Diocesan History-Vatican II Perspectives 1962-1969
‘The Kingdom of God is made up of stupendous spiritual power, but its efficacy, if it is to touch humanity, must be spread by human instruments.’ -Bishop Ignatius Strecker
At his funeral in 2003, Bishop Ignatius Strecker was touted as a justice-minded champion of the family farmer and of the poor in the inner city. He was also called “a priest’s bishop.”
Ignatius Jerome Strecker, Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau (1962-1969), was born on Nov. 23, 1917, in a farming community near Dodge City, KS. A shy farm boy, the son of William and Mary (Knoeber) Strecker, he was baptized in St. John the Baptist Church where his parents were the first couple to be married. He had five sisters and a brother. After early training in the parish school, he attended Maur Hill and St. Benedict College in Atchison. His priestly formation took place at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Bishop Christian H. Winkelman ordained him to the Diocese of Wichita in the chapel of Sacred Heart Convent on Dec. 19, 1942.
Fr. Strecker’s first assignment was to St. Rose Hospital in Great Bend, KS, and as auxiliary chaplain to 15,000 service personnel at Great Bend Army Air Corps Base, a finishing base for B-29 bombers. At the Base he would witness some 50 to 60 weddings a month. From 1944-1945, he studied Canon Law at Catholic University, Washington, DC. Named assistant chancellor in 1946, he became chancellor in 1948, an office he fulfilled for 14 years. At the same time, he was the diocesan director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and Vice Officialis of the diocesan tribunal. He was named a papal chamberlain in 1949 and a domestic prelate in 1951. He served as assistant pastor at St. Mary Parish, Newton, KS.
Msgr. Strecker was appointed Bishop of SpringfieldCape Girardeau on April 11, 1962. He was ordained June 20 the same year by Kansas City, KS, Archbishop Edward J. Hunkler in Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Wichita, KS. His installation took place at St. Agnes Cathedral, Springfield, June 25, 1962.
State of the Diocese
As Bishop Strecker began his episcopacy in Springfield-Cape Girardeau, there were 59 parishes in the diocese, 56 of them with resident pastors. A total of 68 diocesan priests and 49 male religious from 8 religious communities ministered in these parishes and in 30 missions. Also assisting the bishop were 293 women religious from 23 religious communities who served in many capacities–as teachers in the 31 parish schools, three inter-parochial schools, two private high, and two private elementary schools, and as hospital personnel in seven hospitals as well as in other capacities, such as catechists.
Facilities for priestly formation were in place: Sacred Heart House of Studies in Springfield; St. Vincent Preparatory Seminary in Cape Girardeau and Our Lady of the Ozarks College Seminary in Carthage.
Encouragement of ‘Lay Apostles’
Since he attended all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and was deeply immersed in its theology, Bishop Strecker set about fostering lay involvement in all aspects of church life in the diocese. He found that seeds had been sown before him and, indeed, the sprouts were ready to bloom.
One of the first actions of the new bishop was to attend a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men (DCCM) in September 1962. He lent his support to a project of Catholic Action that promoted the Apostleship of Prayer. At the end of the drive, 11,251 new members were enrolled and the diocese received a certificate of award from the National Catholic Action Award Contest for its spiritual program. The DCCM was commended for aiding the growth of the diocese through both its spiritual and temporal projects.
Formed in 1957 in Missouri “to Christianize the world,” the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (DCCW) had the honor only four years later of seeing the head of its diocesan Social Action Committee, Mrs. A C Oppermann, St. Michael Parish , Fredericktown, appointed National Chairman of Social Action. That was the year before Bishop Strecker took office. Immediately upon his ordination as bishop, he became the Episcopal Chairman of the DCCW, eager to develop the council in all 59 parishes and 30 missions in his charge. He respected the phenomenal growth of the organization, from 264 affiliates in 1920 when the National Council was born, to 14,000 when he took office. This represented a federation of women’s councils comprising some 10 million women nationwide. Their aim was to develop leaders in the faith in six areas: Organization and Development, Religious Activities, Family Life, Home and School, Social Action, and Cooperation with Charities. The DCCW offered a complete outline for a lay woman’s vocation to help Christianize the world.
