We Begin a Great Work

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)

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.”(91)
On April 1, 1936 “A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missions to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States” appeared in the The Ecclesiastical Review. The article represented a summary and synthesis of Father Bishop’s thought and development over the previous nineteen years that he had been pastor of St. Louis Church. It also outlined the course his life would take in upcoming years. All of his energy would be spent “establishing a new society of priests to labor for the conversion in the rural sections of United States.”

In his article Father Bishop characterized the problems facing the Church in America as having their roots in the decadence of city life—a declining birth rate, high cost of living, breakdown of family life, and inroads gained by communists—all of which could be traced back to the moral decay of those who inhabited the cities. His belief was that life in the country offered a natural resistance to the many problems of the city.(92) His solution to the problems, one that he had hinted at time and again in The Little Flower and Landward, was the establishment of an “entirely new community of priests” in order to strengthen the Church’s weak hold on the rural areas and her people.(93) Prescinding from his own line of reasoning, Father Bishop states the most important reason why a new community should be founded:

But the best of all reasons is that these millions of rural people are God’s creatures and our brethren and fellow citizens. Regardless of their strategic importance or unimportance, they are hungering for the truths of the Gospel and they have a claim upon us.(94)

The second half of the article was devoted to describing the structure of his proposed community and his suggested “plan of attack.” Father Bishop envisioned that in addition to priests, Brothers and Sisters(95) would join in the missionary effort with lay people also being “pressed into service.”(96) The missionaries would receive training that would prepare them “for the difficult task ahead of them.”(97) In the field two priests would be assigned to a “base parish” and would labor among non-Catholics (unbelievers) and fallen-away Catholics.(98) During favorable times of the year, other missionaries would join them and using the methods of southern Protestantism (e.g., revival meetings) would “develop areas of influence outside the base parish.”(99) The missionaries would also seek to improve the “temporal welfare of the people in order to win their confidence for the sake of the higher service it hopes to render them.”(100) Father Bishop believed that the new mission society would inspire a mission spirit among the diocesan clergy and “lead the way to greater sacrifices for the cause of the neglected rural sections of our land.”(101)

Less than two months after his article had been published in The Ecclesiastical Review, Father Bishop embarked on his first missionary “shopping journey.”(102) Because Archbishop Curley firmly believed that “there was no need” for such a society, Father Bishop was forced to travel outside of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in order to garner support for his plan among the Church’s hierarchy and more importantly in order to secure a location for his proposed community.(103)

In ensuing months Father Bishop took many such “shopping journeys.” He often found encouragement and even endorsement of his idea.(104) But he also encountered many questions and doubts on the part of the bishops(105) and by year’s end he had not gained what he desired and needed most: a bishop who was willing to sponsor his society:

1936 draws to a close. “Tomorrow fresh fields and pastures new” at least as far as the mental outlook is concerned. From now on the society of the Nativity must be considered a reality. Let us hope that this year will see it to a physical reality.(106)

The tenacity that had seen Father Bishop through many projects once again took hold and would endure until success was achieved.

Success, however, was only slowly realized. In the new year Father Bishop traveled to cities such as St. Louis,(107) Columbus,(108) Hartford,(109) and Ft. Wayne.(110) His search took him to many of the dioceses on the east coast, as well as those in the Midwest. Finally, on April 1, 1937 Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati informed Father Bishop that he would sponsor his community. After his release from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and when questions regarding canonical procedure could be worked out, Father Bishop would take up residence in a rural parish near Cincinnati which would serve as a temporary location while he was “gathering his forces and preparing for a start.”(111)

The stumbling block proved to be securing his release from Archbishop Curley. Father Bishop demonstrated a blend of passivity

Put in a good deal of time praying for a favorable answer from Archbishop or rather such an answer as God knows to be best. . . times are in God’s hands.(112)

with a willingness to fight for what he believed.

I have talked with the Archbishop at last. After twitting me about “flying in the face of angels and saints”. . .he said he would grant me a leave of absence.(113)

In a letter to Archbishop McNicholas recommending Father Bishop to his care, Archbishop Curley reflected a grudging but deep admiration for him:

Father Bishop as a priest is an excellent one—none better in fact, but he is not a hundred percent when it comes to a question of executive ability. He has done splendid work in a little rural parish here. . .I cannot see any real need for his organization. . .but Fr. Bishop has been so prayerful about it and intent upon it, that I am going to let him try it.(114)

Once again Father Bishop had overcome insurmountable odds to attain his desired goal.

