Diocesan History-Challenges Met 1973-1984
“The truth that is most compelling in my life is the mystery of the Church … the idea that the Church is Christ, extended in time and space.” -Bishop Bernard F. Law
The new shepherd of the maturing Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was born in Torreon, Mexico, on Nov. 4, 1931. Bernard was the only child of US Air Force Colonel Bernard A. Law and Helen, who converted to Catholicism during her son’s college years. For the remainder of his life, Bernard’s father managed the local airport in Jackson, MS, where the family moved after the colonel’s retirement.
As the child of a military father, Bernard’s early training afforded him wide experience. He attended schools in New York; Florida; Georgia; and Colombia, South America, graduating from Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1953, making him the only member of the Catholic hierarchy in the US to have graduated from that institution . He began his studies for the priesthood at St. Joseph Seminary, St. Benedict, LA, completing them at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, OH.
He was ordained there on May 21, 1961. Two years as associate pastor of St. Paul, Vicksburg, MS, were followed by his appointment as editor of the Natchez-Jackson diocesan newspaper, The Mississippi Register. Through editorials in that organ and his participation in demonstrations, he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement active at the time.
In 1968 Fr. Law became executive director of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. This position prepared him to carry on the ecumenical endeavors of Bishop Baum when he became bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
Of an energetic temperament, Bernard Law was nevertheless a good listener. When he spoke, his voice and manner exuded conviction. Undergirding these personality traits was a deep spirit of prayer and a genuinely pastoral inclination.
The Diocese 1973
Bernard F. Law was appointed the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau on Oct. 22, 1973. He was ordained and installed on Dec. 5, 1973.
Upon his accession, the diocese had 59 parishes, 4 of which had no resident pastor, and 31 missions. These were ministered to by 68 diocesan priests and 28 men religious representing 7 religious communities. By this time, 211 women religious, representing 20 religious communities served throughout the diocese.
There were 24 parish schools but, by the early 1960s, consolidation of the high schools had already begun. Cape Girardeau Catholic High School became Notre Dame Regional High School in 1962. In the western area, Springfield/St. Agnes Regional High School had formed. One private high school represented an amalgamation–Joplin/McAuley Regional High School. In Carthage St. Anthony Kindergarten was run separately from the Catholic elementary school from 1949-1976.
The hospitals in place were the same as those that operated in Bishop Baum’s years. They continued to expand in space and services and provided a Catholic presence in the areas they served.
The chancery, renting offices in the Landers Building, Park Central Square in Springfield, now housed, in addition to the bishop’s offices, the chancellor and vice-chancellor, the Catholic Schools Superintendent and Religious Education Department, the Secretariat for Social Concerns, the diocesan newspaper The Mirror, and the Vocations and House of Studies Office.
Diocesan organizations such as the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Priests’ Senate, the Bureau of Information, the Radio and TV Office, the pastoral outreach on college campuses, and the Council of Catholic Women were in full operation in the diocese. The St. Vincent de Paul conferences and the Legion of Mary involved the services of laity. The Missouri Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Missouri dioceses, had been in operation since 1967.
Attention to Youth
Almost immediately, Bp. Law appointed several women as leaders in diocesan education offices. Sister Mary Philip Hampton, CDP, assumed the responsibility of Superintendent of Catholic Schools. The bishop personally saved St. Agnes High School in Springfield by bringing Sister Mary Raynald Blomer, SSND, principal of Notre Dame High School in Cape, to head the faltering Springfield high school. Sister Margaret Hosch, OSF, was appointed Director of Religious Education Office with Sister Kathleen Grace, OSF, as assistant. Sister Anastasia Wehner, SSND, worked with CCD and high school teachers developing programs for youth in the Religious Education Office.
Because there were fewer clergy, parishes began hiring Directors of Religious Education (ORE), sometimes one ORE serving for several parishes. Religious Education Institutes, held alternately in Springfield and Cape Girardeau, gathered OREs for mutual support and sharing.
The Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) took on more prominence as the lobbying arm of the Missouri dioceses in the State Legislature. Louis DeFeo, MCC attorney, attempted to get a rehearing on a 1974 Missouri Supreme Court decision prohibiting the loan of secular textbooks to children in non-public schools. The basis for the court’s decision was that the Missouri Free Textbook Law was unconstitutional. Although DeFeo’s request was denied, the courts agreed to allow the textbooks to be delivered in time for the 1974-75 school year. The loan of books to non-public schools ended after that, but lobbying efforts on other issues continued with the increased support by the four bishops of Missouri.