Outreach to the Missions
The Society for the Propagation of the Faith had its beginning in the diocese in 1957, just six months after the founding of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese. The society imposed on its members two obligations–daily prayer for the spread of the faith and the giving of alms. A membership drive, the backbone of all mission support, called for the establishment of a Unit of Promoters in every parish and mission. Representatives of missionary orders were asked to speak in the parishes in an annual appeal for alms. A group of zealous lay persons who contributed faithfully by their prayer and alms were known as World Missionaries. Children were trained at an early age to be sensitive to the needs of the missions through their membership in the Pontifical Association of the Holy Childhood. Bishop Strecker was particularly pleased to see the children of the diocese showing a vital interest in the missions and encouraged their participation.
In response to Pope John XXIII’s insistence on the need for more dedicated lay help in the missions, the Catholic Church Extension Society began to recruit lay persons for limited periods of service in home missions of the US. The first team of Extension Lay Volunteers (ELV) did volunteer work in the south central states in 1962-63. The following year a group of 180 from 59 dioceses were assigned to work as teachers, nurses, census takers, and catechists in 65 parishes, including some in Springfield-Cape Girardeau. By 1962 there were 19 ELVs in the diocese. Pope John XXIII prayed fervently “that the numbers of these generous Christians be multiplied.”
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Institutions in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau
Click here for a gallery.
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Another group the bishop endorsed was Papal Volunteers of Latin America (PAVLA). Latin American bishops expressed a need for professional men and women to serve the poor, sick, and needy in those countries for three years after completing a training program. Recruitment conducted by directors of the program in the diocese, Fr. Wallace Ellinger and Fr. William Winkelman, resulted in four women becoming Papal Volunteers: Joan McDonough, RN, Caruthersville; Ann Nenninger, RN, Cape Girardeau; Marie Short, Scott City, and Barbara Berelsmann, Joplin. Commenting on the generosity of these volunteers, Bishop Strecker said, “The needs of the Church Universal are brought home in a very real sense as a diocese in need sacrifices to send these volunteers to a people in a country in greater need.”
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Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood
“Our temporary residence is located at Willow Springs (a little three-room house) where we stay on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. We return to Springfield Friday nights, visit or instruct several on Saturdays here in Springfield, help supervise the CCD teachers and their helpers at the new Holy Trinity Parish in Springfield on Sundays. Three Masses and instructions take place at the Elks’ Lodge. We are grateful for the sturdy service of our 1963 Chevrolet provided for us by the diocese. When driving from one parish boundary to another in the mission fields we meet people who many times because of financial circumstances are situated in isolated wooded areas and find it difficult to attend church regularly because of the great distances. We distribute literature, take the census and if necessary and feasible advise them what might be best for them to do in their particular spiritual needs … for example, one family living way out in a wooded area take two of their children to Fort Leonard Wood where the father works. There, the children get on a bus that takes them to the parochial school in Rolla–the children travel 58 miles one way beginning at their home. (This is of course more than they would be expected to do.)” –Excerpt from a letter written by Sr. Sophie, a Precious Blood sister to her Provincial.
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Concern for Youth
The bishop’s heart also went out to children. He had a deep concern for their fullest development. This was expressed in his emphasis on their attendance at the Catholic elementary and high schools of the diocese. His concern also extended to children not able to attend a Catholic school. In 1963, upon the request of Bishop Strecker, the Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood (AdPPS) came from Wichita to help with Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) instruction in the diocese. They searched out Catholic families and individuals in the mission areas of the diocese, visiting homes and instructing the youth. They held classes in garages; private homes; the back rooms of stores; rummage sheds, churches and sacristies, visiting areas as far as 100 miles from their residences.
