History of the Diocese & Diocesan Statistics
The Diocese of Richmond, formed from America's first diocese, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is among the nation's eight oldest Catholic dioceses.
Erected by decree of Pope Pius VII on July 11, 1820, the Diocese encompassed the entire state of Virginia, including what is now West Virginia.
There were few Catholics within that vast territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River. Harsh laws had discouraged them from settling in colonial Virginia. It was not until the passing of Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 that Catholics were free to worship openly in the Old Dominion. Within 10 years, Catholic communities began to form. St. Mary's at Alexandria was established in 1795 as the first Catholic church in Virginia. Records from 1794 show that the Catholic congregation in Norfolk owned a parcel of land for religious purposes.
More precisely, the Norfolk land was held by the Norfolk Catholic community's lay trustees. It was their conflict with their pastor over this land that prompted Vatican authorities to persuade the pope to set up a Virginia diocese with a residential bishop to suppress the "Norfolk Schism."
As the first Bishop of Richmond, the Pope chose Father Patrick Kelly, then president of St. John's Seminary, Birchfield, Ireland. He was consecrated bishop in St. James Chapel, Dublin on August 24, 1820.
Arriving in Norfolk the following January, Bishop Kelly found that, not only was his congregation sorely disunited, it was also too poor to support a bishop and his work. The new bishop was forced to support himself by operating a school. Bishop Kelly obtained permission to return to Ireland and left Virginia in July, 1822 without ever having visited his see city, Richmond, which had no organized Catholic community at that time.
For the next 19 years, the Diocese of Richmond was under the administration of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In 1841, Pope Gregory XVI restored the Diocese to independent administration and appointed Father Richard Vincent Whelan as its second bishop. Bishop Whelan was the first of four Baltimore natives to head the Richmond diocese.
On a pastoral visit to the far western areas of his diocese, Bishop Whelan found large and growing communities of Irish and Italian Catholics who were pushing the new railroad through the mountains. He stayed to serve them and, in 1850, became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling which encompassed all of Virginia west of the Allegheny Mountains and west of Maryland.
Arriving in Richmond in December 1850, Bishop John McGill, a native of Philadelphia and formerly a priest of the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, found a diocese numbering around 7,000 Catholics, served by eight priests and worshiping in 10 churches, including the Cathedral of St. Peter, which had been built in 1834.
Bishop McGill's service as Richmond's third ordinary spanned 21 years, a period in which Virginia was scourged by yellow fever and cholera epidemics, racked by the Civil War and plagued by the anti-Catholic bigotry of Know-Nothingism.
After his death in 1872, Bishop McGill was succeeded by Baltimore native Bishop James Gibbons, the Vicar-Apostolic of North Carolina, who would later become the renowned Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore. Bishop Gibbons drew on his experience as the spiritual leader of Virginia's Catholic minority to write the book "Faith of Our Fathers," a celebrated exposition of Catholic beliefs. The work, published in 1876, went through numerous printings and was translated into several languages.
Upon the transfer of Bishop Gibbons to Baltimore, John Joseph Keane, a native of Ireland and a Washington, D.C. pastor, was named Richmond’s fifth bishop in 1878. He was the first Catholic bishop to be consecrated in Richmond. Bishop Keane was responsible for bringing the Josephite Fathers into the Diocese to serve the black Catholic community. He was also instrumental in the foundation of The Catholic University of America and became its first rector.
Bishop Keane was succeeded in 1889 by Bishop Augustine Van de Vyver, a native of Belgium. He had served as a missionary priest in the western part of the Diocese and later as Vicar General before being named the sixth Bishop of Richmond. During his 22 years as ordinary, Bishop Van de Vyver founded 12 parishes and built 32 churches, including the present Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (1906).
After Bishop Van de Vyver's death, Bishop Denis Joseph O'Connell became Richmond's seventh ordinary in 1912. Another native of Ireland and originally a priest of the Richmond Diocese, Bishop O’Connell had served as the Rector of the North American College in Rome and as Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco. He served 14 years, resigning in 1926 due to illness.
Bishop Andrew James Brennan, a native of Towanda, Pennsylvania and the Auxiliary Bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was installed as Richmond's eighth bishop on December 16, 1926. Less than eight years later, he suffered a stroke that cut short his service to the Diocese.
Monsignor Peter Leo Ireton from Baltimore became Apostolic Administrator and Coadjutor Bishop of Richmond in 1935 and the ninth ordinary in 1945. Bishop Ireton guided the Diocese during 22 years of rapid growth. Its population expanded from 37,000 in 1935 to 147,000 in 1958. During Bishop Ireton's ministry, 42 parishes were established and 24 schools were built.
Five months after Bishop Ireton's death in 1958, Bishop John Joyce Russell of Charleston, South Carolina, a Baltimore native, became Richmond's tenth bishop. Ahead of Bishop Russell lay the task of guiding the Diocese through a period of the most far-reaching change in the Catholic Church in four centuries. It was a change that Bishop Russell, as a father of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had helped to bring about.
As a result of the Council, Richmond was one of the first four dioceses in the nation to establish a Commission on Ecumenical Affairs (1963). In 1966, a Diocesan Pastoral Council and a Council of Priests were established in answer to Vatican II's call for bishops to share responsibility for governing their dioceses.
After Bishop Russell's retirement, Bishop Walter Francis Sullivan, a native of Washington, D.C. and auxiliary bishop of this diocese, was named the eleventh Bishop of Richmond in 1974. At the same time, the Diocese of Arlington was formed from 21 Northern Virginia counties. The "new" Diocese of Richmond, which came into being August 13, 1974, comprised some 36,000 square miles and included the remaining 74 counties of the state, essentially the southern three-fifths of Virginia.
Bishop Sullivan retired in 2003 after nearly thirty years as ordinary – a period longer than any of his predecessors. He was succeeded by Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo, a Philadelphia native and formerly the Bishop of Honolulu, who was installed as the twelfth Bishop of Richmond on May 24, 2004.
Active in diocese: 87
Active outside diocese: 2
Total diocesan priests: 148
Religious priests in diocese: 31
Total priests in diocese: 179
Permanent deacons in diocese: 88
Candidates for Priesthood 16
Total Parishes and Missions 146
With resident diocesan priests 88
With resident religious order priests .12
Without resident diocesan priests 76
Catholic Hospitals: 10
Homes for the Aged: 18
Total H.S. Students: 1,957
Total Elementary Students: 8,148
Total Students in Catholic Schools: 10,105
Teachers in diocese:
Lay Teachers: 913
Receptions into church
Baptisms under age 17: 3,339
Adult Baptism 18 and over: 106
Received into full communion: 890
First Communions: 3,365
Confirmations (Those already Baptized): 2,673
Ecumenical or Interfaith: 355
Total Marriages: 777
Active Catholic population: 235,816
Total population: 5,016,220