Edie Jeter, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The Diocese of Richmond, formed from America’s first diocese, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is among the nation’s eight oldest Catholic dioceses.

Erected by decree of Pope Pius VII on July 11, 1820, the diocese encompassed the entire state of Virginia, including what is now West Virginia.

There were few Catholics within that vast territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River. Harsh laws had discouraged them from settling in colonial Virginia. It was not until the passing of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 that Catholics were free to worship openly in the Old Dominion.

Within 10 years, Catholic communities began to form. Saint Mary’s at Alexandria was established in 1795 as the first Catholic church in Virginia. Records from 1794 show that the Catholic congregation in Norfolk owned a parcel of land for religious purposes.

More precisely, the Norfolk land was held by the Norfolk Catholic community’s lay trustees. It was their conflict with their pastor over this land that prompted Vatican authorities to persuade the pope to set up a Virginia diocese with a residential bishop to suppress the “Norfolk Schism.”

Early challenges

As the first bishop of Richmond, Pope Pius VII chose Father Patrick Kelly, then president of Saint John’s Seminary, Birchfield, Ireland. He was consecrated bishop in Saint James Chapel, Dublin on Aug. 24, 1820.

Arriving in Norfolk the following January, Bishop Kelly found that, not only was his congregation sorely disunited, it was also too poor to support a bishop and his work. The new bishop was forced to support himself by operating a school.

Obtaining permission to return to Ireland, Bishop Kelly left Virginia in July 1822, without ever having visited his see city, Richmond, which had no organized Catholic community at that time.

Built in 1834, St. Peter Cathedral was the first cathedral of the Diocese of Richmond, serving that purpose until 1906. Located in downtown Richmond, it remains a parish of the diocese. (Photos/Diocese of Richmond archives)

For the next 19 years, the Diocese of Richmond was under the administration of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In 1841, Pope Gregory XVI restored the diocese to independent administration and appointed Father Richard Vincent Whelan as its second bishop. Bishop Whelan was the first of four Baltimore natives to head the Richmond diocese.

On a pastoral visit to the far western areas of his diocese, Bishop Whelan found large and growing communities of Irish and Italian Catholics who were pushing the new railroad through the mountains. He stayed to serve them and, in 1850, became the first bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, which encompassed all of Virginia west of the Allegheny Mountains and west of Maryland.

Arriving in Richmond in December 1850, Bishop John McGill, a native of Philadelphia and formerly a priest of the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, found a diocese numbering around 7,000 Catholics, served by eight priests and worshiping in 10 churches, including the Cathedral of Saint Peter, which had been built in 1834.

Progress after illness, war

Bishop McGill’s service as Richmond’s third ordinary spanned 21 years, a period in which Virginia was scourged by yellow fever and cholera epidemics, racked by the Civil War and plagued by the anti-Catholic bigotry of Know-Nothingism.

After his death in 1872, Bishop McGill was succeeded by Bishop James Gibbons, the vicar-apostolic of North Carolina, who would later become the renowned cardinal archbishop of Baltimore. Bishop Gibbons drew on his experience as the spiritual leader of Virginia’s Catholic minority to write the book “Faith of Our Fathers,” a celebrated exposition of Catholic beliefs. The work, published in 1876, went through numerous printings and was translated into several languages.

Upon the transfer of Bishop Gibbons to Baltimore, John Joseph Keane, a native of Ireland and a Washington, D.C. pastor, was named Richmond’s fifth bishop in 1878. He was the first Catholic bishop to be consecrated in Richmond.

Bishop Keane was responsible for bringing the Josephite Fathers into the diocese to serve the black Catholic community. He was also instrumental in the foundation of The Catholic University of America and became its first rector.

Bishop Keane was succeeded in 1889 by Bishop Augustine Van de Vyver, a native of Belgium. He had served as a missionary priest in the western part of the diocese and later as vicar general before being named bishop. During his 22 years as ordinary, Bishop Van de Vyver founded 12 parishes and built 32 churches, including the present Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (1906).