The work of the Adorers followed the groundbreaking missionary endeavors of the Victory Noll Sisters, founded in 1922. Their entire work under the sponsorship of Archbishop Noll of Fort Wayne, IN, was devoted to catechesis and social work in mission areas of the southern states. With the growth of the community, the sisters reached out to other dioceses in training Catholics for the lay apostolate, coming to the Bootheel of Missouri in 1954. After the establishment of the diocese, more sisters arrived. By 1958, seven Victory Nolls were serving, when, with the growth of the Catholic population, the Adorers were called in to help them. As lay persons became involved in the Fisher and Helper divisions of the Confraternity, Bishop Strecker established the CCD Adult Training Course. Sun., Sept. 22, 1963, was designated Diocesan Catechetical Sunday, the official beginning of adult instruction classes held by the Victory Nolls and the Adorers to train lay people to teach children attending CCD classes. Fr. Ralph J. Duffner and Fr. James A. Seyer were appointed to work with the sisters. The program was offered at centers in Springfield, Cape Girardeau, New Madrid, Poplar Bluff, Joplin, and Neosho. Beginning in 1964, the Confraternity offered Scripture courses to adults to counteract the lack of Scripture instruction preceding the Vatican II Council.
Continuing Bishop Helmsing’s concern for the formation of youth, Bishop Strecker was pleased to reward members of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Youth (DCCY) for their services. The slogan of the organization, “Our charge today: In charge tomorrow,” reflected the respected status of the more than 2,800 youth in the diocese. Affiliated with the national office in Washington , DC, the youth organization provided representatives to the national assembly and received promotional and other materials from the central office. Through the DCCY, youth could compete in oratorical contests on church-related topics, attend the national convention and elect parish officers who worked under a diocesan director appointed by the bishop. Days of recollection and participation in National Catholic Youth Week were other activities in which teens and young adults could grow in their faith. The bishop further demonstrated his concern for the full development of the children of the diocese by approving a Bishop Ignatius J. Strecker Scouting Award adopted by the Diocesan Catholic Committee on Scouting.
Other Sources of Lay Involvement
The Knights of Columbus was a thriving group. It had been founded by Fr. Michael J. McGivney who gathered a small group of loyal men in the basement of St. Mary Parish in New Haven, CT, in 1880. Fr. McGivney’s concern was to help widows and orphans left behind by the death of parishioners. From this tiny nucleus grew the Order of the Knights, whose scope by 1965 had become national and even international. Taking full advantage of opportunities to practice charity and promote religion, the Order contributed $11,000 to victims of the 1906 earthquake disaster in San Francisco and $23,000 to the Irish Relief Fund in 1920. In 1927 flood victims in Mississippi were given $50,000. Since then, besides raising funds, the Knights have generously and magnanimously given of their time and talents to innumerable worthy endeavors of every kind, from building houses for needy families and producing and distributing instructive pamphlets to forming the honor guard at parish and diocesan functions. The Springfield Council dates back to the turn of the century. During Bishop Strecker’s tenure, the 14 Knights of Columbus Councils in existence at that time , representing 543 members, regularly sponsored corporate Communions and breakfasts, retreats, Corpus Christi celebrations, and various social events.
Upon his appointment to the diocese, Bishop Strecker found another active women’s organization, the Daughters of Isabella. With the motto, “Unity, Friendship, Charity, and Sanctity,” it was an organization of women striving to emulate their namesake, Queen Isabella, who made possible the discovery of the Western Continent. The women in membership dedicated their talents and energies to religious and patriotic enterprises. They were united by the bonds of the society to enhance their own circle of friends, merge energies and resources, promote their personal development and be a force for the advancement of all that is good and true in life. Their activities embraced many facets of life: spiritual, patriotic, charitable, intellectual, and physical. Initiation in the 1960s was by way of free courses offered through the mail explaining benefits and obligations of membership. During Bishop Strecker’s tenure the lsabellas numbered 4,236. The Springfield Circle 212 was organized in 1922 with 99 members and grew to 176 in 1965.
