History of the Diocese of Madison

The area that is now the State of Wisconsin was first evangelized by the French.  Samuel de Champlain founded Québec, the first great city of New France, on the St. Lawrence River in 1535. French explorers, fur traders and missionaries continued up the St. Lawrence, and eventually to the area of the Great Lakes.

In 1634, Jean Nicolet was the first explorer to reach what is now Wisconsin. Early French activity in Wisconsin was not in the territory of the Diocese of Madison, but along the shores of Lake Superior and the Green Bay.  Fr. René Menard, a Jesuit (as were all the other earliest missionaries to our area), was the first priest to reach Wisconsin. His successor, Fr. Claude Allouez, founded the first missions in Wisconsin – at Chequamegon Bay (LaPointe) in 1665, and at Green Bay in 1669.

The first missionary known to have traveled through what is now the Diocese of Madison was Fr. Jacques Marquette, who passed through Portage on his way from the Fox to the Wisconsin River in 1673. But in this earliest period, there was no sustained missionary activity in what is now the Diocese of Madison.

After a clash between the French and the Fox Indians, missionary activity waned. After 1728, there was virtually no further missionary efforts by the French, with only a few priests caring for the faithful around Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. The French era of Wisconsin history ended definitively in 1761, when the fortified city of Québec fell and New France was lost to the British Crown.

The Catholic Church in the United States was born on June 8, 1789, when John Carroll was given charge of all missions in the American territory – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. He was consecrated the first bishop of Baltimore on August 15, 1790.

In 1808, new dioceses were erected for the United States including one at Bardstown, Kentucky, whose territory encompassed all American lands west of the Appalachians.

In 1821, the Diocese of Cincinnati was erected, with its territory including the land that would become Wisconsin (as well as all of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois). It was Bishop Edward Fenwick, a Dominican and the first bishop of Cincinnati, who recruited a young Italian named Samuel Mazzuchelli to work in his vast diocese.

Father Mazzuchelli first served on Macinac Island and in Green Bay, where his congregation consisted of French Canadians, English traders and Native Americans. But he soon moved south, working with the Winnebago Indians around Portage in 1831.

By 1835, Fr. Mazzuchelli had moved on to the booming lead mining region around Galena, Illinois. He spent the remainder of his life working in this area: northwestern Illinois, southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa.

Fr. Mazzuchelli built his first church in what is now the Diocese of Madison (a log chapel) at Potosi, in 1838.  He eventually built twenty-five churches (11 in the current Diocese of Madison), and established nine schools. He also designed eight public buildings, including courthouses in Dodgeville and Galena, and the state capitol in Iowa City. The Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, with their motherhouse in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, were also founded by Fr. Mazzuchelli.

When Fr. Mazzuchelli began his work in lead mining region, Wisconsin was technically still part of the Diocese of Cincinnati. There was, however, already a bishop in Dubuque, Iowa, and it was with him that Fr. Mazzuchelli worked most closely.

In 1833, Wisconsin was transferred from the jurisdiction of Cincinnati to the new Diocese of Detroit. The Erie Canal, which had opened in 1825, made the Great Lakes accessible by water from the East Coast. From that time, the importance of the cities along rivers decreased relative to the new population centers along the lakes.

The opening of the lakes brought new growth to Wisconsin, which became a territory in 1836. A year later, the Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre of Detroit sent two Irish priests to minister to the Catholics in Milwaukee and the surrounding districts. One of these, Fr. Thomas Morrissey, visited Catholics in Watertown, in the present Diocese of Madison.

By the 1840’s and 50’s, many Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany began arriving in what would become the Diocese of Madison. Many of the older parishes in the Diocese trace their histories to this period.

Irish parishes were typically found in towns served by the railroad, the building of which employed many Irish immigrants, as did the industries which sprang up along the routes of the railroads.

Many German immigrants settled on the land and farmed. A large crescent of German towns and parishes extends from west of Madison to northeast of the city. The parochial schools in these towns were typically conducted in German until the First World War.

The current diocese of Madison also experienced some Italian immigration (principally in Madison and Beloit), and some Polish immigration (notably in Berlin).

Many of our parishes have had a strong ethnic identity, and it was not uncommon to find two or even three Catholic parishes to serve different ethnic groups in relatively small towns.

The Diocese of Madison was erected in 1946, being constituted of seven counties that had belonged to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Dane, Jefferson, Rock, Green, Columbia, Green Lake and Marquette), and four that had been part of the Diocese of LaCrosse (Sauk, Iowa, Grant and Lafayette).

