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History of the Diocese of Memphis

On June 20, 1970 Pope Paul VI published the Bull indicating that in accordance with the request of Bishop Joseph A. Durick of Nashville that his church be divided and new ecclesiastical boundary lines be drawn and after the positive opinion of Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, he was separating from Nashville those 21 counties of West Tennessee west of the Tennessee River and east of the Mississippi River, and establishing a new diocese to be called Memphis in Tennessee enclosed by the outermost boundaries of those same counties.

The official public announcement of the creation of the Diocese of Memphis in Tennessee and Monsignor Carroll T. Dozier as its first Bishop came in mid-November, 1970. The ordination and installation of Bishop Dozier took place at the Coliseum in Memphis on January 6, 1971. Present for the ceremonies were Archbishop Raimondi and Bishop Dozier’s old friend, John Cardinal Wright.

In his ordination address, Bishop Dozier noted “As we look to the future, and we are future bound, to the months and years that lie before us, what kind of Church shall we be? What kind of Church do we want to be? One in union with the Vicar of Christ, one dispensing the grace of God to all men, one anointing sorrow with sympathy, one of love and human kindness, a Good Samaritan on the banks of the Mississippi. Is this not what we, this new Diocese of Memphis wishes to be? By the grace of God, so shall it be!” And in so far as the enthusiastic and energetic first Bishop of Memphis could make it be so, he did. His years were marked especially by reconciliation of the races, by ecumenism, by efforts to recognize and begin to fill the needs of the poor and downtrodden, to protect the life of the unborn and to crusade for peace and disarmament. Saddled by an almost overwhelming debt when the finances of the two dioceses of Nashville and Memphis were divided, he worked steadily at trying to reduce that debt and improve the financial picture of the Diocese which often hampered him and the diocese from undertaking many desired new programs.

The diocese to which he came comprised approximately 50,000 Catholics spread among the 21 counties in West Tennessee, the vast majority of them within Shelby County, the largest of those counties. Outside of the Memphis metropolitan area, much of the rural area was mission territory lying in a largely fundamentalist Protestant Bible Belt region. There were a total of 30 parishes, 28 Catholic schools with slightly over 10,000 students, 8 hospitals, orphanages and similar facilities, all served by 77 priests, 20 seminarians, 131 nuns. There were also a number of Christian Brothers who ran a large high school and a College which has since become a university.

The diocese was organized around two major deaneries, the Memphis Deanery comprising Shelby County and the Jackson Deanery which encompassed the other 20 counties in the diocese. Twenty-three of the parishes were located in Shelby County, mostly in the city of Memphis. In the Jackson deanery there were seven parishes and five missions. In addition Masses were also offered on two college campuses and in private residences in several smaller towns.

When ill health and inability to get around the diocese forced his resignation in mid-Summer of 1982, he was succeeded by Bishop J. Francis Stafford who had served the Archdiocese of Baltimore as Auxiliary Bishop for several years, had served as administrator of Catholic Charities in that Archdiocese and as Urban Vicar. He had for some time been widely recognized among clergy and the hierarchy for his administrative skills and for his theological knowledge and strength. Bringing both his administrative skills and winning personality to Memphis, he quickly revised the structure of the Pastoral Office and was successful in improving the fiscal health of the diocese. The spiritual area in which he saw the greatest need was evangelization, especially evangelization of African Americans. In the Summer of 1986, Bishop Stafford was appointed Archbishop of Denver and left Memphis to assume that post.

After several months during which Msgr. Paul J. Morris served as Diocesan Administrator, Most Reverend Daniel M. Buechlein assumed the title of Bishop, becoming the first bishop of Memphis to be installed at ceremonies at the Cathedral. He came to Memphis from St. Meinrad Seminary where he had served in several administrative roles in the College and Seminary. He brought great faith and tremendous planning and fund raising skills to his new assignment. Under his tutelage periodic Strategic Plans were developed and adhered to, and the Bishop’s Annual Appeal came to be the norm. The planning strategies developed under his leadership provided useful road maps to the diocese’s future, and when he left the Diocese of Memphis in 1992 to become Archbishop of Indianapolis, the diocese to which Bishop J. Terry Steib came was in relatively good financial and planning shape.

Bishop Steib has brought a vibrant interest in the diocesan schools and especially in the revitalization of the Jubilee schools and of capital planning and outlay for two long and badly needed diocesan facilities—the Retired Priests’ Home completed in 2004 and now occupied by several retired priests and the Retreat Center for which a groundbreaking ceremony was held in September, 2004.

Currently, there are 28 parishes in the Memphis Deanery, 14 parishes and 5 missions in the Jackson Deanery, a total of 28 schools, 2 of them in the Jackson Deanery, with a total of more than 8000 students. Among these schools are seven “Jubilee” schools, largely urban, some inner city schools, which have been reopened and refurbished and now serve diverse student populations with large segments of African American and Hispanic children.

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