The 1964 Annual Report from the Legion of Mary, presented to the bishop, stated that the Cape Girardeau curia had eight senior and four junior praesidia; in Joplin seven senior and four junior; and in Springfield, nine senior and three junior, totaling 4,600 members with 297 active Legionaries, 285 religious auxiliaries, and 4,000 lay auxiliaries. Members made 12,699 visits to homes and institutions during one year and spent more than 7,000 hours in works of mercy. They enriched the Church of Missouri by 66 Baptisms, 37 First Communions, 40 returns to the sacraments, and 13 marriage validations. Although they regarded prayer as a primary means of evangelization, Legionaries entered actively into the work of the Church.
Fund Raising in Theological Context
Bishop Strecker framed the annual Diocesan Expansion Fund Drive of 1965 in the context of a key document of Vatican Council II. Despite the publicity initially being given to the more obvious changes in the liturgy, the bishop proposed The Constitution on the Church as the more fundamental document because it reflects the thinking of the Council Fathers on the innermost nature of the Church. Its teaching that the Church is the New Israel, the People of God of the New Covenant, and the Body of Christ throws a new light on the dignity and duties of the laity who share Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly functions in their own right. Called to bring “Christ to the world”—the theme of the fund campaign—they were told by the bishop that they were as responsible as the clergy to extend God’s plan of salvation to all people. The bishop asked for volunteers to canvass the Catholic homes of the diocese to offer fellow members of the Church an opportunity to share their material wealth to extend the influence of Christ.
The bishop made ample provision for the spiritual well being of his people. The weekend retreat gained new impetus with the opening of Saint de Chantal Retreat House in 1964. Operated by the Sisters of the Visitation, one of two cloistered contemplative communities in the diocese at the time, the retreat house offered weekend retreats for men, boys, and women. The sisters also opened their library of spiritual books to the public.
Besides providing opportunities for retreats, the three-day training course in Christian living known as the Cursillo Movement had its introduction into the diocese in 1963 when five men from Springfield attended a course in Kansas City. After sessions of round-table discussion, prayer, and talks, participants returned with goals of sanctifying their own lives and the lives of their families and helping others learn the word of God. Bishop Juan Hervas of Ciudad Real, Spain, Dr. Eduardo Bonnin of Majorca, and some 30 laity and clergy founded the Cursillos de Christiandad in 1949. By 1952, 80 Cursillos had been given in Spain and soon spread to South and Central America, eventually coming to the US in English in 1961. A strong instrument for conversion, the Cursillo makes so great an impact on its participants that upon their return from the three-day experience, families notice an obvious change. At weekly follow-up gatherings called Ultreyas, Cursillistas study their faith and encourage one another to live as Christians. Bishop Strecker encouraged the Cursillo Movement as a means of deepening the spiritual life of his people. By 1964, 11 priests and 87 laymen had participated. Eventually Cursillos accepted women as participants.
To safeguard the spiritual formation of young adults attending secular colleges, the Church of the 1960s began to provide a Catholic ambiance in the form of Newman Centers on secular campuses. In Missouri, long before the need was felt across the nation, two Catholic college students from Minnesota who enrolled in Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau in 1914 founded the Marquette Club for Catholic students and faculty members on the campus. Renamed Marquette Newman Center in 1962, the Center acquired a house in 1961 and a permanent chaplain the following year. A chapel classroom, added the following summer, created a gathering space. Serving as the student parish on campus, the center offered the sacraments and devotions as well as counseling. Courses accredited through Webster College in St. Louis, provided instruction in philosophy, theology, and Scripture. Students met regularly to discuss selected topics and to mingle socially. Bishop Strecker also joined with the leadership of other Christian denominations in Springfield to support the creation of the Ecumenical Center on the campus of Southwest Missouri State College.
