Honor first bishop by viewing exhibit - Catholic Courier
Matthew H. Clark Matthew H. Clark

Honor first bishop by viewing exhibit

Do you like history as much as I? Interested in the earliest days of the Diocese of Rochester? If so, I think you will enjoy a very special exhibit that runs through Feb. 24 at Sacred Heart Cathedral. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of the death of Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, hailed as “one of the great bishops of America” and our first and longest-serving Bishop of Rochester.

The exhibit is a wonderful testament to both the personal and religious life of the man who harnessed our ancestors’ will and spirit to build our diocese out of a frontier. It also is a fascinating look at the 19th and early 20th century customs and artifacts of the blossoming church of Rochester.

I think the exhibit is worthy of our time. I am grateful to Father Joe McCaffrey, Sister Connie Derby, Sister Jean Reichart and Kathy Urbanic who worked together from several archives to find interesting items for our exhibit. Taken as a whole, the exhibit rightly serves to remind us that the bounty of the diocese we know today was born of spirit, creativity, ingenuity and good stewardship by Bishop McQuaid, and the cornucopia of people from many cultures and backgrounds he brought together.

We owe more than we can imagine to Bishop McQuaid, who died on Jan. 18, 1909, for his vision and energy while serving as Bishop of Rochester for more than four decades. All Catholics in our diocese still benefit from his legacy today.

Bishop McQuaid was born in New York City on Dec. 15, 1823, and was ordained on Jan. 16, 1848. In fact, just two days before his death, he marked the 61st year of his service as a priest. Then-Father McQuaid served as vicar general of the Diocese of Newark, N.J., and is credited with the founding of Seton Hall College and serving as its president for 10 years while still vicar general. When the Civil War broke out, Father McQuaid volunteered as a chaplain with the New Jersey Brigade of the Union Army and was even captured by the Confederates.

He enters our story at its very beginning, when he was named bishop by Pope Pius IX upon the forming of the diocese on March 3, 1868. Our diocese was created out of the Diocese of Buffalo; its original eight counties were Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, Ontario, Seneca, Cayuga, Yates and Tompkins. Bishop McQuaid worked diligently to have Chemung, Steuben, Schuyler and Tioga counties included in our diocese, again from the Diocese of Buffalo, and was successful when they were added by papal decree in 1896.

When Bishop McQuaid arrived, he faced the formidable task of organizing a diocese already comprising more than 54,000 Catholics of many ethnicities, most of them economically poor, and with no shortage of controversy, including a fairly well-publicized battle with a dissident Auburn priest.

His accomplishments as bishop are far, far too numerous to detail here, but I do commend to you for further reading our own Father Robert McNamara’s excellent history, The Diocese of Rochester in America, which can be purchased by contacting the Catholic Courier. Suffice it to say our first bishop was the consummate builder of remarkable drive and vision, increasing the priesthood many fold with his emphasis on “home-grown” candidates; encouraging an enormous leap in the number of nuns; founding St. Bernard’s Seminary and St. Andrew’s Preparatory; forming a system of care and ministry in Catholic institutions from cradle to grave; engaging the energies and talents of the religious sisters to erect a widely respected, 53-school Catholic school system; and nearly tripling the number of parishes in the fast-growing diocese.

Knowing that many of the items in the exhibit are well over 100 years old, I think you will find them remarkably well-preserved: notes hand-written in an elegant script by Bishop McQuaid himself; a copy of the original Apostolic Letter establishing the diocese (complete with some geographic misspellings); the ornate, golden top of his bishop’s crozier and his bishop’s miter; personal opera glasses used in Paris and made by our own Bausch and Lomb; some wonderful historic photographs; his shoes and other personal items; a gold-enameled chalice and paten; handmade gifts from the sisters; and the Mass cards for his funeral attended by many hundreds. One photo in particular, of the scene outside his funeral at the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral that once stood in downtown Rochester, is a study in early Rochester life in itself.

Bishop McQuaid, you will read in the excerpt from his eulogy in the exhibit, had “invincible devotion to the faith — therefore loyalty to Mother Church, self-sacrifice, leonine courage and fearlessness, indefatigable zeal, tenacity of purpose, uncompromising fidelity to duty‚Ķsplendid achievements; such are the qualities, such are the facts that will be recorded by the future historian of this diocese.”

Indeed, we know now how much this first bishop’s faith and work has made a difference even 100 years later. Please honor his memory with a visit to the cathedral to see the exhibit this month.

Peace to all.

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