On June 20, 1970, Pope Paul VI created a new diocese in West Tennessee, stretching eastward from the Mississippi river to the Tennessee River–10,654 square miles. Six months later, on January 6, 1971, the people of the Diocese of Memphis in Tennessee filled the Mid-South Coliseum for the ordination and installation of the first Bishop.
For half a century, the Diocese of Memphis has carried out its mission of Good Samaritans celebrating sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel and educating disciples. Along the way, the local Church has encountered many joys and many challenges. Through them all, the People of God in West Tennessee have continued to live and share their faith. Today, we are a diverse community of people from many cultures and backgrounds, striving to live as one family in the one Body of Christ.
We have much to celebrate in our 50-year history!
The First Catholics
The first Catholics to set foot, in what is now the State of Tennessee, were Spanish explorers. Hernando De Soto and his army landed in present-day Tamp, Florida, in 1539, and marched north and west in search of gold silver and other precious commodities.
De Soto brought priests with him, but not the Mass. From Europe, the priests had carried wheat and wine, essentials for the celebration of the Eucharist, but the wheat was lost or destroyed in battle soon after their arrival. As a result, they were unable to celebrate Mass or receive Holy Communion for well over a year. It would be more than a century before the first Mass was celebrated in the region. Father Jacques Marquette accompanied the exploratory mission of Louis Joliet in 1682 and celebrated Mass where the Wolf River joined the Mississippi.
The Christian Brothers come to Memphis
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 brought the De La Salle Christian Brothers to West Tennessee. For years, the Catholic community in Memphis wanted the Christian Brothers to open a school in the city, but it wasn’t until the famous fire destroyed some of the Brothers’ schools in Chicago that four Brothers were available to establish a new college in Memphis.
In November 1871, with Brother Maurelian Sheel in charge, Christian Brothers College opened in downtown Memphis with 26 students. From that first schoolhouse on Adams Avenue, Christian Brothers College served boys from elementary school through college. By the end of the first year, 87 students were registered. The school closed during the Yellow Fever outbreaks, with some of the Brothers joining those ministering to the sick at Camp Father Matthew outside the city. Brother Maurelian took action with other civic leaders during the crisis, wiring the United States President, Rutherford B. Hayes, to apprise him of the desperate situation in Memphis and to implore federal aid.
A New Diocese, A New Outlook
On January 6, 1971 , about 8,500 gathered in the Mid-South Coliseum for the episcopal ordination of the first Bishop of the new Diocese. During the homily, Bishop Dozier asked a question, which became the vision and mission of the Diocese of Memphis in its early years: “As we look to the future–and we are future-bound we may ask ourselves, what kind of a church shall we be? What kind of a 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, wish to be?”