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Carmelites Invited to the Diocese
Bishop Strecker invited the Carmelite Sisters to build a monastery in Springfield. Although not available as a retreat site, its chapel would be a place for visitors to pray. He entrusted to the sisters “a particular apostolate in the diocese: that of prayer and penance. Surely this is a great grace for the diocese.” The Enclosure Ceremony took place on Aug. 14, 1965. Catholics and many others admire their lives of contemplative prayer.
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The bishop was aided in giving assistance to the poor by a vibrant lay organization. The St. Vincent de Paul Society that had been called upon heavily in southwest Missouri during the 1920s came into the US through the first conference held in St. Louis, MO, in 1845. It was begun by Frederick Ozanam, a devout and scholarly French layman who inspired eight college law students to band together in what he called the Society of Charity under the protection of St. Vincent de Paul. Its aim was to alleviate human misery by practical charity. The Society spread throughout France, eventually becoming established in Rome, England, and lreland. Soon it caught on in other countries, including the US. From St. Louis, the Society spread south and west into the area later to become the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Members worked unobtrusively under their pastors in parishes to aid individuals, children, and families. In the exercise of Christian compassion, they offered prayer, advice, comfort, and material assistance to those in need. In 1963 there were six active St. Vincent de Paul conferences in the diocese.
The bishop strongly endorsed the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, the Bishops’ Committee for Spanish-speaking people and the Bishops’ Committee for Migrant Workers, which had been in operation for several years before he took office. Although privately funded, the success of the projects derived from the hundreds of volunteers who made them work. The projects sponsored by the conference on the national level included an employment office for Mexican-Americans, training schools for warehousemen, truck and tractor drivers, service station attendants, and vegetable packers in San Antonio, TX, and a vocational and adult school in Racine, WI. The bishop’s concern in this area of social justice would grow stronger through the years.
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Midway in Bishop Strecker’s tenure, the diocese launched a diocesan newspaper, The Mirror (April 18, 1965). In addition to the many activities and organizations listed above, some of the headlines and features of the first issue complete the picture of a diocese alive with activity and the deep involvement of its laity under the bishop’s leadership.
• Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese/Happy Possessor of Two Cathedrals [St. Agnes, f. 1908; St. Mary, f. 1868)
• Sacred Heart House of Studies/Preparing Boys for Priesthood
• The Liturgy–Reform and Renewal
• St. Henry’s Regional High School, Charleston, Enrolls 84
• Motor Missions in Southern Missouri Held
• New Immaculate Conception, Jackson, First Church Dedicated by Bishop Strecker
• S-CG Chaplains in Armed Services
• Vatican Council II [teachings]
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The Bishop’s Mission
Although many facilities were in place to assist him in his mission as shepherd of the diocese, Bishop Strecker soon found his local church lacking in certain respects. For one thing, little more than 4 percent or 34,902 of the total population of 823,047 were Catholic. The diocese had no Catholic colleges and no provincial houses of any religious community. Perhaps more frustrating was the lack of a centrally located chancery. Only the bishop, chancellor, and vice chancellor had offices on the fourth floor of the Landers Building, Springfield. After 1960 office space was added for the bookkeeper, the bishop’s secretary and the mimeograph facility.
Less tangible, but perhaps more challenging, was the anti-Catholic sentiment still prevalent in the wider community and the ignorance of the Catholic Church that it represented.
Finally, almost immediately upon assuming office, Bishop Strecker found himself away from the diocese for prolonged periods as he responded to the call from Rome to participate at all the sessions of Vatican Council II.
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Robert G. Lee–Editor Of The Mirror
A family man, journalist, business man, and social activist, Robert G. Lee served the diocese as editor of The Mirror for 22 years.
In 1965, Lee, who held an executive position at a printing and publishing firm, responded to Bishop Strecker’s invitation to produce a weekly diocesan newspaper, working almost single-handedly from the basement of the bishop’s residence.
At first The Mirror was distributed as an insert in Our Sunday Visitor. Under Bishop Baum, successor to Bishop Strecker, Lee purchased an IBM Selectric system and hired staff. In 1984, he substituted a Compugraphic System, which later allowed for further technological expansion and update.
