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Examining the Origins of Catholic Priests in Louisiana, 1850-1920: A Geographical Perspective

Amelia H. Ley, Louisiana State University Alyson L. Greiner, Oklahoma State University

What countries and regions have historically sent Catholic priests to the United States? We can answer this question in broad terms pointing, for example, to the Catholic countries of Western Europe, but we know much less about how the origins of priests varied among different U.S. states. Greiner’s (2010) study raised these and other questions, but focused solely on the origins of priests in Oklahoma. This project aims to expand the study to Louisiana and has two main purposes. The first is to determine how to gather the data necessary to identify the places that have historically supplied Louisiana with Catholic priests, and the second is to identify those origins.


Background, Genesis, and Scope The idea for this project stemmed from a study performed by Dr. Alyson Greiner. Her paper, “Church under Fire: An Oklahoma Perspective on Geography, Priests, and Mobility,” examined “the geographical and social networks that have supplied priests to Oklahoma since the days of the first Catholic mission in Indian Territory” (2010). Similarly, this project examined the networks that supply Catholic priests. However, in this study, these networks were examined in a different regional setting: the state of Louisiana. To gather data, Greiner made contacts with several organizations and Catholic clergy members. During her inquiries, she met Father James White. He is the archivist for the Diocese in Tulsa, and he has prepared a necrology of Catholic priests in Oklahoma from the establishment of the first Catholic Mission in Indian Territory in 1875, to about 1983 (Greiner, 2010). His necrology included information about the state or country of origin of Oklahoma’s Catholic priests, and where they served (Greiner, 2010). Greiner performed a data analysis on the necrology. Her analysis resulted in a finding that between 1875 and 1983, priests from 25 different states and 25 different countries served the Catholic Church in Oklahoma. Moreover, she found that Flanders, and the Basque and Alsatian regions of France, supplied many of Oklahoma’s priests. In connection to these regions, Oklahoma had a bishop from East Flanders in Belgium, a bishop from the western part of Lorraine, and an abbot from southwestern France. According to Greiner, “This seems to point to the existence of functional regions and specific linkages between bishops who have certain ties to particular places” (Greiner, 2010, p. 9). Did a similar situation develop in Louisiana? Are the same regions of France represented by the priests who came to Louisiana? Did Louisiana also receive comparable numbers of priests from Belgium and the Netherlands? In order to answer 2  

these questions, the origins of Catholic priests need to be further examined. Therefore, expanding the research to Louisiana was a logical next step. Originally, the scope of this research was to identify linkages between all of the Catholic priests that have served in Louisiana and their places of origin from the beginning of the Catholic Church in Louisiana to the present day. For several reasons, however, the scope had to be narrowed. First, the Catholic Church in Louisiana has a long, complex history that began at the end of the 16th century when the King of Spain established a diocese that extended from the Rio Grande to the Cape of Florida. From the end of the 16th century until 1812, however, the state of Louisiana did not exist. Secondly, there have been thousands of priests who have served in Louisiana since that time. Due to time constraints, it was not feasible to attempt to determine all of their origins. Ultimately, the scope was narrowed to 1850 through 1960, and for the presentation today, we’ve narrowed it still further by focusing only on the 1850 to 1920 period. Methods and Data Greiner employed a case study approach to gather information regarding the origins and destinations of priests, and the supply of foreign-born priests to Oklahoma (2010). One of the key reasons that she chose this methodology was an issue with data availability. There is no national source of data about the origins of priests and places they have served, and local data is dependent upon record keeping that varies from diocese-to-diocese (Greiner, 2010). Also, as she states, “... the numerous scandals involving priests have altered the public relations of the Catholic Church in ways that are not particularly conducive to research” (2010, p. 3). With these reasons in mind, a case study technique was clearly the most appropriate methodology for this project as well. I began by contacting Dr. Emilie Leumas, the archivist at the Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Archives, to set up a research consultation. To my surprise, she 3  

