History of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana
Among the states, south Louisiana is somewhat unusual. Its politics and culture were initially formed by the monarchies of France and Spain and by the Roman Catholic Church. The sudden sale of Louisiana to the United States of America in 1803 surprised its French‐speaking inhabitants and thrust major changes upon them.
The Louisiana Purchase brought the possibility of religious diversity, and newly‐arriving Americans brought the Episcopal Church. At first, there were only a few scattered congregations, beginning with Christ Church, New Orleans, in 1805. Others followed, but slowly.
In 1838, the General Convention elected Leonidas Polk as Missionary Bishop of Arkansas. His enormous territory encompassed Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Republic of Texas — 500,000 square miles and 1,500,000 people. His indefatigable missionary travels endeared him to Louisiana, which organized as a diocese in 1839, and asked the General Convention to name him as Bishop of Louisiana in 1841. His long and fruitful episcopate ended with fame and some notoriety when he became a major general in the Confederate forces and was killed by a cannon ball in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
By 1866, the Diocese of Louisiana — which had never formally joined the Confederate Church — had returned to the Episcopal Church and faced a dismaying loss of young men, the bitterness of defeat, destroyed churches, Reconstruction, chronic poverty, changing demographics, outbreaks of yellow fever, floods, storms, ethnic and racial unrest, and potentially divisive changes in the Church.
Its first post‐Civil War bishops, Joseph Wilmer (1866‐1878) and Nicholas Galleher (1880‐1891), were pastoral and mildly progressive. While the Church in Louisiana was smaller and poorer, it continued to work and hope, and began to grow.
Bishop Davis Sessums (1891‐1929) stressed the corporate and catholic aspects of Anglicanism, worked to establish Christ Church, New Orleans, as the diocese’s cathedral, sought to empower the laity, and to organize the diocese for mission. Significantly, he was attacked locally and in some national publications for heresy – a sign that the Episcopal Church was becoming differentiated in the public mind from evangelicals. During his long episcopate, the Diocese of Louisiana became less isolated and more fully involved nationally, a development celebrated by the meeting of the General Convention in New Orleans in 1925.
Bishop James Craik Morris (1930‐1939) guided the diocese through the Depression. He helped the diocese deal with its accumulated debt, and prepared it for its second century. His successor, Bishop John Long Jackson (1940‐1948), undertook to provide the kinds of ministry necessitated by World War II,encouraged ministry among young people, and, like Bishop Polk before him, placed special stress on ministry to African‐Americans.
Bishop Girault Jones (1949‐1969) presided over a time of great growth in church membership, which was also a time of great challenge, as the emerging civil rights movement called into question many of the assumptions the diocese had been making since its beginnings.
Bishop Iveson Noland (1969‐1975) was the first native Louisianian to be bishop of the diocese. He stood staunchly against racism, and for revision of the prayer book and the liturgical participation of children. He was pastorally patient with the incendiary national debate about the war in Vietnam. His episcopate was tragically cut short when he was killed in a plane crash in 1975.
Bishop James Brown (1976‐1998) took the lead in the creation of another diocese in Louisiana. He chose to remain with southeast Louisiana, which, however, faced new difficulties — the decline of the petroleum‐based economy, changing demographics in urban centers, and increasing congregational parochialism. Nevertheless, he established new congregations, began to ordain women to the priesthood, created the diocesan College of Presbyters, and was the guiding force in the building of Solomon Episcopal Conference Center.
Bishop Charles Jenkins (1998‐2010) tried immediately to revitalize the diocese’s sense of mission with, he thought, mixed success. Everyone is for mission in theory, but many are not willing to change habits, attitudes, and financial commitments to enable it. Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, followed the next month by Hurricane Rita. The storms unveiled the poverty and racism that afflict south Louisiana, resulting in what Bishop Jenkins described as a conversion. He began to work for social justice, for close inter‐racial cooperation, for initiatives that specifically targeted the needy, and for a recovery that would result not just in a restored community but in a better one. With help from Episcopal Relief and Development, monetary contributions from everywhere, and nearly 10,000 volunteers, the diocese embarked on helping ministries of unprecedented scope.
Bishop Morris Thompson (2010- ) was consecrated as the eleventh bishop of our diocese on May 8, 2010. He came from the Diocese of Lexington with a pastoral background, and we have been eager to start our walk with him.
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