Diocese of Lafayette History

Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard                                Bishop Maurice Schexnayder

Native Black Bishops                                       Bishop Gerard L. Frey

Bishop Harry Flynn                                          Bishop Edward J. O'Donnell

The Diocese of Lafayette was established in Louisiana in 1918 in the southwest portion of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, between the Atchafalaya and the Sabine rivers. But the history of the Catholic Church in southwest Louisiana began in the mid 1750's when settlers came from France, Spain and Germany. Many were accompanied by priests to bring the sacraments and preach the word of God in the new land.

When England expelled the French colonists from eastern Canada, also in the middle of the 18th century, many of these came to south Louisiana where previous settlers had the same French language and Catholic faith of the exiles.

The first church parishes in what is now the Diocese of Lafayette were St. Martinville, established 1756; St. Landry, 1776, and later Grand Coteau, 1819, and Vermilionville (now Lafayette) 1821. 

All of southwest Louisiana then belonged to the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The Diocese of Northern Louisiana, first known as the Diocese of Natchitoches, was erected in 1853. It became the Alexandria diocese in 1910.

In 1918, the civil parishes (counties) of southwest Louisiana carved from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the new Diocese of Lafayette was formed. At the time of its erection, statistics indicated 48 church parishes with a Catholic population of 152,000.

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Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard

Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard, installed in 1918 as first Bishop of Lafayette, was a native of Breaux Bridge, a small rural community near the see city of Lafayette. He came back to his native diocese after serving as Chancellor and Administrator of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Under Bishop Jeanmard's zeal and constructive planning, the spiritual life of the diocese was energized. Lay involvement in programs of Catholic action was stressed through religious instruction, spiritual conferences and retreats. Sodality, scouting and retreat movements encouraged the faith of youth of the diocese and promoted vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

In the young and growing diocese, institutions were needed to support and encourage various areas of Catholic life. Among those Bishop Jeanmard established were St. Mary's Children's Home and Immaculata Minor Seminary in Lafayette, retreat houses for men and women, and student centers at state-supported colleges.

Recognizing the value of modern communication techniques, he encouraged diocesan sponsorship of television programs, religious programs on radio in French and English, and a local diocesan newspaper (The Southwest Louisiana Register.)

Bishop Jeanmard issued pastoral letters defending the rights of labor to organize, and reminding voters and civil officials of their respective responsibilities.

In 1934, Bishop Jeanmard welcomed to the diocese the first black priests ordained by the Divine Word Missionaries. They were Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Francis Wade, and Vincent Smith.

Bishop Jeanmard also established a number of separate church parishes for black Catholics for he believed this offered a better experience of active involvement with the church. With financial assistance from Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Diocese helped establish a number of rural schools for blacks.

Bishop Jeanmard received national attention in 1954 for excommunicating two women who had attacked a CCD teacher accused of integrating her catechism class. He also issued a pastoral letter emphasizing the right of all Catholics to religious instruction. Diocesan institutions and events were open to people of all races.

In his 38 years as Ordinary, Bishop Jeanmard set a pattern of making the church available to the people by establishing church parishes and schools and encouraging lay involvement in church affairs.

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Bishop Maurice Schexnayder

Bishop Maurice Schexnayder, installed in 1956, headed the Diocese of Lafayette next. He was a native of Wallace, La., ordained in 1925 in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. A former chaplain of the LSU Catholic Student Center in Baton Rouge, he came to Lafayette from St. Francis de Sales Parish, Houma, where he had been pastor and dean. He was auxiliary bishop to Bishop Jeanmard for five years until Bishop Jeanmard retired in 1956.

The years under Bishop Schexnayder were a time of growth. During this time, Bishop Schexnayder established church parishes, ordained a large number of native vocations, and established diocesan offices for family life and Catholic social services. He attended the Second Vatican Council and issued pastoral letters implementing its decrees.

A long range building program included Consolata (a diocesan home for the aged), a new building at Immaculata Seminary, and the Diocesan chancery building.