responded that she had captured some of the information that I was seeking in her dissertation. Indeed, Leumas had already found the origins of priests serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans from 1860 to 1920. Furthermore, the methodology she used to collect the data was included in her dissertation. To identify the origins of the priests, Leumas used The Official Catholic Directory, the United States Census, and Archbishop Janssens’s diary. According to Leumas, “The Official Catholic Directory has been published yearly since 1817, and provides detailed profiles of each (arch)diocese” (Leumas 62). Importantly, it includes the names of the priests serving at parishes. For this reason, Leumas was able to collect the names of the priests serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans from 1860 to 1920. She was then able to locate their country of origin by searching the United States Census. Because the U.S. Census is published every decade, Leumas was able to capture a detailed snapshot of parish priests and their country of origin for the years 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920. However, Louisiana census data is not available for 1890 (the records were destroyed in a fire). She accessed information for that year from Archbishop Janssens’s diary. He had recorded the status of priests in the archdiocese including date of birth, country of birth, date and place of ordination, and arrival in the archdiocese. The third stage of the case study was data collection. The data that Leumas’ collected was quite helpful. However, her data did not completely cover the scope of this project. Several gaps had to be filled. First of all, Leumas covered only 1860 to 1920. This project aims to gather data from 1850 to 1960. Furthermore, Leumas only gathered data on the origins of priests that served in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This project aims to capture the entire state of Louisiana. In order to do this, I needed to include data from several other dioceses.


When founded in 1850, the Archdiocese of New Orleans encompassed the entire state of Louisiana. In 1853, however, the Archdiocese shrank because the Diocese of Natchitoches was established from part of its territory. With this split, the Diocese of Natchitoches embraced the state of Louisiana between 31 and 33 degrees North, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans embraced the part of Louisiana between 29 and 31 degrees North. In 1910, the Diocese of Natchitoches’s name was changed to the Diocese of Alexandria. The Archdiocese of New Orleans shrank again in 1918 because the Diocese of Lafayette was created. This was not the last loss of territory for the archdiocese; however, it is the last one that affected the scope of this project. In order to fill the gaps between the data that Dr. Leumas had collected and the data needed for the scope of this project, I expanded on Dr. Leumas’ priest/country of origin database. Dr. Leumas created the database in Excel. The data elements she included were year, name, secular/religious order, country of origin, and church parish (city, civil parish, and present-day diocese). Therefore, I began expanding the database by creating several Excel workbooks (one for each diocese) using the same data elements as Leumas. After constructing the workbooks, I began adding the names of the parish priests serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 1850 Catholic directory. Next, I tried to find these priests in Dr. Leumas’ database. If I found the name, I used the country of origin that Dr. Leumas had in her database for that priest. In many cases, the names that were listed in the directory and the names in Dr. Leumas’ database were not identical, but very close. I have retained the spelling as given in the Catholic directory. If I could not locate the name of the priest in Dr. Leumas’ database, I used the methodology that she described in her dissertation for


finding a priests’ country of origin. Dr. Leumas searched the United States Census on When searching for a priest on, I used a specific process. First, I entered the name of the priest into the corresponding boxes. Second, I entered the parish in Louisiana that the priest was listed as serving at in the directory into the location box. Third, I entered the word priest into the keyword box. Fourth, I selected male in the gender box. Fifth, I clicked search. Then, I clicked on Census & Voter lists. A name was considered a match if it was very close to the name in the Catholic directory, and appeared where the priest was located: these were the two criteria that Dr. Leumas used.

For every priest that I located on, I

saved their record in “My shoebox.” “My shoebox” is a feature that allows users to store records. Next, I added the names of the rest of the parish priests serving in Louisiana during the time frame of this study. After I finished entering all of the names, I went back to fill in the country of origin columns using the same process as described above for finding the countries of origin of parish priests serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1850. I was able to finish the Diocese of Natchitoches workbook. Due to time constraints, however, I was only able to finish the 1850 through 1920 worksheets in the Archdiocese of New Orleans workbook, and the 1920 worksheet in the Diocese of Lafayette workbook. Findings The fourth step of the case study was data analysis. I began by creating Excel worksheets to tally the information for each decade that I was able to complete for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. My data indicate that between 1850 and 1920, more than 1,100 priests served this archdiocese. Not surprisingly, France was by far the single most significant source country of the 6  

