History of the Diocese

Compiled by Father Leo Stelten
Spring 2012


The Territory of Dakota was divided by an act of Congress on Feb. 22, 1889, and on Nov. 2 of that same year two new states, North Dakota and South Dakota, were admitted to the Union. Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 12, the Holy See created the Diocese of Jamestown, N.D., by the Apostolic Constitution “Quae Catholics Nomini”, and on Nov. 15, 1889, Father John Shanley, the 37-year-old pastor of the St. Paul Cathedral, was appointed by Rome as its first bishop. He was consecrated as a bishop on Dec. 27, 1889, at the cathedral in St. Paul by Archbishop John Ireland in a unique triple ceremony.

The Diocese of Jamestown included the entire state of North Dakota. Hoffmanns’ Catholic Directory of 1890 indicates that there were 34 priests and 44 churches in the new diocese. For convenience of travel reasons, Bishop Shanley moved his residence from Jamestown to a large house in the Island Park area of Fargo in 1891. The Holy See changed the name of the diocese to Fargo a few years later. That residence in Fargo became the nucleus for the first Catholic hospital in the state in the early 1900s.

Bishop Shanley found the Catholic Church situation in the city of Fargo, as well as in the entire state, sorely inadequate. Almost immediately property was purchased and plans for a cathedral were made. Only the basement was completed before the “big fire” of 1893 destroyed much of the downtown section of Fargo. Bishop Shanley donated the better part of the Cathedral funds that he had raised, to a great extent by preaching and giving missions, to the city for reconstruction after the fire. Therefore the Cathedral construction was delayed. The Cathedral was finally completed and the dedication was held on May 30, 1899.

As a new bishop, Bishop Shanley pleaded for the fair treatment of all. He manifested great concern for the basic needs of his people, particularly in the area of education for those in the rural areas and especially for the Native Americans on the reservations. By 1911, after the new diocese of Bismarck had been established in the western half of North Dakota the previous year, there were 87 priests in the Fargo diocese, 70 parishes with resident priests. These priests also served 90 mission and 39 station churches. There were also three churches for the Native American people. There were 21 parish grade schools, six academies, two Native American schools, and three hospitals, all of which were operated by three communities of religious men and eight communities of religious women. Six months before he died in his sleep on July 16, 1909, Bishop Shanley, a capable and tireless worker, became the editor of a new diocesan monthly newspaper.

During the 25-year administration of the second bishop, Bishop James O’Reilly, the diocese continued to grow so that, at the time of his death in 1934, there were 132 priests and 242 churches. There were 24 parish grade schools, 11 academies and seven hospitals. Bishop O’Reilly, who came from Minneapolis, was not inclined to edit a newspaper himself as Bishop Shanley did, but he realized its value. Before his first year was completed as bishop, he arranged with the editors of “The Catholic Bulletin” in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis to publish news from Fargo and requested that the people of the Fargo Diocese subscribe to that newly established weekly.

Bishop Aloisius (later Cardinal) Muench, the third bishop, an economist and a staunch advocate of social justice, established the Church Expansion Fund and the Priests’ Mutual Aid fund to prudently provide for the future development of the diocese and the needs of the clergy. He began publication of a four-page diocesan monthly newspaper, “Catholic Action News”, in 1939. This became a 10-page monthly in 1980 and the name was changed to “The New Earth”.

In October 1938 Bishop Muench established a diocesan seminarian scholarship fund. During the 74 years since then, monthly contributions have been made for seminarian education. The first diocesan synod was held in 1941 under the direction of Bishop Muench. The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) program was begun with the help of Msgr. (later Bishop) William Mulloy. Bishop Muench introduced the Sisters of Service to the diocese so that they could teach the children of the rural parishes catechism through their correspondence courses. Many European clergy displaced from their own dioceses by the Communist takeovers came to the Fargo Diocese through the efforts of Bishop Muench in his assignment in Germany.

Although he was sent in 1946 on a Papal Mission to Germany after World War II he remained the Bishop of Fargo until he was appointed a Cardinal. In 1947 Bishop Leo F. Dworschak, a priest of the Fargo Diocese, who the year before had been consecrated a bishop for Rapid City, S.D., was appointed an Auxiliary Bishop for Fargo. He directed the diocese as the auxiliary until he was named Bishop of Fargo when Bishop Muench was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1960.

During this time, Carmelite nuns were invited to establish a cloistered convent in the diocese. The Redemptorist Fathers established a Mission House with headquarters in Cooperstown, N.D. The Diocesan Development Program (followed by God’s Gift Appeal) was inaugurated to assure capital expansion and better support for the needs of the diocesan, national and international programs and institutions. In 1950 Shanley High School was built in north Fargo (the new Shanley was built in south Fargo in 2002) as a successor to Sacred Heart Academy, the school the Presentation Sisters founded over 50 years earlier. In 1962 that Academy became a diocesan high school seminary and, in 1966, the new Cardinal Muench Seminary was opened on property in northeast Fargo. This college seminary became a department of North Dakota State University.