When a second-class permit was denied because the postmaster did not consider the newspaper a nonprofit publication, Lee paid third class, but demanded that the difference between the rates be placed in escrow. Five years later, when postal authorities declared The Mirror non-profit, more than $25,000 was returned.
Lee saw the paper as a means to communicate Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and Vatican II documents. With the influx of Vietnamese into the diocese, Lee obtained financial aid from the US Catholic Conference (now the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) to publish an insert in Vietnamese. Through the printed word, he exposed injustices done to family farmers and migrant workers. He was elected president of the Missouri Association of Migrant Opportunity Services (MAMOS) for three years in a row.
Lee retired from The Mirror in 1987. A lover of the printed word, the Church and its people, especially his family and friends, Robert Lee died at 79 on Oct. 31, 2003. His wife of 56 years, 10 children, 5 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren survive him.
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One of the bishop’s most enduring endeavors was the launch of the first issue of The Mirror, on April18, 1965. Under the leadership of Editor, Fr. Leo W. Nugent, and Managing Editor, Robert G. Lee, the paper had the two-sided goal of becoming an instrument of instruction to ameliorate anti-Catholic bias and cultivating a familial spirit in uniting the two sides of the diocese. Before the debut of The Mirror, Fr. Nugent had written stories in the St. Louis Review, the only diocesan-wide medium of communication. The Mirror became recognized beyond the Catholic community for its teaching on abortion and its understandable and appealing explanations of the documents of Vatican II. The bishop grasped the opportunity to use the paper as a forum to educate the diocese in the theology and updated practices promulgated by the Council.
Ever an ardent proponent of the media, Bishop Strecker gave his blessing to the diocesan Radio and TV Apostolate, initiated with Fr. Frank C. Palermo operating out of the Joplin Deanery and Fr. William E. Donovan, in the West Plains Deanery.
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How The Mirror Got Its Name
In an address to a Piedmontese pilgrimage in 1964, Pope Paul VI told the pilgrims that the purpose of a newspaper is to mirror the truth. The following year, when the first issue of the diocesan paper was launched, it was named The Mirror in view of the Holy Father’s remarks. The name was determined by a contest in which 418 names were submitted. Extension volunteers, Ms. Mary Johnson, RN and Ms. Linda King, RN, suggested the winning title.
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Bishop Strecker was a man thoroughly immersed in his people, but the priests found a special place in his heart. In October 1966, he established the annual Priests Institute, which afforded opportunity for the priests to know one another better as well as to renew their motivation and become updated on the latest happenings in the Church. Because of the great distance between the east and west sides of the diocese, it was especially important to arrange opportunities for the priests to mingle. Bishop Strecker strove mightily for unity both among his priests and the laity.
As a “Council Father” he worked to see the vision and structure of the Council take hold.
But he was no starry-eyed idealist. He grew from a shy farm boy to a shrewd and farsighted CEO of a major archdiocese.
On Sept. 10, 1969, Bishop Strecker was appointed Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, where from his installation through the next 24 years till his retirement in 1993, he won the affection of his people. Dubbed “Ignatius the Gracious,” he was known for his kindliness, cordiality and compassion for his flock. He continued to foster use of the communications media for the sake of the Gospel, as he had in Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
Bishop Strecker retired at 75 in 1993, using his free time to write The Church in Kansas in 1999. After suffering several strokes and a fall, he brought to a close 60 years as a priest and 40 as a bishop, dying on Oct. 16, 2003. By his leadership, the Church , both in Kansas and Missouri, was transformed and modernized.
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Parishes Established During Bishop Strecker’s Tenure
1962 — Evans/St. Nicholas Mission Church (Closed 1991)
1965 — Viburnum/St. Philip Benizi Mission Church
1966 — Springfield/Holy Trinity
1969 — Stockton/St. Peter Mission Church