Diocesan History-A New Diocese 1956-1962


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Bp. Helmsing (Photo courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Kent Library), Southeast Missouri State University)
Bishop Helmsing (Photo courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Kent Library), Southeast Missouri State University)

“I Am Thy slave, the son of Thy handmaid.” —Bishop Charles H. Helmsing

He was a humble man with a depth of human understanding and a flair for administration. That was the evaluation voiced at the testimonial dinner celebrating the tenure of Bishop Charles H. Helmsing serving his final weeks as the first bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in 1962. There was some hesitation as to the appropriateness of pinning the “Hillbilly” medal on the bishop’s cassock that night by the president of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. The bishop assured his audience that he was proud to join Harry S. Truman as a past recipient of the Ozarkian award.

Born March 23, 1908, in Shrewsbury, MO, Charles Herman Helmsing was ordained to the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1933. Among his early pastoral assignments, he was assistant pastor of two parishes where, in addition to sacramental parochial duties, he instructed the parish children and adults seeking to come into the Church. In 1934 he began a 12-year stint teaching English, religion, and history in the junior high school of the minor seminary and at Rosati-Kain High School in St. Louis. He became the Director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, and eventually served as secretary-treasurer of the Archdiocesan Rural Life and Home Missions Conference. When Archbishop John Glennon left to be inducted into the College of Cardinals in Rome, Fr. Helmsing assumed duties as his secretary, although he protested that he had no experience in that area. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of St. Louis on March 17, 1949, and ordained on April 19. In Aug. 1956, he became the first bishop of the new diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and was installed on Nov. 28.

Map of the new dioceses.
Map of the new dioceses.

Upon arrival in the new diocese, Bishop Helmsing acknowledged that he was to build on the heroic efforts of those who preceded him–the missionaries who followed the waterways, railroads, and highways to bring the faith to southern Missouri settlers. He gave special credit to Bishop DuBourg; Bishop Rosati and his fellow Vincentians; Fr. Bernard Donnelly, the Apostle of Kansas City; and the Jesuit missionaries, all of whom served the Catholics of the area and reached out to evangelize others.

His new diocese consisted of 25,000 square miles of downstate areas that were formerly part of the ecclesiastical jurisdictions of St. Louis and Kansas City. It encompassed the southern counties from the Mississippi River west along the Arkansas border to the western boundary of Missouri. The double pastoral tasks were to meet the needs of the Catholics of the area and to reach out to people of different persuasions. New churches and mission churches were needed for the faithful. Street preaching during the summer by young seminarians and priests served in the evangelizing effort. Intensive catechetical programs and a growing Catholic school system ministered to both groups, while missions were clustered in the southeast where newly ordained priests worked with experienced pastors.

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Bishop Helmsing Reflects

“On April 19, 1949, I found myself the newly ordained auxiliary bishop of St. Louis with a special charge to look after the downstate parishes, to be the liaison with the archbishop and to be of whatever assistance I could to the priests, religious, and laity of the vast downstate area. For seven-and-a-half years it was my privilege to visit what is now the eastern half of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. I knew the territory, every parish and institution, very well. I knew all the priests, some of whom had been in the seminary with me and all of whom had been fellow priests of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I knew that the principal Catholic settlements were all along the Mississippi River and the Missouri River and the farther you got away from the great arteries of transportation of the early days, the fewer Catholics you found. Hence I realized when the new commitment was given to me, that I would have to concentrate my first efforts on the western half of the Diocese, namely, the portion separated from the Diocese of Kansas City.”

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Installation of First Abbot Raises ‘Monastery’ To ‘Abbey’

Installation of first Trappist Abbot Bruno Payant.
Installation of first Trappist Abbot Bruno Payant.

The Trappists Assumption Abbey is a community of monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, popularly known as Trappists. They first came to Ava, MO, from New Melleray Abbey in Iowa in 1950 to establish their monastic life in southern Missouri. The Abbey is situated in the rugged, wooded Ozarks near clear streams and a small river. After the Second World War, the Trappists experienced a great renewal and rapid growth, establishing new monasteries in Asia and South America and enabling the Abbey in Iowa to open a new monastery in Missouri. Bishop Helmsing welcomed their presence in southern Missouri because of their continual prayer for all the members of the diocese and for all the world.

