance.(68)

Smith’s defeat once again focused the attention of Catholic leaders on the problem of the Church’s integration into American society. Almost from the first day that Catholics had arrived in America they had been viewed with suspicion: was it possible for the to be a “good” Catholic and a “good” citizen at the same time? Many Americans thought not, believing the two were incompatible. Father Bishop addressed this problem in an article entitled “Intolerance in Rural Communities” which was published in The Ecclesiastical Review in June of 1929. He began the article by mentioning a letter he had circulated among the hierarchy, priests, and laypeople, in which he had asked for their opinions and suggestions concerning anti-Catholic bigotry, in rural areas.(69) After summarizing these suggestions he made a statement that reflects an important development in his thought:

Five different letters stress the necessity of boldness and directness in proclaiming Catholic doctrine and faith and the claims of the Church upon the acceptance of mankind. The defensive method must be dropped. . .we now have to consider the question of organizing our offensive against intolerance.(70)

From this point Father Bishop conceived of missionary activity in the rural areas in terms of “being on the attack.” Consequently many of the “defensive” methods that he had used in the past (e.g., building parochial schools) were no longer viable. New ways must now be discovered to conform to the new “offensive” battle plan and program.

Less than one year after Smith’s defeat, a second dramatic event occurred that also profoundly influenced Father Bishop’s life and thought. With the advent of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929, and the economic chaos that ensued, issues of “bread and butter” were swiftly thrust to the forefront of the nation’s attention.(71) Father Bishop’s “new offensive battle plan” which was gradually beginning to take shape was now modified to include an even greater concern for the temporal welfare of those living in rural America.

This shift is clearly evident in Father Bishop’s six-year tenure as the president of the N.R.L.C. Elected to that position at the Atchison, Kansas meeting in September of 1928 he, along with a small group of other priests, ran the Conference during the early critical years of the Depression. The question they faced was how to bring economic relief to millions that were suffering in the United States. Father Bishop and his colleagues firmly believed that agrarianism, a return to the land, would be the basis for establishing a new order for the shambles that had been wrought by the Depression.(72)

The recurring theme of Father Bishop’s six years as president of N.R.L.C. was that Catholic Church is “chiefly interested in the religious difficulties of our rural people, but she does not close her eyes to their temporal hardships.”(73) It was a delicate balance that Father Bishop sought to maintain:(74)

The aims of the Church in the country, then, are both temporal and spiritual. She wants to be helpful tour country people both in this world and the next. She wants our farmers to be better Catholics for their souls sake, and our Catholics to be better farmers for their temporal good and ultimately for their spiritual good.(75)

It is important to analyze Father Bishop’s approach to this balance between a concern for the spiritual welfare of the people and a concern for their temporal welfare not in terms of either/or but from a perspective of emphasis. Father Bishop made it clear where he believed the emphasis should be placed: “the chief object of the Church in the country as everywhere else is to save souls.”(76) In his mind Catholics Rural Movement was fundamentally religious, “more fundamentally religious, if that is possible, then it is rural.”(77)

In tipping the scale on the side of the “spiritual good” of the people in rural America, Father Bishop did not close his eyes to the “temporal hardships” of the farmer. He states in his 1932 presidential speech that “farms are for man and not man for the farms”; and that “human values are the real objects worth striving for” and not “the values of big of big business and government.”(78) He believed that farming should first be a way of making a living, that is, a way of life; and only secondly a source of cash income.(79) Attacking the ever expanding acreage of farms and the practice of replacing human beings with “efficient” machines he maintained:

I refuse to believe that agriculture, any more than industry, is a thing to be exploited by the more gifted few to the disadvantage of the mediocre many.(80)

He staunchly held that true efficiency is always measured by human values; it is the greatest good for the greatest number.(81)

