Our 50 Year History

The Historical Development of The Diocese of Fresno: 1967-2016

by Scott Alston, Diocesan Archivist

What is now the Diocese of Fresno was a sparsely populated desert and forestland that was but one small portion of the vast Diocese of Guadalajara (established in 1770) which was then comprised of some two-thirds of the total area of Mexico plus what became California. In 1840, the large diocese was reconfigured and divided and the diocese of the “Two Californias” (Baja and California) was created and administered by the first Bishop, Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno, O.F.M. Another division occurred in 1859 when the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles was created. It was comprised only of the southern half of California. Presiding Bishop Thaddeus Amat y Brusi, C.M., soon relocated the seat of the See from Monterey to Los Angeles. 1922 brought yet another change when the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles was divided and the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno erected. The new diocese included the counties of Mariposa, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern, Inyo, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz. Most Rev. John B. McGinley was the first bishop of the new diocese and he served until his resignation in 1932 due to ill health. Bishop McGinley attended the canonization of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus in Rome in 1924 and immediately petitioned the Vatican to designate the new saint as the Patroness of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. This request was granted and the diocese has the distinction of being the first diocese in the world so dedicated. Bishop Philip Scher followed Bishop MacGinley and Bishop Aloysius J. Willinger, C.Ss. R., followed next in 1946. Bishop Willinger retired in October 1967 shortly before the Diocese of Fresno was formed from that of Monterey-Fresno on December 15, 1967.

Part One

In the beginning: Visalia’s Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary has the distinction of being the earliest church in the Diocese where Mass has been consistently celebrated since its inception. First, by pioneer priest Rev. Daniel Francis Dade, who settled in a Visalia stable in 1861 where he had living quarters, an elementary school and his church. It should be noted here that the earliest  records of Masses being held in Visalia are those celebrated over a period of three weeks in 1859 by visiting Mission San Juan Bautista’s Pastor Rev. Francisco Mora who later became Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles (1878-1896). The historical record states that Father Mora tried to establish a church in Visalia while he was there but the needed support for it was not forthcoming, likely due to too few Catholics in the area at the time. Visalia was in the Diocese of Monterey until 1878 when the boundaries of the Diocese were realigned and the territory renamed the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, which it remained as so until 1922 when the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno was formed. We will revisit this change later on.

The earliest Masses observed in the Diocese are believed to be those said by Franciscan Reverend Francisco Tomas Hermene-Gildo Garces as he traveled through what is now Kern and Tulare Counties in 1776. Father Garces was a Spanish born missionary who ministered to the indigenous Native Americans and members of the military company with which he traveled in this his last of four entradas. He noted in his diary that he had covered over 3,600 miles in an eleven month period while reaching members of the varied tribes in both California and Arizona. Father Garces was martyred by rebellious Indians in August 1779 at the Pueblo de la Conception on the Colorado River while trying to negotiate peace during an uprising. Bakersfield’s Garces High School is named for Father Garces.

Part two

Mariposa and Hornitos are noted as being the earliest locales in the Diocese where irregularly scheduled Masses were held for the Catholic settlers and miners. Temporary ‘churches’ of record in these two gold country settlements of the 1850s were in homes, tents, or ramshackle buildings. Father A. Arnault was the first priest assigned to this part of California to the town of Sonora and is believed to have visited and conferred sacraments in the Mariposa/ Hornitos area as early as 1849. He was followed in Sonora by Reverends Henry Alric, Francis Sadoc Vilarrasa, John Molinier, Cornelius Delahunty, Robert Maurice, Peter Gray and James Croke. All of whom are thought to have visited periodically Catholics in Mariposa, Hornitos and other settlements now in our Diocese.

The first priest assigned to Mariposa as pastor (1857-1860) was Most Reverend Louis Lootens, D.D., although he had no building dedicated as a church and his residence was in Sonora. He was concurrently assigned as pastor for Hornitos and French Bar (La Grange) and was further responsible for the missions of Coulterville, Hornitos, Bear Valley, Mt. Bullion as well as Mariposa. Fr. Lootens was followed by Rev. Louis A. Auger, appointed pastor of “Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties” in 1860, at which time he also established his residence in Sonora.

A permanent church was finally erected in Mariposa in the winter of 1862/1863. The church was dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany on January 18, 1863. The history of Saint Joseph’s is a little uncertain concerning some years following its dedication as there was not always a priest in residence and Mass was not consistently observed. Much of the inconsistency can be attributed to the fact that the Pastor of the two counties (Mariposa and Tuolumne) had to serve multiple settlements each week and in the winter travel could be much impaired by extreme weather conditions making passage to varied locations impossible. Agua Faria, Angel’s Camp, Mariposa, Coulterville, Hornitos, Sonora, Columbia, Princeton, La Grange and Bear Valley were some, but not all of the communities served by the Sonora priests in the 1860s and even later.