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Spiritual Thrust

Pastoral: “Directing our Intention.”
Pastoral: “Directing our Intention.” (click on image for PDF)

It is always of primary importance for the Church’s leaders to be strong advocates of the spiritual life of their charges. One of the earliest spiritual thrusts of the new bishop was to issue a pastoral letter promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart for the sake of the salvation and sanctification of all. He thereby united all his efforts and the services of all the clergy, religious, and laity under his charge in the basic Gospel mission.

Beginning with his responsibility for his priests, he continued the tradition initiated by St. Louis Archbishop Joseph Ritter of nourishing their interior life by regular monthly days of recollection and annual retreats. For this purpose the Oblates of Mary Immaculate offered their seminary at Carthage and the Vincentian Fathers their seminary at Cape Girardeau as clergy gathering places at either side of the state. The clergy were thereby afforded reasonable access to regular meetings for prayer and mutual encouragement.

The bishop exhorted the laity to participate in the Apostleship of Prayer to sanctify all the moments of their lives and encouraged them to engage in a variety of societies and organizations as outlets for their apostolic zeal. Societies already established, like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Legion of Mary, were reinforced.

Diocesan Institutions

St. Henry Regional High School, Charleston
St. Henry Regional High School, Charleston
St. Mary of the Ozarks Arcadia Valley Hospital, Ironton
St. Mary of the Ozarks Arcadia Valley Hospital, Ironton

At its initiation the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was alive and healthy. It counted 55 parishes and 32 mission churches. These were served by 70 diocesan priests, 51 men religious of 5 religious communities, and 311 women religious from 20 communities.

St. Agnes Regional High School, Springfield
St. Agnes Regional High School, Springfield
St. Johns Hospital, Joplin
St. Johns Hospital, Joplin

In terms of educational institutions, besides the two minor seminaries already mentioned, there were in operation 30 parish elementary schools and three interparochial high schools: Cape Girardeau/Cape Girardeau Catholic High School; Springfield/St. Agnes Regional High School, and Charleston/St. Henry Regional High School. Private schools included Springfield/Eifindale (St. de Chantal Elementary Academy of the Visitation) and two high schools–Arcadia/Arcadia College and Ursuline Academy and Joplin/McAuley Regional High School.

St. Francis Mountain View Memorial Hospital, Mountain View
St. Francis Mountain View Memorial Hospital, Mountain View

Meeting the health needs of the population were six general hospitals founded and operated by religious communities from east to west: Springfield/St. John’s Hospital; Cape Girardeau/St. Francis Hospital; Ironton/St. Mary of the Ozarks (Arcadia Valley Hospital); Joplin/St. John’s Hospital; Monett/St. Vincent’s Hospital, and Mountain View/St. Francis: Mountain View Memorial Hospital. Springfield/Mercy Hospital was a special hospital serving patients needing chronic care.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, Monett
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Monett
Elfindale St. de Chantal, Elementary Academy of the Visitation, Springfield
Elfindale St. de Chantal, Elementary Academy of the Visitation, Springfield

The administrative structure of the new diocese needed shaping. With Archbishop Ritter’s permission, Fr. John H. Westhues was called to serve in Springfield-Cape Girardeau. His degree in canon law from Rome and his experience in southern Missouri prepared him to create the required chancery forms and to originate a yearbook describing the services rendered to the members of the diocese.

St. John’s Hospital, Springfield
St. John’s Hospital, Springfield

Financial Stability

1939 Block ads
1939 Block ads

The new diocese was able to get off to a good start financially when the parent dioceses, Kansas City and St. Louis, amortized its outstanding debts. The initiation of an annual campaign for funds, continued to the present day, netted $50,000 in the first year and has almost reached the two-million-plus mark in recent campaigns. In 1958 the collection for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith netted $52,977. This contribution from a missionary diocese ranked fifth in the nation for per capita gifts.

Evangelization

Serving the evangelizing effort were the Motor Missions, which were already in operation for more than 20 years at the time of the formation of the new diocese. Begun by the Vincentian Fathers in 1935, the program brought seminarians to southern Missouri to join the Vincentian team that traveled from town to town using street-preaching techniques to interest audiences in joining the Catholic Church.

