Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception What is now known as the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile was established in 1829 as the Diocese of Mobile. Until the 1960s, it included the entire state of Alabama and portions of west Florida. Membership in the diocese has grown steadily, but increases rarely have been dramatic. Alabama’s earliest Catholic residents were primarily of French and Spanish origin. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, they were joined by Irish, German, and Italian settlers. More recently, Latino immigrant groups have located within the archdiocese. Alabama’s Catholics have generally concentrated in urban areas, initially in Mobile and later in other cities. Catholics in Alabama adopted many aspects of the South’s social and political culture. White Catholics generally supported the South’s racial status quo and the Confederacy during the Civil War, as well as the segregationist views espoused by many white southerners during the civil rights movement. Catholics in Alabama were outsiders in many ways, however, and often were treated that way by non-Catholics. From time to time, Catholics relied on the assistance of friendly Protestants, who occasionally loaned buildings for church services. But persistent anti-Catholicism meant that Alabama’s Catholics rarely felt entirely comfortable.
Spring Hill College, 1918 The history of Catholicism in the region dates back much earlier than the diocese’s official founding. In 1703 the bishop of Quebec established at Mobile the first Catholic parish in the territory that would become Alabama. When the Mississippi Territory (which included Alabama) became part of the United States, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore assumed control over Catholic life in the area. On May 15, 1829, the church created the Diocese of Mobile, with Michael Portier, a native of France, as its first bishop. Portier was charged with laying the institutional foundation for the new diocese and meeting the challenges of ministering in what were essentially frontier conditions. In 1830 Portier founded Spring Hill College, the state’s first institution of higher learning, on 160 acres of land purchased from the city of Mobile. The college’s first president and faculty were all missionaries from the Archdiocese of Lyons (France); classes were conducted in English, but prayers could be heard in both English and French. By 1832 the college had 125 students and a faculty of four. In 1836 the state legislature authorized Spring Hill to grant degrees, and the first four diplomas were conferred the following year. One member of the class of 1837 was Stephen Russell Mallory, later a U.S. senator from Florida and the Confederate secretary of the navy during the Civil War.
The Catholic Church in America has always been primarily an immigrant church. This fact had significant implications for Alabama’s Catholics. First, it meant that they would remain a small minority in the state. Second, it meant there would be a persistent shortage of priests. Portier thus had to find priests elsewhere, setting a precedent that most of his successors would be forced to follow. He actively recruited young men from Europe to serve as priests in Alabama, with most of them coming from Ireland. In fact, as late as the mid-twentieth century, priests in Alabama wrote their bishop for permission to go “home” to Ireland on vacation.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception In the antebellum era, Alabama attracted farmers and planters, including a number of Catholics, who came in search of better and cheaper land. In 1827 Portier reported that there were some 2,000 Catholics in Mobile but significantly fewer Catholics in the state’s interior. When possible, priests based in Mobile travelled inland and rounded up whatever handfuls of Catholics they could find for masses, baptisms, and marriages. On these trips, local Methodists and Episcopalians often made their church facilities available for Catholic worship services. These traveling priests also baptized and ministered to white Catholics’ slaves. In the 1830s and 1840s, Catholics built small church buildings in places like Pensacola, Montgomery, Moulton, and Summerville. By 1850 the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 2 South Clairborne Street in Mobile was complete enough to be consecrated and used. In 1850 the diocese had 18 parishes, 20 priests, and approximately 11,000 Catholics. Catholic population could not keep pace with the growth of Protestants, however. In 1860, for example, the state’s Baptists numbered more than 50,000.
John Quinlan Portier died in 1859, and John Quinlan, a 32-year-old Irish priest, became the new bishop less than two years before the start of the Civil War. Quinlan made no secret of his feelings on secession. He regretted it but wrote to members of his diocese in 1861, “We would not purchase Union at the expense of Justice.” There is little doubt that the bishop echoed the feelings of most southern Catholics that the South’s cause was just and right. But because of his vocal Confederate sympathies and refusal to take an oath of loyalty to the Union, Quinlan found it impossible to travel into Union-controlled territory such as Pensacola to minister to Catholics there. This meant that he was cut off from portions of his diocese during the war. Alabama priests served as chaplains among Confederate troops, and nuns—and on occasion even the bishop himself—aided soldiers wounded in battle. The war disrupted the training of new priests, but overall the Catholic Church in Alabama survived relatively intact. Two church buildings in west Florida were destroyed, but otherwise diocesan institutions endured.