Beginning in 1974, children in the diocese were afforded the opportunity to participate in the Camp Re-NEW-All Program. The first and only session that year lasted one week and was open to children entering Grades 6-9. It was held at Hammond Mill Camp, 15 miles west of West Plains.
Days of Recollection Were Initiated for Confirmation Candidates
Not only did the bishop work institutionally to promote the faith life of the youth of the diocese, he also became personally involved with their religious activities. When he first arrived as bishop, he selected a representative group of young persons from around Springfield to pray at his house once a week.
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Camp Re-NEW-All, an experience of Catholic community for children entering sixth through ninth grade, was born from a conversation between co-founders Father Mark Binder and Mrs. Phyllis Peterka in late March of 1974. Beginning as a desire for Catholic children in the middle of the diocese to be able to know other Catholic children and experience Catholic community turned out to be a need and desire throughout the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Camp grew from one session in 1974 to two in 1975, four in 1976, five in 1977, to eight sessions in the summer of 2003 (three in Camp St. Vincent, Fredericktown, and five in Roaring River State Park, Cassville). Campers and volunteer staff members have participated from almost all of the parishes of the diocese. Early direction of the camp program was in the hands of Mrs. Virginia Denmark and Mrs. Nancy McGregor. The camp program came under the management of the diocese in 1975. Ms. Virginia Sander became director for both sides of the diocese in 1976. Currently, Ms. Sander directs the camp on the east side of the diocese and Ms. Kathy Miloshewski on the west side of the diocese. The diocesan Office of Youth Ministry now manages the program that continues to provide Catholic community for high school and college students and adults. Activities include liturgy, prayer, crafts, sports, swimming and appreciation of natural surroundings. In 2003 this experience included 700 youth and 200 adult volunteers. Two blessings have been realized from Camp Re-NEW-All. Many of the campers have returned in their high school, college and adult years to volunteer as staff members. A number of them have also offered their services in their parishes and the diocese in matters of faith and leadership.
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In his 10 years as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Bishop Law faced some of the same challenges as his predecessors. There were still no Catholic colleges in the diocese, which meant there were no easily accessible opportunities for higher level intellectual exchange and growth of the faith of its members. The absence of provincial houses left the diocese dependent on outside sources for crucial services. Dwindling enrollment, shortage of priest-personnel and expense prompted the bishop to close Sacred Heart House of Studies a year after he assumed responsibility for the diocese.
The travel distance from one end of the diocese to the other and between parishes continued to adversely affect the time left for pastoral duties and the diocesan spirit of unity. Not only did the geographical divide separate the horizontal ends of the expanse, there was a kind of Mason-Dixon line off “Benton Hill” on 1-55, south of Cape Girardeau where, within two miles, the culture shifted from the Midwest to the old South. That, together with the anti-Catholic sentiment that prevailed in the wider area, meant that peoples, cultures, religions, and distance militated against the much-desired unity in the diocese. In the Spring of 1977 office space was rented in Cape Girardeau to be used as a “base of operation” on the east side of the diocese. In his “focus on parishes,” Bishop Law saw this “as a tool to help staff members to better serve the parishes.” The effort was short lived.
To complicate matters, a fire on the 7th floor of the Landers Building caused smoke and water damage to the offices there. Two years later, in 1979, the chancery relocated a block away, in the McDaniel Building in downtown Springfield.
The Law years also saw family farms come under threat of extinction and the bishop struggled to know what direction the Church should take on rural issues. Another challenge to church teaching was the legalization of abortion (1973) by the Supreme Court.
It was Robert Lee, the editor of The Mirror, who found the Vietnamese refugee priests and brothers at Fort Chaffee, AR, and persuaded Bishop Law to explore the situation himself. Once he was aware of the plight of the Vietnamese, he became their advocate. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate still owned property and buildings in Carthage, which had been purchased from a Methodist group who had abandoned it during the Great Depression. Although it was no longer used as the Oblates’ minor seminary, they hesitated to give it up. Father John Weissler, OMI, kept the print shop going, producing a newsletter for alumni that included requests for donations to help with maintenance of the buildings. The bishop used his persuasive charm and personal friendship with the provincial to get them to sell their buildings for $1 to the Vietnamese priests and brothers who subsequently have been successful in serving the large number of refugees settling in the US. The site is now the US headquarters for Vietnamese priests.