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The early Diocese parishes of The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1861) (now The Good Shepherd Catholic Parish) in Visalia and of Saint Joseph (1862) in Mariposa, were followed by the erection of the parishes of Merced’s Saint Patrick and Our Lady of Mercy (1873), Saint Francis of Assisi in Bakersfield (1881), Saint Joachim in Madera (1881), Saint John the Baptist in Fresno (1882), Saint Brigid in Hanford (1886), Saint Malachy in Tehachapi (1887), and Saint Anne (1896) in Porterville. By the close of the century there were nine Fresno Diocese parishes serving Catholic communities in the then Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles.

Fresno County’s village of Millerton was a mission of Visalia before the construction of the first church building in Fresno in 1882. During the early mission years of 1863 to 1872, Visalia’s Father Dade offered Mass at the Millerton Courthouse. According to a local newspaper of the day, these Masses were widely publicized, popular and attended by many non-Catholics. Father Dade retired to a northern California monastery in 1872 and the site of the Masses was relocated to the fast growing railroad community of Fresno. This is the year that Father Cornelius Scannell, then pastor of Visalia, began saying Mass and conducting sacraments in homes of local Fresno Catholics. Fundraising efforts for a church in Fresno were begun in 1878 and bolstered by a visit from the Bishop of the MontereyLos Angeles, Most Reverend Francisco Mora.

At this time, there was constructed in Fresno the first Civic Auditorium named Magnolia Hall and that is the location of the series of Masses offered by the Bishop. Both the railroad and the Bishop aided in the church fundraising by donating several contiguous building sites near M and Fresno Streets for the eagerly anticipated brick church building. By 1879, Visalia’s Father Valentin Aguilera was celebrating Mass in Magnolia Hall and would be named the first pastor of the Saint John the Baptist parish in 1882. Father Aguilera was not yet a fixture in the Fresno community, but he did return often enough to celebrate Mass (Metropolitan Hall) and to have met numerous people with whom it is said he became well known among both Catholic and non-Catholics.

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As the 20th century began, our diocese was still a part of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles under the leadership of Bishop George Montgomery (1896-1903). Bishop Montgomery was the first American-born Bishop of the diocese, the previous four being from Mexico or Spain. Bishop Montgomery was followed by Bishop Thomas J. Conaty (1903-1915) and then by Bishop John J. Cantwell (1917-1947) who presided over the canonical establishment of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno on December 3, 1922, the ceremonies being held in Fresno’s Saint John the Baptist Cathedral.

After 1896, when Saint Anne’s in Porterville was erected, there was a nineyear interval during which no new churches were built. Finally, in 1905 Saint Aloysius in Tulare and Saint Joseph in Los Banos were constructed and consecrated. These two parishes were followed by Saint Anthony of Padua in Reedley (1906), Saint Joseph in Bakersfield (1907), Saint Paul the Apostle in Coalinga (1907), Saint Alphonsus in Fresno (1908), Saint Anthony in Atwater (1909), Saint Peter the Apostle in Lemoore (1912), Saint Joseph in Selma (1913), Saint Columba in Chowchilla (1918), Saint Mary in Taft (1918), Santa Rosa in Lone Pine (1919), Shrine of Our Lady of Miracles in Gustine (1919), Saint John the Evangelist in Wasco (1919), The Shrine of Saint Thérèse (originally Our Lady of Victory) in Fresno (1919), Saint Mary of the Miraculous Medal in Delano (1920), and Saint Mary/Saint Katherine in Sanger/Del Rey (1922).

The Diocese of Monterey and Fresno was established by Vatican decree on June 1, 1922 and as noted earlier, the ceremonies of canonical erection were held in December 1922 at what is now the cathedral. Initially, the diocese had no appointed bishop leaving Archbishop Cantwell as Administrator until July 31, 1924 at which time Bishop John B. MacGinley (formerly bishop of Nueva Caceres in the Philippines) was installed by Archbishop Cantwell as the first bishop of the Monterey-Fresno diocese. The new diocese consisted of the twelve California Counties of Fresno, Mariposa, Merced, Tulare, Kings, Kern, Madera, Inyo, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz. It encompassed 43,714 square miles (extending from the Pacific Ocean on the west to the Nevada border on the east). There were approximately 75,000 Catholics registered in the forty-seven parishes. Seventy-two secular/order priests served the parishes in addition to twenty-nine missions and twenty-nine stations. There were fifteen religious orders of men and women represented in the diocese, being in charge of the seventeen grade schools, seven high schools, a hospital, an orphanage, retreat centers and more. There were 3,892 students in the twentyfour schools.