Bishop William Patrick O’Connor, bishop of the Superior Diocese – who had served as a chaplain in World War I and as a philosophy professor at St. Francis Seminary in his native Milwaukee – was installed as the first bishop on March 12, 1946.  Bishop O’Connor chose as his motto: “In Nomine Jesu” (“In the Name of Jesus”).

Bishop O’Connor presided over the Diocese of Madison during the Golden Age of the Church in the United States.  Not far removed from the hard times of immigration and the wars and depression of the early 20th century, American Catholics exhibited a remarkably high degree of devotion to the faith and loyalty to the Church. The prosperity that followed the Second World War meant that there was not only human capital but also a new material wealth to be devoted to the works of the Church.

One of the projects dearest to the heart of Bishop O’Connor was the building of a diocesan seminary. In keeping with his motto, the seminary was dedicated in honor of the Holy Name of Jesus. At its opening in 1963, Holy Name Seminary was a full minor seminary with four years of high school and two years of general college studies.  Such were the times that Bishop O’Connor raised more money than was necessary for the completion of the seminary... and the surplus was returned to the parishes. Another measure of the times: the faculty consisted almost entirely of diocesan priests.

In 1963, an aging Bishop O’Connor was granted his desire for an auxiliary bishop. Bishop Jerome Hastrich became the first priest of the Madison Diocese to be raised to the episcopacy.  Known throughout his life for his devotion to the poor, Bishop Hastrich was named Bishop of Gallup, NM, the poorest diocese in the United States, in 1969.

After Bishop O’Connor retired on February 22, 1967, Bishop Cletus F. O’Donnell, Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General of the Chicago Archdiocese, was appointed his successor and installed on April 25, 1967.  His motto: “In Spem Vitae Aeternae” (“In the Hope of Everlasting Life”).

Bishop O’Donnell had accompanied his great patron Albert Cardinal Meyer of Chicago to the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Bishop O’Donnell came to Madison with the intention of bringing the fruit of the Council to the diocese. While the work of the Council brought many blessings to the diocese (as it did to the whole Church), it is impossible to overlook the difficulties that accompanied the turbulent 1960’s and their aftermath.

The late 1960’s and 1970’s witnessed a sad decline in the fortunes of the Church. One of the most immediate and costly developments was the virtual disappearance of Religious Sisters, who had been the heart and soul of the unparalleled system of Catholic Schools in the United States. The resignation of many priests and a steep decrease in vocations took place at the same time. Nor were Catholic families exempt from the crisis in marriage that was likewise unfolding.  Leading the diocese through those difficult times, Bishop O’Donnell was a model of patience and moderation.

On March 9, 1978, the Diocese rejoiced to see Msgr. George O. Wirz, a native of Monroe, Wisconsin, ordained a bishop in St. Raphael Cathedral. He became the new Auxiliary Bishop of Madison and served in that capacity until his retirement.

Bishop O’Donnell led the Diocese of Madison for more than twenty-five years. In his later years, he suffered from the effects of diabetes. He was finally forced to retire due to illness in 1992, and Bishop Wirz administered the diocese until a new bishop could be named

On April 13, 1993, Pope John Paul II announced that Bishop William H. Bullock, Bishop of Des Moines, Iowa, would succeed Bishop O’Donnell.  His installation took place on June 15, 1993.  A native of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese, Bishop Bullock has chosen as his motto: “Grace, Mercy and Peace.”

During Bishop Bullock’s ten years, the effects of the turbulent post-conciliar years became clear to all. Holy Name Seminary was closed, and the offices of the diocese were consolidated there. Parishes began the first round of collaborative planning to face a future in which we would not have sufficient priests to staff our existing parishes.

After the retirement of Bishop Bullock, Pope John Paul II appointed Robert C. Morlino, Bishop of Helena, Montana, as the fourth Bishop of Madison.  Bishop Morlino was officially installed on August 1, 2003.  For his motto, Bishop Morlino selected the phrase, "Visus non mentietur".  This phrase, which is taken from the second chapter of the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk (2:3), is translated "the vision will not disappoint.”

Bishop Morlino began his service in Madison with a new and vigorous emphasis on priestly vocations, which has already borne considerable fruit. He describes his next priority as catechesis and liturgy – a renewed effort to present the fullness of the Catholic faith in its integrity and with its persuasive force, and an renewed effort to celebrate the rites of the Church authentically and beautifully.