On June 11, 1937 the archdiocesan newspaper, The Review, disclosed Father Bishop’s release from the Archdiocese, and he personally announced his change to the people to St. Louis Church. Although he was a man who was not easily met he, nonetheless, had won the hearts of the people with his dedication, zeal, and constancy.(115) He had worked long and hard in Clarksville and on his final Sunday in the parish he noted:

Most of the parishioners came up and bade me goodbye—they seemed to feel it deeply, far more than I imagined.(116)

Less than one month after saying goodbye to the people of Clarksville, he emblazoned the following words in his diary:

Landed at St. Martin’s to begin work of founding a home mission society.(117)

He had left behind twenty years of his labor and a way of life, knowing that the hardest part of “founding a home mission society: was still to be completed. Now his task was to gather those with a similar vision. Father Bishop felt that it was especially important to find a priest to join him, and until the time that he did so the mission society that he envisioned would only be a dream.(118)

In order to “spread the message” while gathering his forces Father Bishop followed his established pattern when championing a crusade and began a publication: The Challenge shared many similarities with its two predecessors, The Little Flower and Landward. Father Bishop was its editor, compiler, and publisher. He communicated the purpose and goal of his community in a concise, simple, and understandable manner:

To provide both resident pastors and traveling missionaries to labor for conversion in the no priest-land of America . . .concentrating their efforts on the rural sections because they are the most neglected and need them most.(119)

His “no priest-land” map graphically illustrated what he had written about in his Ecclesiastical Review article of 1936: that there was a need for a home mission society.(120)

Who were these “neglected” about which he spoke? Father Bishop believed that there were three groups of people who had been “sadly” neglected and who provided “an unlimited field for the exercise of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” The first group were the “sharecroppers” of the South, who he believed had been both neglected and exploited. The second were the “mountain folk,” who he saw as a “virile stock of people going to seed.” The third and final group of the neglected were the “Negroes.” In his mind they had been ignored and, like the sharecroppers, had been exploited.(121)

In explaining the need for the home mission society, Father Bishop emphatically points out that these and other neglected people are “human beings for whom the Savior died.”(122) Therefore, true Christianity (which he equated with Catholicity) must be:

Carried to the sixty-five or more millions of people who have no religion at all. . . it must be carried to the forty-two or more millions of people who profess a constantly weakening allegiance to various non-Catholic sects. . .and it must be carried to the great number of Catholics who have fallen away from Catholic faith or unbelief.(123)

The primary thrust of this missionary movement would be to those who were unbelievers.(124) It is these people whom he considered truly neglected.

Recruiting others with a similar vision, however, proved to be difficult. During a particularly discouraging period, Father Bishop made a retreat at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, and it was here that his interior life took a dramatic turn:

The first real day of retreat. I have taken no recreation and spoken only when necessary. The book my director gave me yesterday is a jewel. The Soul of the Apostolate by Chautard, trans. by Moran. For the first time the interior life begins to assume its proper proportions for me.(125)

The importance of this diary entry and the spiritual insight that it reflects cannot be emphasized enough. For all his priestly life Father Bishop’s interior life seems to have consisted of items of the Mass, the breviary and, from time to time (perhaps as often as weekly), a holy hour. His interior life presents us with an enigma. On the one hand he impressed both his parishioners and his fellow priests as being a holy and prayerful priest; and yet he rarely notes in his diary either the content or the structure (e.g., spending one hour a day in prayer reading scripture) of his interior life. This omission suggests, as we have already pointed out, that Father Bishop’s interior life flowed from his active life. The overall thrust of Chautard’s book is that “The active life can and must be only, in any soul, the overflow of the interior life,”(126) and seems to make Father Bishop aware of the fact that his own interior life is decidedly underdeveloped. It is against this backdrop that we can understand the significance of his statement, “For the first time the interior life begins to assume its proper proportions for me.” Unfortunately, the scope of this study (1915-1939, the retreat took place in July of 1938) does not allow us to analyze and examine the repercussions of this spiritual insight and its lasting importance. In order to gauge its full importance it would be necessary to study Father Bishop’s interior life for a number of years after the retreat.

The inability to find a priest who was willing to join him weighed heavily on Father Bishop’s mind. He had extended invitations to numerous priests, but in each case he received a negative or indecisive response.(127) By October of 1938 only two seminarians had joined him and he was deeply troubled.

Hardly slept at all last night worrying over slow development of our plan and continued lack of another priest.(128)

It would require another ten months, but, finally on September 1, 1939, The Challenge announced the breakthrough that Father Bishop had prayed and worked for, for over two years:

The Rev. Raphael Sourd, Spiritual Director of St. Gregory’s Seminary, has joined the Home Missioners of America.(129)

At last Father Bishop’s aspiring missionary society had a firm foundation on which to grow.