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Catholic Motor Missions

It was the brainchild of Fr. Lester Fallon, CM, then professor of dogmatic theology at Kenrick Seminary, St. Louis. Inaugurated on June 21, 1935, the Motor Missions Program first operated within the parish boundaries of St. John, Leopold.

 

1939 News Clipping
1939 News Clipping

For 30 years the Vincentian Fathers ran the missions, which functioned usually from early July to mid-October. They took the teachings of the Gospel and the Church to fairs, carnivals, meetings, and festivals. At a booth, they would show slide stories of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, the daily life of priests, and the life of a hospital sister, for example. They would be on hand to speak to anyone interested and answer questions.

Another way they evangelized was by house-to-house visitation. Under the direction of the local pastors, teams of seminarians would make a complete census of an area, visiting from 2,000 to 4,000 households a summer and distributing Knights of Columbus pamphlets. In their circuit they would discover invalid marriages to be validated, fallen-away Catholics, new and unregistered families and people seeking more information about the Church.

In 1965 the diocese took over the Catholic Motor Missions program from the Vincentian Fathers. For the first time, sisters from local convents joined the teams and Legion of Mary workers and Cursillo men helped in the evangelization efforts.

An expansive outreach, the Motor Missions reaped a rich harvest for the Church.

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“Sisters come to the Ozarks” 1959 Mountain View Standard
“Sisters come to the Ozarks” 1959 Mountain View Standard
Msgr. Joseph Huels
Msgr. Joseph Huels

A Missionary Apostolate Plan, also known as “The Buffalo Plan,” which had been put into operation in south central Missouri by Archbishop Cardinal Ritter in 1952, was extended to southeast Missouri two years later and named “The SEMO Plan.” Initially four priests were assigned to assist the pastor of Caruthersville, Msgr. Joseph Huels, in the vast area encompassing Steele, Kennett, Malden, and Wilhelmina. As the ministry expanded, Msgr. Huels and the Mission center moved to Sacred Heart Parish in Poplar Bluff. In 1955, Fr. Syl Bauer’s ministry was also expanding. Seven priests covered the West Plains area with Willow Springs, Mountain View, and West Plains serving as “Centers” while White Church became “Headquarters.” These stations afforded service to Cabool, Houston, Eminence, and Thayer. From this effort flowed a new church in West Plains, and mission churches in Houston and Licking.

In addition to implementing the “Plan,” Fr. Bauer contacted every religious community in the US to 22 to staff the hospital in Mountain View, which had been closed due to financial difficulties. One community responded. The Daughters of St. Francis, Lacon, IL, came to staff the hospital in September of 1956.

Challenges

Bishop Helmsing faced a number of challenges in his new mission. Possibly the greatest was the need to unify the diocese spread over 39 counties, 19 of which had belonged to the Kansas City Diocese and 20 to the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Of a total population of 866,148 (1950 census), Catholics comprised 3.3 percent or 28,687 members. Part of the effort would include building, rebuilding, and refurbishing parish churches, schools, and rectories already in existence.

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First church building 1893-1915
First church building 1893-1915


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SACRED HEART-WILLOW SPRINGS, was the first church rebuilt and dedicated in the new diocese. The date was Sept. 15, 1957. It was the third church building for the parish.

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Unification Efforts

Diocesan Council of Catholic Women Officers 1957
Diocesan Council of Catholic Women Officers 1957

Like King David who brought the ark to Jerusalem to unify his people, the bishop’s pastoral letter encouraging devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was meant to unite the diocese in a common vision. In practical measures to fulfill that vision, within the first year of his tenure, the bishop made a conscious effort to solicit lay collaboration in the areas of spiritual growth, evangelization, and temporal affairs. He organized the Diocesan Councils of Catholic Men and of Catholic Women and set up a diocesan committee on scouting. He encouraged these diocesan-level leadership organizations to support and promote other organizations such as the Legion of Mary, the Knights of Columbus, and the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales, among others. Furthermore, he united these diverse organizations by introducing common causes toward which they could focus their energies: the Diocesan Expansion Fund, the Diocesan Census, increased attendance at daily Mass and daily recitation of the rosary.

