Remembering Father Bishop

Posted: 6/11/2013

Father William Howard Bishop, the founder of Glenmary Home Missioners, died on June 11, 1953, while visiting Glenmary missions in Virginia. On this 60th anniversary of Father Bishop's death, Glenmary Father Dan Dorsey reflects on this unlikely founder and the contributions he made to the Church and most especially to the home missions.

The Founder of Glenmary Home Missioners Father William Howard BishopIf you were to identify the attributes a person would need in order to found a religious missionary community, what would they be?

I think the person would need to be an extroverted, charismatic figure who could attract followers. The person would need to be a good orator who could inspire others. Being highly organized would also be important. And, it goes without saying, the person would need to have a deep faith.

Save for his deep faith, Father William Howard Bishop, the founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners, possessed none of the qualities I listed above.

He was quiet, shy and unassuming. If someone tried to identify—based on personality and talent—who among the 100 priests ordained with Father Bishop in 1915 would be the most likely to found a missionary community, Father Bishop would probably finish near the bottom of the list.

Even his own bishop, Archbishop Curley of Baltimore, was skeptical of his ability to accomplish such a monumental endeavor as founding a religious society with a charism to serve the U.S. missions. In the archbishop's letter of recommendation to the Archbishop of Cincinnati, he stated:

"Father Bishop, as a priest, is an excellent one, none better in fact, but he is not a hundred percent when it comes to the question of executive ability." (June 1, 1937)

And later in that same letter:

"Frankly, I cannot see any real need for his organization...."

What did Father William Howard Bishop know that no one else did, and what did he see that no one else saw? What moved him to leave everything at the age of 51 to begin a home mission society to work exclusively in the rural areas of America?

Quite simply, it was the love of Jesus Christ that impelled him.

"But the best of all reasons is that these millions of rural people are God's creatures and our brethren and fellow citizens... they are hungering for the truths of the Gospels and they have a claim on us...." (The Ecclesiastical Review, April 1936, p. 342)

A fitting biblical image of Father Bishop is that of an "earthen vessel" (2 Cor 4:1-7). The image of God taught to him by his parents is the clay from which this earthen vessel was made and molded.

The son of a doctor, Father Bishop was a sickly child. At one point he missed over two years of school. Thought of as a dreamer by his family, he enrolled in Harvard University in 1906. After two years he was once again forced to drop out because of health issues.

Upon leaving Harvard and after months of soul-searching, he entered the seminary and was ordained on March 27, 1915. As a pastor for almost 20 years in a small, rural and impoverished area of Maryland, Father Bishop learned of the unique needs and challenges of those who were living in the rural areas of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

All of his life experiences helped shape this Maryland priest. His values and ministry in Clarkesville, Md., defined him, and his leadership of the National Rural Life Conference and expanding worldview influenced him.

Glenmary's home mission work is difficult, demanding and not for the fainthearted. Father Bishop was keenly aware of this reality and offered his missioners words of encouragement that came from his strong spirituality and belief in God's providence.

Father Bishop's spirituality continues to influence and be passed down to Glenmary missioners today. That spirituality focuses on the need for missioners to be deeply prayerful. Prayer, he said, is the bedrock of our missionary lives and missionary activity:

"If our interior life is not kept on a high plane, our work in the various fields of activity can have only an apparent success and not that for very long. The fundamental requirement for true success is that we all strive daily to be saints." (Mid-Winter Letter, 1946)

Another component of his spirituality that continues to be lived by our missioners is service to others, especially to the lost and those society has forgotten. This service was a key aspect of Father Bishop's instructions to his missionary priests and brothers. Once again, Father Bishop was eloquent when he wrote:

"Love the poor, the sick and the helpless, and attend to them. They are God's influentials. They are his aristocrats. He loves them. If you are known in your mission community as the contact for all the poor and unfortunate of the place, you could not have a more honorable title on earth or one that would make you more welcome in the courts of heaven." (Mid-Winter Letter, 1948)

On this 60th anniversary of Father William Howard Bishop's death, we celebrate the gift and blessing this quiet, simple man was to the Catholic Church in the United States and to the people of the rural South and Appalachia in particular.

We Glenmary missioners continue to "love the poor, the sick and the helpless" as we strive to fulfill Father Bishop's vision of establishing the Catholic Church in U.S. counties where it has never been known in order that the gifts of the Church can be shared.