After Bishop Van de Vyver’s death, Bishop Denis Joseph O’Connell became Richmond’s seventh ordinary in 1912. Another native of Ireland and a priest of the Richmond Diocese, Bishop O’Connell had served as the rector of the North American College in Rome and as auxiliary bishop of San Francisco. He served 14 years, resigning in 1926 due to illness.

Bishop Andrew James Brennan, a native of Towanda, Pennsylvania and the auxiliary bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was installed as Richmond’s eighth bishop on Dec. 16, 1926. Less than eight years later, he suffered a stroke that cut short his service to the diocese.

Growth, multiple changes

Msgr. Peter Leo Ireton from Baltimore became apostolic administrator and coadjutor bishop of Richmond in 1935, and the ninth ordinary in 1945. Bishop Ireton guided the diocese during 22 years of rapid growth. Its population expanded from 37,000 in 1935 to 147,000 in 1958. During Bishop Ireton’s ministry, 42 parishes were established and 24 schools were built.

Five months after Bishop Ireton’s death in 1958, Bishop John Joyce Russell of Charleston, South Carolina, a Baltimore native, became Richmond’s 10th bishop.

Ahead of Bishop Russell lay the task of guiding the diocese through a period of the most far-reaching change in the Catholic Church in four centuries. It was a change that Bishop Russell, as a father of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), had helped to bring about.

Because of the council, Richmond was one of the first four dioceses in the nation to establish a Commission on Ecumenical Affairs (1963). In 1966, a Diocesan Pastoral Council and a Council of Priests were established in answer to Vatican II’s call for bishops to share responsibility for governing their dioceses.

‘New’ diocese

After Bishop Russell’s retirement, Bishop Walter Francis Sullivan, a native of Washington, D.C. and auxiliary bishop of this diocese, was named the 11th bishop of Richmond in 1974. At the same time, the Diocese of Arlington was formed from 21 Northern Virginia counties.

The “new” Diocese of Richmond, which came into being Aug. 13, 1974, comprised some 33,000 square miles and included the remaining 74 counties of the state — essentially the southern three-fifths of Virginia.

Bishop Sullivan retired in 2003 after nearly 30 years as ordinary. He was succeeded by Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo, a Philadelphia native and who had been serving as the bishop of Honolulu, was installed as the 12th bishop of Richmond on May 24, 2004.

Greater outreach, support

Following his installation, Bishop DiLorenzo worked in partnership with Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington to establish the Virginia Catholic Conference to advance the mutual public-policy interests of the Commonwealth’s two Catholic dioceses.

Under Bishop DiLorenzo’s leadership, a five-year pastoral plan was developed to address inter-church collaboration, and international priests from Asia and Africa were invited to serve in the Richmond Diocese. He continued to promote the goals of the McMahon-Parater Foundation, making Catholic schools available, accessible, and affordable to all Catholic parents and their children.

Bishop DiLorenzo relocated the chancery offices, formerly situated on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Diocesan Pastoral Center, located in western Henrico County, houses all diocesan offices. It serves as a resource for parishes, schools and institutions hosting educational conferences and workshops.

Under Bishop DiLorenzo’s leadership, the Diocesan Home Mission grant program was established to provide supplemental financial resources for parishes in areas where there are few Catholics and limited resources. The Annual Diocesan Appeal was significantly remodeled to include a new Case for Support that focuses on supporting vital ministries such as in cultivating the next generation of Catholic leaders, seminarian education, health insurance for retired priests, and emergency assistance through the Fuel and Hunger Fund.

A significant portion of the appeal is returned to the parishes to fund their important local priorities. The Annual Diocesan Appeal is a remarkable example of what our diocesan family can accomplish when we join as one Catholic voice for those in need.

On April 15, 2017, Bishop DiLorenzo submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican. At the request of Rome, he continued to serve the diocese until his untimely death on August 17, 2017.

Four months later, on December 5, Pope Francis announced the appointment of Bishop Barry C. Knestout as the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.

As a new chapter in the life of our diocese begins with Bishop Knestout’s installation on Jan. 12, 2018, we are grateful to him for accepting the call to lead our diocese into a third century of Catholic ministry and service to the people of Virginia.

Edie Jeter is the archivist for the Diocese of Richmond.