Father Bishop expanded upon this theme in Landward.(82) He tenaciously attacked “a now discredited capitalistic system” which he believed had been built “upon individualistic greed.”(83) An editorial entitled “Tenantry or Ownership” is illustrative of the intensity with which Father Bishop crusaded on behalf of “human values”:

Catholicity has ever dared to be the friend of every type of human misery. The NRLC demands respect for the rights of the tenant and the laborer as well as landlord. It demands property for the propertyless who are ready for proprietorship on terms that they can meet. It demands opportunities and incentives for self-betterment, for those that need them most.(84)

Father Bishop’s style of leadership during the years of his presidency of the N.R.L.C. was typical of his approach to any such endeavor. It can best be described as autocratic and produced both positive and negative results. As a result of his style of leadership he probably “saved the Conference from a slow death” but also alienated many of the younger members of the N.R.L.C. who felt it was being run as a clique. At the meeting in Milwaukee in 1933 Father Bishop was elected to his final one-year term as president but at the same time the recommendation was made to the Board of Directors that they consider rotating the office of the presidency.(85)

One of the programs that Father Bishop strongly advocated in response to the economic woes of the nation was the rehabilitation of the unemployed on the land, the settling of the displaced people on small farms in clusters of colonies.(86) He had hoped to begin such a colony in Clarkesville but after months of garnering support from state and local leaders the project collapsed.(87)

With the failure of his colonization project in early 1935 Father Bishop now focused his entire attention on an idea he had harbored for the past few years: to found a religious community to do missionary work in the rural areas of the United States. On Pentecost Sunday of that year he traveled to the Motherhouse of the Maryknoll Missioners to discuss his proposed religious community with Bishop Walsh.(88) He posed the same question that had dominated his thought and writings the previous eight years:

Does the command to “Go and teach all nations” make an exception of our own? These vast sections of our land, with their millions of unchurched families, are just as legitimate a field of missionary enterprise as Africa and China.(89)

Bishop Walsh’s response was both supportive and prophetic: “It must be done.”(90)

1936-1939: “Under the inspiration of Christ’s love for mankind and the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are privileged to begin a great work.”