Quinlan oversaw the diocese for almost 20 more years, until his death in 1883. During this period, the Catholic population of the state increased as Italian and Irish immigrants moved into the Birmingham area and found work in the mines and on the railroads that would later help transform the South. With the exception of the 14 years after Quinlan’s death, the diocese enjoyed stable leadership from 1897 (when Edward P. Allen became bishop) through the twentieth century. The Catholic population of the entire diocese, including western Florida, increased from 18,000 in 1883 to just over 21,000 at the turn of the century. More than 47,000 Catholics lived in the diocese by 1920, with almost 50,000 a decade later.
Since at least the 1850s and the brief political career of the Know-Nothing Party, Catholics have been the targets of prejudice and occasionally violence. Politicians denounced “popery” even in Alabama, where there were relatively few Catholics, and in 1854 a priest was beaten as he travelled to a parish outside Mobile. This anti-Catholicism increased after World War I, and a shocking murder in 1921 in Birmingham served as a chilling reminder to Alabama’s Catholics of their status as outsiders in the Protestant South. Methodist minister and Ku Klux Klan member Edwin Stephenson shot and killed Father James E. Coyle, pastor of Birmingham’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Coyle had performed the wedding ceremony of Stephenson’s daughter, a recent convert to Catholicism, to a Puerto Rican immigrant, and Stephenson determined to seek his revenge. Alabama lawyer and future United States Supreme Court justice Hugo Black led an imaginative defense that appealed to the city’s religious and racial prejudices to earn Stephenson’s acquittal. As one journalist at the time wrote, anti-Catholicism had grown so bad in Alabama that it “stands second only to the hatred of the Negro as the moving passion of entire Southern communities.”
Martin Luther King Jr. and Sisters of St. Joseph The 1920s also brought to Mobile the man who would become the diocese’s longest-serving bishop. Thomas J. Toolen arrived in Mobile from Baltimore in 1927, and under his leadership the diocese experienced its most dramatic growth. The migration of people into the South following World War II contributed most to the increase in the Catholic population. In 1954 the Church renamed the diocese the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham in recognition of the increasing numbers of Catholics in north Alabama. Faced with such population growth, Toolen concentrated on increasing the Catholic Church’s institutional presence across the state. By the mid-1960s, he had overseen the construction of nine hospitals, six orphanages, 79 elementary schools, 12 high schools, and 139 parishes with resident priests. Toolen insisted on abiding by state segregation laws, and he built separate facilities for African American Catholics in the diocese. Despite this concession to Alabama law and custom, Toolen insisted he had never been a “segregationist.” And in fact, in some cities Catholic hospitals were the only places that black doctors were allowed to practice. Parochial schools for African American students often provided educational opportunities that were superior to those provided by public schools. Toolen officially desegregated parochial schools in 1964, creating an uproar among white Catholics, and actual integration did not occur right away.
Bishop Thomas J. Toolen The population of the diocese rose to nearly 135,000 on the eve of Toolen’s 1969 retirement. That year the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham separated into two dioceses, and John L. May of Chicago became the new bishop of the Diocese of Mobile, encompassing the state’s lower 28 counties. In 1980 May was appointed bishop of Saint Louis, and the Diocese of Mobile was elevated to an Archdiocese. This change in status recognized the historical importance of Mobile in the history of Catholicism in the South. Within the Roman Catholic Church, it marked a promotion for the diocese and increased the spiritual authority of the new archbishop. In 1980 native Mobilian Oscar H. Lipscomb became the first Archbishop of Mobile, a position he held until June 2008. Thomas J. Rodi, the former bishop of Biloxi, is the current Archbishop.
With approximately 66,000 Catholics in a general population of 1.6 million contained within the archdiocese, Alabama’s Catholics still make up just four percent of the population. This makes it one of the smallest archdioceses in the United States. Despite the influx of a large number of Latino immigrants into the state, the Catholic population of the state has stayed proportionally constant since 1980. The archdiocese’s small size notwithstanding, the archbishop has played an integral role in recent American Catholic Church politics, serving, for example, on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy. Moreover, the Archdiocese of Mobile did not escape the priest sex abuse scandal that plagued the Catholic Church beginning in the 1990s, although that scandal’s long-term impact remains to be seen.
- Lipscomb, Oscar H. “The Administration of John Quinlan, Second Bishop of Mobile, 1859–1883.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 78 (1967): 3–163.
- ———. “The Administration of Michael Portier, Vicar Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas, 1825–1829, and First Bishop of Mobile, 1829–1859.” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1963.
- Lovett, Rose Gibbons. The Catholic Church in the Deep South: The Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, 1540-1976. Birmingham: The Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, 1981.
- Moore, Andrew S. The South’s Tolerable Alien: Roman Catholics in Alabama and Georgia, 1945-1970. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.