Among other energetic strategies in resettling the refugees, the bishop issued a call to religious communities to help. He succeeded in getting the Daughters of Charity to work with the immigrants, and in 1975 the diocese opened the Office for Resettlement for Vietnamese Refugees, headed by Sister Rosaire Cantu, RSM, and following her, Sister Teresa Toile, DC. In early 1976 one of the four pages of The Mirror was printed in Vietnamese to accommodate Vietnamese Catholics settling throughout the diocese.
Although many of the immigrants eventually moved on, the southwest portion of the diocese experienced the greatest growth in Catholic population in the nearly 30 years between 1974 and 2003. Stone County increased 13-fold. McDonald County was close behind with nearly a 12-fold multiplication. These increases were caused by Hispanic immigrants coming to work in the poultry industry. Christian, Taney, Cedar, and Dade counties followed with 4 and 3 times their original numbers through the growth of Branson and the increasing popularity of the Lakes Area. The increasing Catholic population in the western portion of the diocese prompted the opening of a sixth parish in Springfield.
In 1977 introduction of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) constituted a boon to the evangelizing efforts of the diocese. Replacing the older method of initiation of new Catholics by emphasizing intellectual knowledge of the faith, the RCIA added experiences of Catholic community, ritual, and caring sponsorship with a program of Scripture and doctrine study carried on as a sharing of the faith. The initiates were introduced to a way of life as well as a body of beliefs.
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Vatican II Aftermath
Among the new perspectives introduced by Vatican Council II was the crucial role of the laity in the mission of the Church. No longer to be regarded as second-class citizens or participants in the mission of the hierarchy, lay men and women, identified by the Council as the People of God, were to assume the role of evangelizers in their own right through their dignity as baptized members of the Church and under the principle of “shared responsibility.”
Almost immediately Bishop Law disbanded the Diocesan Pastoral Council and set out to formalize the new parish councils by issuing in 1977 a “Memorandum of Understanding,” a uniform constitution to replace the plethora of parish council constitutions that had sprung up. It became important to identify the parish council as a consultative body. A few years later, the bishop reinstated the Diocesan Pastoral Council, fashioning it to the form it holds today.
Commissioning of lay persons as lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the implementation of the new Penance Rite, reception of Communion in the hand and reception by the faithful of the cup were some of the actions that transformed the theoretical statements of the Council into lived experience.
Bishop Law’s reception of the new roles for the laity was deeply genuine. One lay person observed, “Before [meeting the bishop], I was tongue-tied when I encountered a bishop, but Bishop Law made me feel comfortable. In a book of his that I’m reading he wrote, ‘Unceasingly Pope John Paul reminds us that the call of the laity is becoming more and more indispensable,’ and that’s exactly how he acted. He listened to what I had to say [when I came] forward [with a new program], and he allowed me to carry it out.”
A Bishop of the People
Bishop Law was truly a man of the people. He had a first-rate relationship with many religious communities. He met with the provincials of communities serving in the diocese, always asking for greater involvement of their members in the Church of southern Missouri. Because of this, Jesuits and Oblates came to the central region of the diocese to take on pastoral responsibilities in parishes.
He joined the people at their prayer, meeting with the Charismatic Renewal group on Tuesdays when he was in town, praying with them sometimes until midnight or 1 a.m. He would socialize beforehand with the adults who participated in his 6 a.m. Mass.
Bishop Law was so much a bishop of the people that on parish visits he would shorten his visit with the priest and ask: “Who’s in the nursing home?” “Who’s sick?” According to one pastor, “He was very pastoral and acted like the pastor. He went out to the people. He would remember names.”
It was the spiritual development of the people he had most at heart. He initiated RENEW for all the parishes, worked with the Cursillistas and the Legion of Mary and fostered the Life in the Spirit seminar.
But Bishop Law’s devotion to the people reached far beyond his Catholic flock. During the preparation for the Holy Year 1975, the diocese focused on the theme of “Reconciliation, Evangelization, and Renewal/Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” There were inaugural celebrations in Springfield and Cape Girardeau. Continuing Bishop Baum’s enthusiasm for ecumenical endeavors, Bishop Law was involved in the ecumenical movement in his own diocese. Subsequently he became the chairman of the national bishops’ committee as well. He facilitated the process that allowed Episcopalian priests to serve in the Roman Catholic Church.
