Reverend William Howard Bishop: Toward an Understanding of His Charism as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners

By Father Dan Dorsey
(Numbered notes, indicated in parenthesis, are listed at the end of this Web page.)

On December 19, 1886, William Howard Bishop was born to Dr. Francis Bessant Bishop and Ellen Teresa (Knowles) Bishop in Washington, D.C. The fifth of six children, Howard was the first to be born in the nation's captial where the family had taken up residence three years earlier.

Almost fifty-three years later and more than twenty-four years into his priestly life, (1) Howard Bishop, inspired to "win America to the Church of Jesus"(2), established The Home Missioners of America (3) under the sponsorship of Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati. Those five decades were a time of dramatic upheaval in the Catholic Church, the United States, and the entire world. Howard Bishop was both a participant in, and a product of, that tumultuous era.

He remains, however, a relatively anonymous figure of that period in spite of the fact that he is one of only a handful of Americans to found a religious society. Thirty years have passed since his death in 1953 and the work and apostolate of the Glenmary Home Missioners are widely known by Catholics throughout the United States, but few would be able to identify the "simple country pastor " from the Archdiocese of Baltimore as its founder.

Perhaps it is precisely in this anonymity, in the fact that Father Bishop was an ordinary man, that we can discover the abiding beauty of his person and the loving presence and action of the Holy Spirit in his life. His person seems to match his mission. He labored twenty years as pastor of St. Louis Church in a day and age when the "country priest was in deed and truth, ‘The Forgotten Man.'"(4) Being numbered among the "forgotten" he was made poignantly aware that in the rural areas of the United States there existed millions of people who were lost, neglected, and unconverted.

We must be cautious, however, that we do not mistake our description of Father Bishop as being "ordinary" with a simplistic concept of his person. He was a complex man who demands our careful and exhaustive investigation. Anything less, or any attempt to mold Father Bishop to our myth or ideology, would do violence to his person and undermine the integrity of his charism.

This study has no pretensions at being "exhaustive" and represents only a step in that direction. Our scope is limited to the first twenty-four years of Father Bishop's priestly life, the pre-Glenmary years. This period was chosen because it was during this time that his charism was growing, developing, and coming to maturity. Just as we would not think of writing an article on a particular species of tree without thoroughly analyzing the seed from which it grows, in the same way we cannot hope to further our understanding of Father Bishop's charism as founder of Glenmary Home Missioners without an in-depth reflection on those formative years during which the Holy Spirit was quietly and subtly at work in his life.

The sources of our study have been rich and varied and all can be found in the archives of the Glenmary Home Missioners in Cincinnati, Ohio. The main sources have been Father Bishop's diary, his sermons during the years 1915-1917, The Little Flower, (5) Landward, (6) and his presidential addresses before the National Rural Life Conference. Each of the sources presents a different dimension of his person and each in its own way deepens our understanding of the "mystery" of his charism.

The most obvious methodological choice in a study of this nature would be historical. Using this method we would trace in Father Bishop's consciousness the emergence of the graces that he was given to found the Glenmary Home Missioners. In developmental terms it would be a matter of tracing the stages of growth of Father Bishop's vision.

The inherent weakness of the historical methodology is the temptation to succumb to a kind of "literalism" where the charism of a founder becomes frozen in times and ideologized. It can be blind to the distinction between the actual charism of a founder and his application of that charism, and refuse to admit historical changes and cultural differences.(7)

A second possible method is more existential. Its immediate goal would be the discernment of the values and motivating factors of the present day Glenmary community. These values and motivating factors are then synthesized and held up as the norm. The final step would be to examine Father Bishop's life and writings in light of the present day norm.

This method, however, also has its weaknesses. The founder can easily be used as a pawn to legitimate present actions by "reading into" his charism and conforming it to a pre-conceived notion. With both methods the main problem that confronts us is preserving the integrity of the founder's charism.(8)

Francis E. George in "Founding Founderology" suggests a third and more acceptable method that incorporates the strengths of the historical and existential methods while avoiding their weaknesses. George's hermeneutic approach to the charism seeks to "neither copy a founder nor replace him, but rather to interpret him for our time and for generations of religious yet to come."(9)

