Michael Portier (1795-1859) served as the first Catholic Bishop of Mobile from 1829 to 1859. As a newly ordained bishop, Portier served from 1826 to 1829 as Apostolic Vicar to Alabama and present-day Florida traveling extensively there and in Europe, studying his mission territory, and securing priests and funding to staff the newly formed ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Later, Portier established a small seminary that became Spring Hill College and oversaw the construction of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile.
Michael Portier Michael Portier was born on September 7, 1795, in Montbrison, France, and entered studies for the priesthood in the nearby city of Lyon while still a youth. William Louis Dubourg, second bishop of Louisiana, visited Lyon in 1816 and recruited young Portier to join him in the vast Louisiana territory, purchased by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson from France in 1803. In the company of Dubourg and his missionaries, Portier sailed from Bordeaux, France, and landed at Annapolis, Maryland, on September 4, 1817. Originally planning to complete his studies in Baltimore, Portier was transferred soon after his arrival to New Orleans to organize a Catholic boarding school for boys. Portier was ordained in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 29, 1818, with Bishop Dubourg presiding over the ceremony. Portier then spent the winter with an American family in Brazeau, Missouri, to improve his English before returning to his religious duties in New Orleans. By 1826, the school in New Orleans under Portier’s administration had burgeoned to 250 students and 14 faculty.
In 1825, Pope Leo XII selected Portier to resume the efforts to spread Catholicism begun by the Spanish and French missionaries in the pre-colonial era. Prior to 1804 France had been the civil authority in the Louisiana Territory, of which Mobile was the easternmost settlement, and the Bishop of Quebec, in present-day Canada, had religious authority over Catholics in the territory. In 1763, France ceded the territory to Spain, beginning at the Perdido River, just east of Mobile, and including all of Florida, where well-developed Catholic communities, subject to the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba, already existed in St. Augustine and Pensacola. To maintain a claim to the region, Spain kept a garrison of soldiers near Mobile until 1813. When Alabama was admitted as a state in 1819 and Florida was organized as a U. S. territory in 1822, Vatican authorities placed the two into a single diocese.
Portier was elevated to bishop at the age of 31 on November 5, 1826, in St. Louis, with Joseph Rosati, first bishop of St. Louis, acting as consecrator. When Portier first arrived in Mobile on December 20, 1826, he was sick for eight days with pneumonia. Three priests already serving his new diocese in Mobile, Pensacola, and St. Augustine were all removed from their positions by their previous bishops. Portier was undaunted by the task. In his initial survey of the new Spring Hill College, 1918 diocese, Portier travelled alone on horseback, occasionally sharing the trail with a fellow traveler, usually a Protestant, and was plagued by mosquitoes, alligators, a lack of fresh water, and hot, overcrowded sleeping quarters. Catholics away from the coast, in settlements such as Tallahassee and Gainesville, rarely saw a priest.
Portier returned to France to recruit more priests for the missionary diocese. He sought eight missionaries but returned to Mobile with six, only two of whom—Mathias Loras and Stephen Bazin—were priests. The Vatican provided a $20,000 subsidy to cover Portier’s expenses in setting up the new diocese and determined that Mobile, the busy port city, would be the seat of the diocese, even though it had fewer Catholics than Pensacola or St. Augustine.
Portier made the training of priests and nuns a priority over building a cathedral in Mobile. He felt strongly that a small seminary would provide the priests needed for his jurisdiction. The seminary, established in 1830, was one of Alabama’s first institutions of higher education and was later called Spring Hill College. Loras was named administrator of the school, which combined a seminary and a boarding school for boys. Claude Beroujon, a seminarian, drew up plans for the buildings. The bishop and his entire band of seminarians helped construct the school on a prominent hill six miles from Mobile’s harbor and established a curriculum based on a classical education. The school received its charter from the state of Alabama in 1836.
Visitation Convent in Mobile, 1895 With the school organized at Spring Hill, Portier dispatched his cousin, the newly ordained Gabriel Chalon, and Bazin to visit areas of Alabama missed on Portier’s initial tour, including the Montgomery settlement and the state capital at Tuscaloosa. Portier next brought nuns from the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary from the Georgetown community of Washington, D.C., to establish a convent school. Four religious women arrived in Mobile on December 31, 1835, and opened the Visitation Convent and School. The Panic of 1837 banking crisis and a yellow fever epidemic in 1839 sharply reduced enrollments and income at Spring Hill. No longer able to staff the struggling college with diocesan priests, Portier turned first to a French religious order, the Fathers of Mercy, in 1841 and then to the missionary Eudist priests of the Society of Jesus and Mary of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1844. The college temporarily shut down in 1846 until priests of the Society of Jesus, also known as Jesuits, took over the school in 1847.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Portier had not completely neglected the cathedral, but by 1837 only the foundation had been completed in downtown Mobile. Widespread financial panic, diocesan debt, and other ministerial demands halted the massive project for more than a decade. By 1840 the Catholic population in Mobile had doubled to 4,000. A directory of the diocese in 1846 listed the Catholic population at 11,000, with 16 parishes—only four with buildings, 12 diocesan clergy, and seven seminary students, Catholic academies and free schools in Mobile and Pensacola and St. Augustine, and orphanages for boys and girls in Mobile. With financial assistance from the Vatican, the exterior was completed in 1845. Construction continued for five more years, and the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was finally consecrated on December 8, 1850. Also that year, all of Florida east of the Apalachicola River transferred to the new Catholic Diocese of Savannah, with only 10 counties of northwest Florida remaining under Portier’s authority.
Portier had been offered the Diocese of New Orleans in 1835 but had declined the move. His 30-year tenure as Bishop of Mobile developed and spread the Catholic faith from its base in the port city. However, many areas away from the Gulf Coast remained sparsely populated with Catholics for another 100 years. Michael Portier died on May 14, 1859, and was entombed at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile.
Lipscomb, Oscar H. “The Administration of Michael Portier, Vicar Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas, 1825–1829 and the First Bishop of Mobile, 1829–1859.” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1963.
Michael Kenny, S. J. Catholic Culture in Alabama: Centenary Story of Spring Hill College, 1830-1930. New York: American Press, 1931.