In 1966, in response to Vatican II, the Pastoral and Apostolic Council was developed. This introduced religious women as well as laypeople into diocesan management. Msgr. Frank Nestor inaugurated the Cursillo movement and Msgr. Lucian Arrell began and directed a very active retreat program for both laymen and laywomen. His efforts were rewarded by the establishment of a diocesan retreat house in the late 1960s.

The diocese participated in Father Patrick Peyton’s Rosary Crusade. Dorothy Day visited the Fargo Diocese twice. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference flourished in the diocese under the energetic direction of Father Joseph Hylden. A huge detriment to this period of educational and hospital growth was the passage of anti-garb legislation by the North Dakota State legislature. As a result of this new law, religious women had to choose to either abandon their work in the diocese or wear secular garb while functioning. Msgr. Anthony Peschel and the Fargo Diocese were instrumental in the establishment of Health Care Insurance in the state of North Dakota. Msgr. Peschel, along with Cardinal Muench and Bishop Dworschak, were charter members when Blue Cross was formed in the state. Catholic Youth Organizations flourished with students campaigning to attend either local diocesan conventions or national conventions. Father Robert Hovda, a priest of this diocese, promoted the Liturgical Movement locally and nationally.

Early in his administration Bishop Justin Driscoll, the fifth Fargo bishop, relocated the diocesan offices to the remodeled Sacred Heart Academy building on north Broadway, a building which had been partly destroyed by the tornado in 1957. These offices had been moved by Bishop Dworschak from their original location in the bishop’s house at 608 Broadway to the Black building in downtown Fargo. Bishop Driscoll initiated the Emmaus program for priestly renewal. He used his moral right to teach and he spoke without apology on moral issues, especially abortion and pro-life. Although small town Catholic high schools were closing, education continued, especially as the fledgling permanent diaconate program began and active Newman Centers appeared on the campuses of most of the colleges in the diocese. Improved educational opportunities continued to be provided for the migrant workers with clergy, religious women and seminarians providing for education and health needs. Bishop Driscoll promoted education and ecumenism and cooperated well with the CHARIS program at Concordia College in Moorhead and the Fargo-Moorhead Communiversity. He died unexpectedly in 1984 while attending an ecumenical gathering at the University of Mary.

Bishop James S. Sullivan, an auxiliary bishop from Lansing, Mich., became the sixth Bishop of Fargo. The school network in the city of Fargo was revamped. The two Presentation Middle schools, St. Anthony’s and Holy Spirit, became one new school named in honor of Bishop Sullivan. With improved road conditions throughout the state, consolidation of schools became a common occurrence. Demographic population changes and the continuing decline in religious vocations became a definite cause for concern. Smaller parish schools were closed. This was also true with regard to Catholic hospitals and Catholic schools of nursing in rural areas. At one time there were 17 Catholic hospitals located throughout the diocese, now there are eight. The arrival of native clergy from both India and Africa helped to lessen some of the problems associated with the population shifts and parish closings. The centennial of the diocese was celebrated during the entire year of 1989. A history of the diocese, BEYOND RED RIVER, edited by Father Terrence Kardong, OSB, was published.

Msgr. Samuel J. Aquila, rector of the seminary in Denver, was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of the Fargo Diocese in 2001. He became the bishop when Bishop Sullivan retired in 2002. He is an organizer, a builder, and an ardent pro-life advocate. The 100-year-old bishop’s residence at 608 Broadway was completely modernized and all the diocesan offices and functions were brought together at one location in the new Pastoral Center on Bishop’s Boulevard in south Fargo. Completing the work done by his predecessor, Bishop Sullivan, a more thorough grassroots study about parish size and boundaries was undertaken by diocesan administrators, pastors and lay people. As a result of the study parishes in the entire diocese were realigned; many parishes were merged or closed. In 2011, after 49 years of existence, Cardinal Muench Seminary was closed. Over 100 of its graduates have become priests. Bishop Aquila approved establishment of a small chapel near the only abortion center in North Dakota. He also reorganized the Deanery structure within the diocese and placed more importance on the authority of the Deans. Presently there are eight Deaneries; at one time there were as many as 16. He restored the order of the sacraments so that students now receive reconciliation in second grade and confirmation and first Eucharist in third grade.

At one period in the 1990s there were 163 active parishes in the Fargo Diocese. Today there are 132. There are 84 active diocesan clergy, nine priest members of religious communities and eight missionary priests. St. Mary’s Cathedral, its interior remodeled and redecorated numerous times over the past 100 years, remains overlooking Broadway on the southeast corner of Cathedral Square with a new handicapped accessible entrance. The Square itself, located between Sixth and Seventh streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues north, includes the parish rectory, an office building (formerly St. Mary’s grade school), and the bishop’s residence. The Our Lady of Guadalupe Adoration Chapel, for perpetual adoration, was dedicated on Feb. 11, 2013.

Bishop John Shanley:
1889-1909
Bishop James O’Reilly: 1910-1934
Cardinal Aloisius J. Muench: 1935-1960
Bishop Leo F. Dworschak: 1960-1970
Bishop Justin A. Driscoll: 1970-1984
Bishop James S. Sullivan: 1985-2002
Bishop Samuel J. Aquila: 2002-2012
Bishop John T. Folda: 2013-