To facilitate the bishop’s travels to visit his people around the diocese, the bishop purchased a small airplane and commissioned Msgr. John Westhues and Fr. Thomas Allen to earn pilot licenses. At the end of Bishop Helmsing’s tenure, the completion of Interstate Highway 44, and continuing work to improve Highway 60, both east-west travel routes, eliminated the need for an airplane.

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Knights of Columbus

In 1956 there were 12 K of C Councils, the oldest being St. Ann’s Council #698 in Springfield, which originated Nov. 29, 1903. The youngest Council is in Billings, which opened on April 1, 2004. The Knights of Columbus currently have 43 Councils with 5,235 members.

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Catholic Scouting

Coordination of scouting activities began in 1957 when Bishop Helmsing appointed Fr. Thomas E. Allen director of Catholic Scouting. A diocesan committee and three local or area councils guided scouting activities: the MO-KAN Council of Joplin, the Southeast Missouri Council of Cape Girardeau, and the Ozark Empire Council of Springfield. Awards included the Ad Altare Dei (To the Altar of God) Cross Award for Boy Scouts in recognition of advancement in the spiritual content of the Scouting program, like serving Mass faithfully for two years or more. The Parvuli Dei (Child of God) Award for Cub Scouts recognized advancement in religious knowledge and spiritual formation. Girl Scouts who demonstrated an understanding of Mary as a model of openness and spirituality earned the Marian Award. Adults who gave exemplary service in the Boy Scout Program were given the St. George Award.

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1956 construction of Interstate 44, near Lebanon
1956 construction of Interstate 44, near Lebanon

Fiscal Responsibility

Two initial fund-raising efforts helped to meet the challenge of upgrading aging church buildings. They succeeded through the overwhelming generosity of the people whose magnanimous giving continues to this day.

The first appeal, which netted $80,143, $20,000 over the goal, was used to match Extension Society gifts of $30,000 and to build churches in Thayer, Ava, and Piedmont, and to remodel the Sacred Heart Parish School building in Springfield to serve as a house of studies for high school-age boys looking toward the priesthood. Msgr. Marion F. Forst, vicar general of the diocese, was executive chairman of the campaign.

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First Vicar General Appointed Bishop

Msgr. Marion F. Forst
Msgr. Marion F. Forst
Bp. Paul C. Schulte
Bishop Paul C. Schulte

Msgr. Marion F. Forst, first vicar general of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and pastor of the Cathedral of St. Mary in Cape Girardeau for 11 years, was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Dodge City, KS, by Pope John XXIII on Jan. 6, 1960. He is the only priest appointed a bishop since the diocese was formed. Prior to 1956, Fr. Paul C. Schulte of Fredericktown became successively Bishop of Leavenworth, KS, and of Indianapolis, IN.

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Campaign results Springfield Catholic Building Fund: $350,000
Campaign results Springfield Catholic Building Fund: $350,000

The second and concurrent Springfield Catholic Building Fund realized $350,000, which was $75,000 over its goal. The moneys were used to build a new Immaculate Conception Church and school, a new elementary school for St. Agnes and added classrooms for St. Agnes High School. The funds also liquidated the debt of St. Joseph Parish and renovated its buildings and those of Sacred Heart Parish.

To offset the feeling of isolation experienced by priests serving in parishes widely distant from one another, the monthly days of recollection already in place at the minor seminaries of Cape Girardeau and Carthage were expanded to include opportunities for recreation besides prayer, study, and edification. In addition, attention was given to assigning priests to both the east and west sides of the diocese to overcome the problem of their not knowing one another because of their training in different seminaries.

Chancery, Bishop’s Residence

1960 exterior of the bishop’s residence
1960 exterior of the bishop’s residence

Other challenges facing the new diocese were the lack of administrative office space and no residence for the bishop. Early on, the diocese leased space on the fourth floor of the Landers Building in Springfield to house the offices of the bishop, chancellor, diocesan bookkeeper, and bishop’s secretary.