Our study would be classified by George as "preparatory understanding. "(10) Accordingly, we will analyze and reflect upon all of the sources that pertain to this period of Father Bishop's life. In our analysis we will try to establish what Father Bishop consciously meant to say, that is, the meaning of the texts.(11) In doing so we will keep in mind the historical distance that separates the texts and our reading of them by including in our critical analysis Father Bishop's presuppositions (what he took for granted) and his horizon. At the same time we will consciously be critiquing our own context. The presuppositions that we bring to the texts and those things that we find meaningful and important in our understanding and life.(12)

Using the hermeneutic method as a tool, we will then proceed according to the following scheme. In the first chapter we will clarify and define the theological term "charism of a founder" by tracing the development of the term and its evolving meaning. We will also consider three other theological terms (faith-vision, spirituality and spirit) that are closely related to the concept of "charism of a founder." The second chapter will first survey and summarize the twenty-four year period of Father Bishop's life that is the focus of this study, and will secondly discuss Father Bishop's faith-vision and spirituality in light of the findings of our survey. In the third chapter we will reflect on what we have learned about Father Bishop's charism from the research of the previous two chapters. Finally, we will end our study with a brief conclusion.

One final point should be re-emphasized before we proceed. As we noted earlier, this study is not, and should not be considered as being "exhaustive " in its treatment of Father Bishop. It is limited to a specific period of time (1915-1939) in Father Bishop's life and has not been able to benefit from any serious studies of his early life (1886-1915). or any scholarly works on the early years of Glenmary (1939-1953). Even in the twenty-four year period that we have studied there is a need for more intensive research into related areas and topics that would have influenced Father Bishop. Specifically, we are thinking about: 1) American history (19th and early 20th centuries); 2) The history of the Catholic Church in the United States (especially the 19th and early 20th centuries); 3) The Roman Catholic ecclesiology and missiology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; 4) An in-depth study of Father Bishop's relationship with the N.R.L.C. Studies of this nature could only enhance and deepen our understanding of Father Bishop's charism.

Chapter One

(1) August 15, 1939, is traditionally regarded as the "founding date of Glenmary." Father Bishop, however, had been in residence in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati since the summer of 1937.
(2) William Howard Bishop, "A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missions to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States," The Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 94, no. 4 (April 1936): 347.
(3) The technical name Father Bishop gave to the community he founded. The more popular name, the Glenmary Home Missioners (or simply Glenmary), evolved after a few years.
(4) The Little Flower, vol. 12, no. 1 (summer 1937), p. 2.
(5) The Little Flower acted as the printed voice of the League of the Little Flower, an organization started by Father Bishop to aid rural Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Father Bishop was the compiler, editor, and publisher of The Little Flower from April of 1926 (vol. 1, no. 1) to the summer of 1937 (vol. 12, no. 1).
(6) Landward acted as the printed voice of the N.R.L.C. Father Bishop was Landward 's compiler, editor and publisher from the spring of 1933 (vol. 1, no. 1) to the autumn of 1937 (vol. 5, nos. 2 & 3). For a detailed explanation of Landward and its contribution to the N.R.L.C. see Raymond Witte, Twenty-Five Years of Crusading: A History of the National Catholic Rural life Conference (Des Moines, Iowa: The National Rural Life Conference, 1948) : 159-68.
(7) Francis E. George, "Founding Founderology, " Review for Religious 36 (January 1977): 41.
(8) Ibid, pp. 41, 42.
(9) Ibid, p. 42.
(10) A diagram of George 's hermeneutical approach is re-printed so that the reader might understand the scope of our study in relation to this method (see George, op. cit., p. 48)
     I Interpretation (understanding)
     1. Preparatory understanding
     a. Of what the founder personally intended and chose;
     b. Of the founder 's context and presuppositions;
     c. Of the member 's present context and presuppositions.
2. Interpretative activity (ministry, mission) in a particular community self-consciously raising certain concerns as normative because they were the founder 's concerns.
3. Planning the future of the institute and continuously recommitting oneself to the myth of the founder.
II Discernment (choosing)
     1. Practically, what superiors of the community decide is to be done now in response to immediate needs.
     2. Evaluating present commitments according to the community 's interpretation of the founder 's spirit.
(11) We will be studying what Karl Rahner describes as "existential decisions. " Cf. Karl Rahner, "Experience of the Founder and Existential Decision," Experience of the Spirit, ed. by Peter Huizing and William Bassett (New York: The Seabury Press, 1974) : 38-46.
(12) George, "Founding Founderology, " op. cit., p. 42.