The next installment will begin with how the diocese of Monterey-Fresno became the first diocese in the world dedicated to Carmelite Saint Thérèse of the Child of Jesus, our Patroness, and Fresno’s Our Lady of Victory being renamed in her honor. It is partly a story of Bishop MacGinley’s quick thinking

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Bishop MacGinley made his Ad Limina visit to Rome in 1925 and while there he attended the canonization of Saint Thérèse of the Child of Jesus (The Little Flower). Before leaving Rome he very quickly petitioned the Vatican to designate the new saint as the patroness of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. The bishop’s request was granted and the name of Our Lady of Victory church on Wishon in the Tower District of Fresno was changed after the bishop’s return to Fresno to that of The Shrine of Saint Thérèse (The Little Flower) with the understanding that a new Fresno church would be given the Our Lady of Victory name. This was accomplished in 1950 with the erection of the present day Our Lady of Victory parish. Bishop MacGinley’s fast action resulted in our Shrine of Saint Thérèse being the first so designated in the world. Prior to this event, the Irish Saint Columba was installed as the diocese’s Secondary Patron when Chowchilla’s Saint Columba church was erected in 1919. In 1952, Saint Thérèse church in Shafter was named after this famous saint. Another high point of the Bishop’s time in the diocese was the establishment of the Saint Thérèse Chapel car in 1929 under the guidance and service of Reverend Kulleck, C.Ss.R.. The chapel car served the diocese migrant camps and rural areas until Father Kulleck’s reassignment in 1938, at which time he turned the car over to the diocese. Bishop MacGinley also shepherded the beginning of the diocese weekly newspaper The Central California Register. The first issue was published on June 16, 1929.

Bishop MacGinley’s ill health was not aided by the diocese’s perpetual shortfall budget problems during the early years of the Great Depression and he eventually resigned in 1932, retiring to Ireland where he lived under the care of Irish Sisters for the next 37 years, eventually becoming the world’s oldest living Catholic bishop shortly before his death in 1969. The diocese Vicar General, the Most Reverend Philip G. Scher who held his office while residing in Monterey as the pastor of the San Carlos Church, was appointed the Diocese Administrator upon Bishop MacGinley’s resignation. Rev. Msgr. Scher was installed as the second bishop of the diocese on April 23, 1933, subsequently leading the diocese out of the financial difficulties of the depression. During Bishop Scher’s years as prelate he was able to finance a summer camp for Catholic youth at nearby Huntington Lake. Camp Santa Teresita was supervised by Reverend Harry A. Clinch who opened the camp in 1937. Moving the facilities to a lower elevation became a reality in 1939 when the camp was relocated to Bass Lake where it functioned until being closed in 1969. At the conclusion of Bishop Scher’s tenure, the diocese had expanded to 65 parishes with 99 secular/order priests serving the parishes and 45 missions and 25 stations. In 1946 the estimated Catholic population of the diocese was 163,780. Bishop Scher presided over the erection of 9 parishes during the years of his office. The new parishes were Saint Jude Thaddeus in Livingston (1937), Our Lady of Lourdes in Corcoran (1938), Saint Thomas the Apostle in Arvin (1939) Saint Genevieve in Fresno (1941), Saint Mary in Buttonwillow (1941), Saint Joseph in Avenal (1941), Sacred Heart in Fresno (1942), Sacred Heart in Merced (1945), and Saint John the Evangelist in Tipton (1945). Bishop Scher suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1946 and died January 3, 1953 at Saint Agnes Hospital where he had resided since his stroke. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph T. McGucken of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles served as Diocese Administrator until the arrival from Ponce, Puerto Rico of reassigned Bishop Aloysius J. Willinger, C.Ss.R. who was appointed by the Vatican as Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno with right of succession upon the death of Bishop Scher. (See Getting to Know Your Dio

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Bishop Willinger held office in the diocese from 1946 to 1967, resigning on October 25th, 1967. During his 21 years as prelate the following 35 parishes were erected: Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bishop (1947), Holy Rosary in Hilmar (1948), Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bakersfield (1948), San Clemente in Bakersfield (1948), Saint Catherine of Siena in Dinuba (1948), Our Lady of Victory in Fresno (1950), Holy Family in Kingsburg (1950), Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hanford (1950), Sacred Heart in Exeter (1950), Saint Joseph in Firebaugh (1950), Christ the King in Bakersfield (1952), Saint Anthony of Claret (1952), Saint Therese in Shafter (1952), Saint Mary in Cutler (1953), Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mendota (1953), Sacred Heart in Bakersfield (1953), Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Laton (1953), Saint Patrick in Kerman (1953), Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Fresno (1955), Saint Helen in Fresno (1955), Our Lady of Guadalupe in Delano (1957), Saint Mary of the Desert in Rosamond (1957), Saint Frances Cabrini in Huron (1961), Saint Augustine in Lamont (1962), Our Lady of the Snows in Yosemite National Park (1963), Saint Frances Cabrini in Woodlake (1963), Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center in Fresno (1964), Our Lady of Sorrows in Parlier (1965), Saint Ann in Ridgecrest (1965), Saint Anthony of Padua in Fresno (1965), Saint Lucy in Fowler (1965), Sacred Heart in Planada (1966), Saint Elizabeth in McFarland (1966), Saint Mary Queen of the Apostles in Fresno (1967), and Saint Rita in Tulare (1967).