47) Speech before the 25th Convention of the N.R.L.C., November 25, 1947, p.1. There is a copy of the speech in the Glenmary archives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
48) Raymond Witte, Twenty-Five Years of Crusading: A History of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (Des Moines, Iowa: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1948): 67.
49) St. Isidore’s Plow, vol. 1, no. 1, October 1922, p. 2. St. Isidore’s Plow was the first publication devoted exclusively to the Catholic rural movement and was edited by Fr. Edwin O’Hara while he was the director of the Rural Life Bureau.
50) Witte, Twenty-Five Years of Crusading. . . , pp. 69, 70. It is interesting to note that the third resolution adopted by the St. Louis Conference was, “Commending the proposal and the work of Rt. Rev. J. T. McNicholas, Bishop of Duluth, in the establishment of a rural quasi-religious community, such as the Third Order of Saint Dominic.” (Witte, op. cit., p. 70). This is the same Bishop McNicholas who would later become the Archbishop of Cincinnati and sponsor Father Bishop’s infant community.
51) Speech before the 25th Convention of the N.R.L.C., op. cit., p. 2.
52) Ibid, p. 3.
53) “Its my view that the Rural Life Conference was undoubtedly responsible for his (Father Bishop) country-wide concern, unless there was some fact in his life which I’m not aware, but undoubtedly his meeting there with priests from all over the country and the work of the conference in reaching the Catholic in outlying districts inspired in him the very keen interest in the situation of the Church in the countless priestless counties, for that reason the work that he undertook already had many presidents in the correspondence schools of the conference, its vacation work, etc. His own project was a natural development of the apostolic work of the Rural Life Conference.” Interview with Rev. John LaFarge, S.J. code 072, p. 1.
54) Letter from Father Bishop to Archbishop Curley, June 24, 1924, the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Archbishop Curley succeeded Gibbons on November 30, 1921. The name that was given to the new organization, the League of the Little Flower, is derived from the patron saint of the League, St. Theresa of Lisieux who was commonly referred to as “the little flower.”
55) The Little Flower, vol. 1, no. 1, April 1926, p. 1.
56) Ibid.
57) The Little Flower, vol. 2, no. 1, April, 1927, p.1.
58) Ibid., p. 2.
59) The Little Flower, vol. 5, no. 4, winter 1931, p. 4.
60) The Little Flower, vol. 12, no. 1, summer 1937, p. 1.
61) Letters to Archbishop Curley, June 23, 1925 and August 13, 1925, the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
62) Interview with Mr. Hewitt Nichols, code 061, p. 1.
63) Interview with Mrs. Jeanette Jones, code 052, p. 1.
64) Interview with Paul Thompson, code 053, p. 1; interview with J.E. and Lillian Schillinger, code 054, p. 2. “4-H” is the name given to an organization which is a part of a national system of education in agriculture and home economics, given by the United States Department of Agriculture with state and other agencies cooperating by means of leaders, demonstrations, contests and club activities. The purpose of these clubs is to improve rural practice to inculcate ideals of good citizenship.
65) Interview with Mr. Joseph Thompson, code 063, p. 2.
66) Interview with Mr. Paul Thompson, code 053, pp. 1-5.
67) Interview with Dr. and Mrs. Robert Sardo, code 065, p. 1.
68) John Tracy Ellis points out that “at times it may seem to those outside the Church that Catholics like Huguet, the officer of Richelieu’s guard in Lylton’s play are ‘half-suspect-they bow too low,’ it is simply because their loyalty has so consistently been one of the principal targets of the Church’s enemies.” John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism, op. cit., p. 139.
69) William Howard Bishop, “Intolerance in Rural Communities,” American Ecclesiastical Review 81 (1929): 593-8.
70) Ibid, p. 598.
71) The significance of the Depression on Father Bishop’s development cannot be overemphasized; it should be the subject of a later study.
72) See “Agrariansim, the Basis of the New Order” by Father Bishop, unpublished, Glenmary Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
73) Father Bishop’s presidential address to the N.R.L.C., August 28, 1930, Springfield, IIII, p. 4, Glenmary archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
74) A good example of this tension as it existed in the conference can be seen in a letter from Fr. J. M. Campbell of Ames, Iowa to Father Bishop: “My opinion as to what should be featured, is, that the bread and butter problems of the people of this country are the most pressing problems of the hour and, therefore, should receive first attention at the coming conference.” (Glenmary archives, microfilm n. 11674, Cincinnati, Ohio).
75) Springfield presidential address, op. cit., p. 4.
76) Springfield presidential address, op. cit., p. 3. See also Diary, February 11, 1939.
77) Landward, vol. 3, no. 3, autumn 1935, p. 1. Landward was the publication which was the “printed voice” of the N.R.L.C. The first issue appeared in the spring of 1933 and it continued publication until the fall of 1937. Father Bishop was the editor, compiler, and publisher of the publication.
78) Father Bishop’s presidential address to the N.R.L.C., October 21, 1932, Dubuque, Iowa, p. 5, Glenmary archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
79) Ibid., p. 6.
80) Ibid., pp. 7, 8.
81) Ibid., p. 8.
82) Reading through Father Bishop’s editorials in Landward provides the reader with a sense of the development of his though on social issues.
83) Landward, vol. 1, no. 1, spring 1933, p. 1.
84) Landward, vol. 3, no. 1, spring 1935, p. 4.
85) Witte, Twenty-Five Years of Crusading. . . , op. cit., pp. 99-100.
86) Landward, vol. 2, no. 1, spring 1934, p. 4.
87) Diary, January 22, 1936.
88) Diary, Pentecost Sunday 1935.
89) Landward, vol. 3, no. 2, summer 1935, p. 4.
90) Diary, Pentecost Sunday 1935.