An Ordinary Viewpoint

Our Hundred and Twenty-Fifth-II


There were many significant factors that contributed to the 19th century population growth in Nebraska and which eventually pointed toward the formation of the Diocese of Lincoln one hundred and twenty-five years ago this month. Undoubtedly the fact that Nebraska was admitted into the Union as a State in 1867 was important, along with extensive commercial development, when many people and businesses began to make money by providing a variety of supplies for the more than 300,000 people who traversed Nebraska travelling the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest and sometimes to California. The prospect of free Homestead land and extensive advertising throughout Europe by the important and prosperous Railroad Companies, which were anxious to gather customers, seem to have had what was perhaps the greatest impact on Nebraska’s population growth. Between 1880 and 1885 the population of Nebraska witnessed a sixty percent increase.

Since that population increase was also experienced in the neighboring territories, Bishop James O’Connor, the Vicar Apostolic of the Vicariate of Nebraska gathered support from other American Bishops to persuade the Holy See to detach from the Vicariate the territories of the Dakotas and of Montana and Idaho, leaving Bishop O’ Connor’s Vicariate only Nebraska and the Wyoming territory. Then, in answer to a petition to the Holy See by all the U.S. Bishops gathered at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, the status of the Vicariate was elevated to that of a Diocese, and Bishop O’Connor was named by Pope Leo XIII as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Omaha on October 2, 1885. The Diocese consisted of all of Nebraska and Wyoming, and was designated a suffragan See to the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. Almost immediately, however, Bishop O’Connor thought the territory too large for one Bishop and was joined by the Bishops of the Province of Saint Louis in 1886, in petitioning the Holy See to make two additional dioceses out of the Diocese of Omaha, Cheyenne in Wyoming and Lincoln south of the Platte River. The Bishops said this was necessary because of population increase and the enormous expanse of territory being simply too much for any one Bishop to care for pastorally.

When the Holy See initially hesitated about making Lincoln a Diocese, Bishop O’Connor, "with his Irish up", sent a strong letter to the Propagation of the Faith Office in Rome (which was in charge of such things for America which at that time was still considered missionary territory), explaining that the Pope ought to do this for three main reasons: first, the Platte River divided the State about equally into two habitable parts, and the people south of the river for cultural and historical reasons did not like the people to the north; second, there were very few usable bridges over the river; third, the river often was too shallow to use boats to ferry across but it was always too dangerous to ford, especially in the springtime. He pointed out that there would be 31 priests in any new Diocese south of the river, which was 7 more than he found in the entire Vicariate when he arrived decades earlier. And so, by decree of Pope Leo XIII, signed, sealed, and sent on August 2, 1887, the Diocese of Lincoln was created, and several days later the Reverend Thomas Bonacum, a priest of Saint Louis, was named the Bishop. The diocesan boundaries for Lincoln were assigned as the south bank of the Platte River on the north, the middle of the Missouri River on the east, the State of Kansas on the south, and the State of Colorado on the west.

First Bishop

In our diocesan Chancery Office, there is a wall-plaque beneath a portrait of Bishop Bonacum, placed there by Bishop James Casey, which says: "This Chancery and Administration Headquarters for the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Lincoln is dedicated on September 19, 1961, in grateful memory of the first Bishop, The Most Reverend Thomas Bonacum, whose zealous and untiring leadership from 1887 to 1911 laid the foundations of the faith across the prairies of Southern Nebraska." Thomas Bonacum was born at Thurles in County Tipperary, Ireland, on January 29, 1847. While he was still an infant, his parents, Edmund and Mary moved with him to Saint Louis, Missouri. He attended a Christian Brothers grade school there and then, deciding God was calling him to the priesthood, went to high school and college at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He then was sent to complete his priesthood preparation at Saint Vincent Seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He was ordained a priest on June 18, 1870, in Saint Louis and was an assistant pastor there for six months, followed by two three year terms as a pastor in two parishes.

Always intellectually brilliant and outstanding in his academic work, he was then sent from 1877 to 1879, to study at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Wurzburg in Germany under the future Cardinal Joseph Hergenrother. It was there that he acquired his doctorate and perfected his grasp of languages, which included German, Czech, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was noticed and highly praised by his professors, and, as a result, the American Bishops chose him as one of their theological experts and consultants for their Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1884. The American Bishops were so impressed by him there that they unanimously proposed him as a candidate first for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, and later for Belleville, Illinois. But the Holy See had other ideas, and on August 9, 1887, Pope Leo XIII named him as the founding Bishop of Lincoln. He received the official letter the following September, but somehow, to his distress, the secular press got the news first and published it a month ahead of time. At the time he was named a Bishop, Father Bonacum was the pastor of Holy Name Parish in Saint Louis and was in the process of constructing a new Catholic school for his parish.

Warm Welcome

Father Bonacum was consecrated a Bishop on November 20, 1887, in Saint Louis by Archbishop Peter Kenrick. He was taken aback by the enthusiasm his appointment had generated not only among the Catholics of Southern Nebraska, but also among the non-Catholic clergy of the region, and among the politicians and secular political leaders. At the time he wrote to Bishop O’Connor, "Without any display of sham humility, I must confess that your letter, as well as the comments of the press, notably the German press, on my appointment have caused me much disquietude because I see that expectations have been raised in the midst of those who do not know me, which can never be realized."

He arrived in Lincoln through Omaha on a bitterly cold December 20, 1887. He was met by hundreds of officials and clergy and faithful, and was escorted to the local opera house by a band and by a parade of the Loyal Order of Hibernians in colorful uniforms and carrying torches. On arrival at that packed house, there were speeches of welcome from the stage by civic municipal and state politicians, various Catholic representative of the new Diocese, and large numbers of non-Catholic religious leaders. Bonacum replied that he would have preferred to have arrived quietly and unobserved, but he accepted the enthusiastic welcome as an honor not for him personally, but as a representative of the Catholic Church.

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