For the first four years, at the invitation of the Sisters of Mercy, the bishop lodged in the chaplain ‘s quarters of St. John’s Hospital run by the sisters. Then in February 1960, the diocese purchased the residence at 1320 East Walnut to serve as the bishop’s residence. The purse received by Bishop Helmsing when he left St. Louis was donated toward the purchase price of $75,000. This residence has served to house all the bishops to this day.

Ignorance of Catholic Teaching

Motor Missions
Motor Missions
St. Ann Church, Malden, served by the Missionary Apostolate Plan
St. Ann Church, Malden, served by the Missionary Apostolate Plan

Another challenge the church of Springfield-Cape Girardeau faced was unavailability of a regular channel for authentic teachings and reliable news about the activities of the diocese and the Church. Catholics of the diocese as well as the general population profited when news and exhortation were made available through a news page dedicated to the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in the archdiocesan publication, the St. Louis Review. After Fr. Leo Nugent was assigned as information editor, from February 1958 on, the page always included a column by the bishop. Eventually Fr. Quentin Hahn assisted Fr. Nugent in rounding up information and issuing press releases. At the time, the priests worked out of their own parishes since there was no office space in the chancery.

St. Joseph Church, Steele, served by the Missionary Apostolate Plan
St. Joseph Church, Steele, served by the Missionary Apostolate Plan

To more directly offset anti-Catholic sentiment, the Motor Missions Project and the Missionary Apostolate Plan enjoyed continuous support. The Legion of Mary efforts to evangelize were heavily promoted by the bishop who supported laywoman Delphine Madill in her effort to encourage the formation of praesidia in every parish and mission. Pastors were also encouraged to join Ministerial Alliances in the communities they served.

Missing Facilities

Among the other obstacles to efficient running of the new diocese, the bishop faced a lack of facilities. There were no Catholic colleges, no religious provincial houses, no retreat houses, no major seminary, and no Catholic Center within his jurisdiction. In some cases, the bishop was able to set new facilities in place. In others, he was able only to make adjustments.

• In February 1958, the diocese founded the Diocesan Council of Catholic Youth with Fr. Eugene Deragowski as director, but he had no office in the chancery. A year and a half later, in October 1959, a Newman Club Center was established in Springfield on Kings Street for Catholic students attending what was then called Southwest Missouri State College.

• The Oblate Seminary in Carthage was used for retreats for men and Arcadia/Ursuline Academy was the site for retreats for women.

• Teachers in Catholic schools of the diocese gathered for the first time in Cape Girardeau and in Springfield in November 1957, although a physical plant for meeting was still unavailable.

Helmsing — The Man and His Achievements

Abp. Ritter and Bp. Charles Helmsing at Bp. Helmsing’s installation for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
Archbishop Ritter and Bishop Charles Helmsing at Biahop Helmsing’s installation for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

A tall man (6’ 2”) and the only bishop to come to the new diocese with previous experience as a bishop, Bishop Charles Helmsing was a “missionary” bishop. His service as head of the Office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of St. Louis served him well when he took responsibility for the priests and parishes in eastern regions of southern Missouri known as Missouri Missions. According to his secretary, Lorine Newell, now deceased, he was a missionary as well in his manner of administration–seldom at his desk, always on the go, out “building the diocese.” His missionary spirit sprang from his simple, genuine piety and tremendous devotion to the Church. Ardently devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary the Mother of Jesus, Bishop Helmsing left an important and distinct mark on the world and the Church of Missouri. According to one of the priests he ordained, he was “a priest first and a bishop second.”

Transferred to head the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on Jan. 27, 1962, Bishop Helmsing retired in June 1977 and died on Dec. 20, 1993 at the age of 85. At his funeral in Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Kansas City he was eulogized for his many achievements for Christ and the Church.

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Parishes Established During Bishop Helmsing’s Tenure

1956 — Christ the King Mission Church, Bunker
1957 — St. Mary’s Chapel, Campbell (closed 1978-merged with Glennonville)
1957 — Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, Joy (closed 1970)
1957 — St. Jude Chapel, Montauk
1956 — St. William Mission Church, Gainesville
1959 — St. Anne Mission Church, Grandin (closed 2005)
1959 — St. Anne, Ellingon (closed 1986)
1960 — St. John the Baptist Mission Church, Licking
1961 — St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Ozark

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