Bishop Schexnayder also encouraged lay participation through the establishment of parish councils, school boards and other lay advisory groups. He also stressed the right of all to religious instruction, issuing pastoral letters which warned against neglect or interference in this area.

Two auxiliary bishops served the diocese during this time. Bishop Robert E. Tracy, served from 1959 to 1961 and Bishop Warren L. Boudreaux, served from 1962 to 1971.

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Bishop Gerard L. Frey

Bishop Gerard L. Frey, third Bishop of Lafayette, is a native of New Orleans, who came to the diocese in 1973 from Savannah, Ga., where he had been Bishop for five years.

He had been ordained in 1938 in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, serving in pastoral and administrative positions there until his appointment to the episcopacy in 1968. He was serving as pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Houma, when he received the appointment as Bishop of Savannah.

During his 15 years as Bishop of the Lafayette diocese, he has initiated reorganization plans which have increased and expanded participation by clergy, religious and laity in diocesan affairs.

At the dedication of the renovated St. John Cathedral in 1984 he convened a diocesan-wide assembly and lay people (a synod). Bishop Frey explained the three-year program which called for wide consultation with clergy, religious and laity. The goal was to focus on priorities and guidelines to take the Diocese into the 21st century.

The territory of the Diocese was reduced by almost half in 1980 with the erection of the Diocese of Lake Charles. 

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Bishop Harry Flynn

The Lafayette diocese in 1986 welcomed Bishop Harry Flynn as coadjutor with right of succession to Bishop Frey. Bishop Flynn came Lafayette from the Albany, N.Y. diocese of which he was a native.

Bishop Harry Flynn took over responsibilities as fourth Bishop of Lafayette in May, 1989, when Bishop Frey retired. As Ordinary, Bishop Flynn conducted parish and school visitations, encouraged vocations to the priesthood and religious life, promoted Catholic education and expanded religious education.

Along with Bishop Frey, he joined other Louisiana bishops in pastoral letters condemning capitol punishment, warning of the evils of gambling, opposing abortion, supporting Catholic schools, and promoting financial support of the Catholic church.

In February, 1994 Bishop Flynn was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of St.Paul, Minneapolis, Minn. and assumed these duties in April, 1994.

Bishop Edward O'Donnell

On November 8, 1994, Bishop Edward O'Donnell of St.Louis was appointed fifth Bishop of Lafayette. The St.Louis native had been pastor, administrator and auxiliary bishop in St.Louis. He was installed on December 16, 1994 in ceremonies in St. John Cathedral.

In his four years as Bishop of Lafayette Bishop O'Donnell has initiated planning and programs in anticipation of the third millennium of Christianity. In a diocese which has one of the highest percentages of Black Catholics in the U.S., he has encouraged an increased presence by Blacks in diocesan and parish affairs.

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Native Black Bishops

Beginning in 1966 with the appointment of Bishop Harold R. Perry as auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, the diocese was honored with the selection of several native sons to be bishops.

Bishop Perry, a native of Sacred Heart Parish, Lake Charles, was the first 20th century black bishop appointed in the U.S.

Bishop Joseph Francis, a native of St. Paul's Parish, Lafayette, was named auxiliary bishop of Newark, N.J. in 1976. Both Bishop Perry and Bishop Francis had been serving as provincial of the Divine Word Missionaries southern province when they were appointed bishops.

Bishop Raymond Caesar, a native of St. Mathilda Parish, Eunice, was appointed in 1978, coadjutor with right of succession to the Bishop of Papua New Guinea where he had been serving as a missionary since 1963. He became Bishop in 1980 and died in 1988.

In 1988, Bishop Curtis Guillory, a native of St. Anne Parish, Mallet, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Galveston-Houston, TX. He had been serving as Vicar for Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of New Orleans when he was appointed to the episcopacy.

Also in 1988, Bishop Leonard Olivier, another native of Sacred Heart, Lake Charles, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., He had been serving as Vicar for Black Catholics of the Lafayette Diocese when he was appointed to the episcopacy.

Another Black priest, Bishop Dominic Carmon, a native of the Opelousas area, was appointed auxiliary bishop of New Orleans in 1992.

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