priests. More specifically, nearly half (48%) hailed from France. The second most common source was the United States, but it supplied a mere 14% of the priests, Within the United States, Louisiana was a modest source of priests in the archdiocese from the very beginning. Ireland and Germany provided the next largest number of priests, but accounted for just 9% and 8%, respectively, of the priests. Two-thirds of parish priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1870 were from France. By 1920, however, fewer than one-third came from France. The largest drop occurred between 1891 and 1900. This drop appears to correspond with Archbishop Janssens’ tenure. Interestingly, Janssens was the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans who was not from France: he was from Holland. The percentage of parish priests hailing from France never exceeded 50% after his reign. On the other hand, the largest increase in the percentage of priests from Holland was 4%. Increases of 4% occurred twice; between 1880 and 1891, and between 1891 and 1900. Again, these changes appear to correspond with Archbishop Janssens. The line that had the second largest range was the one representing the United States. Unlike France, however, the percentage of priests increased over time. In 1860, 2% of priests were from the United States; 24% percent were from the U.S. in 1920. The largest jump appeared between 1880 and 1891. Once again, Archbishop Janssens appears to be tied to the change. The percentage of parish priests from the United States never fell below 10% after his reign. To better visualize the change in supply of priests, I thought it would be useful to create maps displaying the results of the priest tallies from the first and last year analyzed in each (arch) diocese. Initially, I used absolute numbers from the priest tallies to create the maps; however, I decided to transform the data to percentages to make comparisons. It would be misleading to use 7   

the absolute numbers from the tallies when comparing the data because the total number of priests serving in each (arch) diocese got much larger during the time spans being analyzed. As an illustration, it would appear that the number of priests from Italy increased between 1870 and 1920. There were four priests from Italy in 1870 and 10 in 1920. In reality, Italy did not become a larger supplier of priests. It actually supplied the same percentage. Based upon my analysis of the tally sheets, it appears that linkages exist between where a bishop has ties and the supply of priests. For instance, Archbishop Janssens had ties to Holland and the United States. As mentioned above, he had ties to Holland because it was his country of origin. He had ties to the United States because he established a seminary in Louisiana due to the need that he saw for local clergy. Correspondingly, the percentage of priests hailing from the United States and Holland increased the most during his leadership. Although archbishops significantly influenced the supply of priests to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, a preliminary review of the data indicates that this may not be true for the Diocese of Natchitoches. Nevertheless, I may be unaware of the extent of the ties that bishops had with other countries because the only one that I examined was country of origin. Therefore, further research needs to be done to identify other linkages that the bishops used. Summary As shown above, a variety of data exists to help us establish the origins of Catholic priests. Unfortunately, however, neither the Catholic directories nor the US Census enables us to know more than the country of birth. That is, we cannot identify towns, counties, or regions of their birth. Also, I was not able to identify the country of origin for all of the parish priests in the database (in approximately 46 instances or 4% of the cases), and I had no way to triangulate that information for the records that I was able to obtain. 8   

Based on the overall trends in the current data, however, it appears that archbishops tended to select priests of the same nationality, at least until about the 1920s. This supports Dr. Greiner’s findings about similar practices in Oklahoma, where French and Belgian bishops selected priests from those countries. Further research should help elucidate the extent to which these ties operated and affected the diversity of priests.


Works Cited Greiner, A. (2010, October 15). Church under fire: An Oklahoma perspective on geography, priests, and mobility. Paper presented at the Southwestern Division of the Association of American Geographers Conference, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Leumas, Emilie G. "Mais, I Sin in French, I Gotta Go to Confession in French: A Study of the Language Shift from French to English within the Louisiana Catholic Church." Diss. Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2009. Louisiana State University. Web. 31 Jan. 2011. <>. th

Wimmer, R., & Dominick, J. (2006). Mass Media Research – An Introduction (9 Edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.


Examining the Origins of Catholic Priests in Louisiana, 1850-1920: A Geographical Perspective  

Co-presented paper at the 2011 SWAAG conference