Summary: 1915-1939
The years that Father Bishop spent as curate at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart were a time of personal suffering. All suffering in the name of Christ is redemptive; and it is precisely in Father Bishop’s suffering that we can begin to see the loving and creative action of the Holy Spirit. Had his tenure at the Shrine been happy, it seems unlikely that he would have received an assignment to a rural parish. We might reflect, then, that it was Father Bishop’s sufferings that led him to Clarksville in the fall of 1917.

Once he was established in Clarksville Father Bishop became aware, for the first time in his life, of the many and unique set of problems that beset the small, rural parish. Being zealous and hard working by nature, and still reeling from the experience of the previous two years, Father Bishop attacked the problems with vigor and creativity. He was a man who was constantly searching for an “answer” to the problems he perceived; and the “remedy” that he proposed to the multitude of problems that confronted him was that of education. With dogged determination he set his course and spend the majority of this time and energy during this period in building a parochial school in Clarksville. Once again we can see the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in Father Bishop’s life as he was unknowingly led to a destination that would only gradually be revealed. It was a presence that is best characterized by its “pianissimo” quality: “But the Lord was not in. . .the great and strong wind. . .the earthquake. . .the fire. . .but in a still small voice.”(130)

The “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit, in the person of financial support for his new school and the multifaceted problems that he continued to face in Clarksville, brought Father Bishop to the first meeting of the N.R.L.C. in St. Louis in 1923. Participation in the N.R.C.L. over the years, expanded his horizons and slowly he began to articulate a “missionary” approach to ministry in rural America. Two historical events that occurred within a one-year span of each other (Governor Al Smith’s defeat in November of 1928, and the stock market crash in the fall of 1929) broadened and deepened his evolving vision. Any missionary effort in the rural areas of the United States must be both “offensive” in nature and also attend to the temporal, as well as the spiritual, needs of the people.

Father Bishop’s article that was published in the The Ecclesiastical Review in 1936 summarizes and synthesizes the development of his missionary vision and testifies to the action of the Holy Spirit in his life. From building a parochial school in Clarksville, the Holy Spirit had led him to establish “a religious society to labor for conversion of America to the Church of Jesus Christ.” Reminiscent of the call of the first disciples, Father Bishop left all—his close relationships with the N.R.L.C., his twenty-year pastorship of St. Louis Church, and his directorship of the League of the Little Flower—and ventured down a road with a clear goal, but an uncertain future.(131) It was on this road that he experienced what might be the most important and influential event on the years that followed—his retreat at Gethsemane in the summer of 1938. For the first time in his life Father Bishop’s interior life began to “assume its proper proportions.”(132)

Father Bishop’s Faith, Vision and Spirituality

91) Diary, July 30, 1939.
92) William Howard Bishop, “A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missioners to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States.” The Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 94, no. 4 (April 1936) : 340-2.
93) Ibid., pp. 340, 342.
94) Ibid., p. 342.
95) 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): 343.
96) Ibid., p. 345.
97) Ibid., p. 340.
98) Ibid., p. 345.
99) Ibid., p. 344.
100) Ibid., p. 346.
101) Ibid., p. 347.
102) Diary, May 25, 1936.
103) Diary, May 3, 1937.
104) Diary, May 26, May 27, May 29, June 22, June 25, June 29, September 21, December 10, 1936.
105) Diary, June 23, September 22, 1936.
106) Diary, December 31, 1936.
107) Diary, April 14, 1937.
108) Diary, February 18, 1937.
109) Diary, February 16, 1937.
110) Diary, February 18, 1937.
111) Diary, April 17, 1937.
112) Diary, April 28, 1937.
113) Diary, May 3, 1937.
114) Letter from Archbishop Curley to Archbishop McNicholas June 1, 1937, archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
115) From the interviews that were conducted after his death it seems that Father Bishop impressed people more by his action than he did by his person. A good example is the following: “He might not too readily impress you at first as the overly dynamic type. . .but he was always determined, firm, resolute, persevering.” Interview with Rev. Thomas Pater, code 067, p. 1.
116) Diary, June 20, 1937.
117) Diary, July 12, 1937.
118) Cf. Diary, October 31, 1938.
119) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 2, summer 1938, p. 3.
120) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 1.
121) Ibid., p. 2.
122) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 4.
123) The Challenge, vol. 1, no. 2, summer 1938, p. 3.
124) It seems that Father Bishop’s overwhelming emphasis when he speaks about “conversion” is on those who did not have faith and not on converting Protestants.
125) Diary, July 22, 1938.
126) Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. 1946): 291.
127) Diary, November 8, 1938. It seems that Father Bishop offered the position of “co-founder” to a number of priests. Cf. interview with Bishop John S. Spence, code 080.
128) Diary, October 31, 1938.
129) The Challenge, vol. 2, no. 2, summer 1939, p. 1.
130) I Kings 19:11, 12.
131) Cf. Matt. 4:18-22.
132) Diary, July 22, 1938.