A Media Man
The outgoing nature of Bishop Law found expression in his easy use of the media.
His chief means of communication was perhaps the telephone. He was “constantly” on the phone. One monsignor teased him: “The greatest penance for you would be to tie you up and let the phone ring.”
In 1975, only two years after coming to the diocese, Bishop Law had the Office of Communications study the expediency of broadcasting regular radio and TV presentations for the diocese. The diocesan communications director, (1975-80) Sister Emile Morgan, DC, sought funding from the Missouri Knights of Columbus. The result was the 1976 launching of a half-hour Catholic talk show aired in Springfield and Joplin.
“He knew how to use the media to full advantage and was comfortable with reporters,” observed Marilyn Vydra, diocesan communications director (1981-2003). A grant from the Catholic Extension Society matched by funding from the Diocesan Development Fund enabled Bishop Law to broadcast a five minute reflective message over the Springfield ABC-TV affiliate station five days a week from 1977 to 1983.
The bishop was sensitive to the causes of justice. While he was a priest-editor in Jackson, MS, he backed the Civil Rights Movement by word and deed, writing editorials on justice and joining in peaceful protest marches. In 1976 he began plans for local Catholic involvement in the US Bicentennial and social justice mission of the Church, “Liberty and Justice for All.” That same year he participated in “A Call to Action,” a catalyst for emphasizing the Church’s responsibility to seek “liberty and justice for all.” In the first national meeting held on Oct. 21, 1976, Bishop Law, two priests, three sisters, two laymen, and a lay woman attended.
When small farmers in the diocese were losing their lands, the bishop recognized that organizing farmers from the state or federal levels was next to futile. He thought that allowing farmers to fight their battles locally could be more effective than the efforts of government-run agencies. Taking this stance took discernment, courage, and decisiveness.
To foster family life, the diocese under Bishop Law was one of the first to open a Family Life Office. The diocese also got behind such movements as marriage preparation and Marriage Encounter when the Christian Family Movement (CFM) was losing its popularity.
Bishop Law was an advocate of the poor and marginalized, turning his attention especially to the help of abused women. According to one priest, in regard to helping the poor, the bishop was a “dreamer.” Once at Midnight Mass he leaned over to me with a question: ‘Do you think you could start a soup kitchen here?’ Then, he got up and announced, ‘We’re going to start a soup kitchen here, …’ right in the middle of that Midnight Mass! That was Bishop Law. He’d get an idea and go with it.”
Determined and Pastoral
Bishop Law was a good listener and when he spoke or wrote, he was decisive. In a meeting he had to be careful not to dominate. He was genuinely pastoral and inspired confidence. One priest recalled the time an Hispanic family had had a terrible accident and no one could be found who could communicate with them. “The only person I could think of who could speak Spanish was Bishop Law,” he said. “I called him at 2 in the morning. He came over and immediately had the people eating out of his hand. He calmed them down and prayed with them. I went home to rest and returned at 8 or 9 in the morning. He was still with them.”
Bishop Bernard F. Law was appointed Archbishop of Boston Jan. 23, 1984 and elevated to Cardinal May 25, 1985.
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The Kitchen Begins
Responding to a request from Bishop Law, Sister Lorraine Biebel, OSF, started a soup kitchen in St. Agnes Cathedral School cafeteria in March, 1983. As the numbers grew to 200 people being served, it became difficult to prepare and serve the meals and have everything cleaned up and ready for the school children the next day. In August of the same year the owner of the Missouri Hotel wanted to phase out his grill. He gave Sister Lorraine permission to use it. This provided a place for meals and socializing for “clients.”
The ministry grew and now provides services consisting of health care, literacy programs, day-care, job counseling, and job placement, to name just a few. Volunteers assist a full-time staff of 70 people. In 1999, Sister Lorraine was presented with The Missouri Women’s Council Award of Distinction. The annual award recognizes an individual or organization dedicated to making a difference in the lives of women and their families in Missouri Sister Lorraine built a strong volunteer network and gained the financial support of businesses, organizations, and individuals to respond to the needs of the poor. The result was, and continues to be, a life-changing impact on thousands of homeless and disadvantaged men, women, and children.