The Chapel Car outreach was restarted in 1947 at Fresno’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel when Reverend Arthur Liebrentz, O.F.M., offered to provide the mobile ministry throughout the rural areas of the diocese. The mobile chapel trailer was named the Saint Francis Mobile Chapel and continued to function throughout the twelve counties in its active ministry until Father Liebrentz was reassigned to Los Angeles in 1968. There is no record of what became of the mobile chapels.

Bishop Willinger was able to carry out Bishop Scher’s plan to start a junior seminary on the grounds of Fresno’s San Joaquin Memorial High School in 1948. It was inaugurated as Ryan Preparatory College (also a high school) being named after the beneficiary who provided the construction seed money. The first fall semester in 1948 began with a freshman class of four young men. The college was staffed by diocese priests until the Society of Jesus order agreed to operate the school in 1953 and they did so until the school closed in 1970.

Monsignor Harry A. Clinch was consecrated as an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno on February 27, 1957, and served the diocese until he was installed as the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Monterey on December 14, 1967. At the time of Bishop Willinger’s retirement in 1967, there were 114 parishes, 54 missions and 24 stations in the Monterey-Fresno diocese being served by 272 priests and 679 sisters and brothers. The diocese Catholic population in 1967 was estimated at 442,588.

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Auxilliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Most Reverend Timothy Manning was appointed Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Fresno effective October 24, 1967 and installed by the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, on December 15, 1967 in a ceremony held at the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral in Fresno. December 15, 1967 is the official effective date for the establishment of the Diocese of Fresno, which includes the eight counties of Merced, Madera, Mariposa, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern and Inyo. The area of the new diocese remains large at 36,072 square miles and while no longer reaching the Pacific Ocean (the coastal foothills form the western boundary) it remains extending to the Nevada State line. Bishop Manning served in office for two years leaving Fresno in 1969 to become the Archbishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles. In 1973 he was elevated to Cardinal. During his brief term of office there were three parishes erected, namely Saint Jude Thaddeus in Earlimart (1968), Saint Philip the Apostle in Bakersfield (1968), and Saint Jude in Wofford Heights (1969). At the time of Bishop Manning’s departure from the diocese there were 262,439 Catholics in the diocese being served by 143 priests, 21 brothers, and 328 sisters in 84 parishes, 39 missions, 21 stations and four high schools, 27 elementary schools, and 5 hospitals. The Diocese of Stockton lost its bishop when Most Reverend Hugh A. Donohoe, D.D., Ph.D. was transferred and installed as the second bishop of the Diocese of Fresno on August 28, 1969. During his term as prelate of the diocese he participated in the consecration of Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno, the Most Reverend Roger Mahony in 1975. Bishop Mahony later served as the bishop of Stockton and then as Archbishop of Los Angeles, becoming His Eminence Roger Cardinal Mahony in 1991. Bishop Donohoe and Bishop Mahony were much involved in the farm labor movement of the 1970s and present when farmers and labor union officers signed agreements that helped end a contentious historical period of our Central Valley. One parish was erected during Bishop Donohoe’s years in office, Saint Isidore the Farmer in Orange Cove (1978). Bishop Donohoe resigned from his office in 1980 and was followed by Bishop Joseph J. Madera, M.Sp.S., consecrated on March 4, 1980, succeeding to the See on July 1, 1980. When Bishop Madera assumed office there were 141 priests, 16 brothers, 177 sisters serving 85 parishes, 42 missions, 21 stations, 2 high schools, 25 elementary schools and 4 hospitals. The Catholic population was determined to stand at 307,000. Bishop Madera began his tenure by conducting a meticulous and sometimes lengthy visit to all 85 parishes and he did this in the first year of his reign. He was interested in both the finances and demographics and wanted to meet with as many of the parish lay staff and volunteers as possible. The much diminished Central California Register printed its last issue on November 5, 1989. There was no diocese newspaper until the letter-size format Adelante was issued in April, 1990. Bishop Madera was reassigned to the Archdiocese for Military Services effective May 28, 1991. At the time he left the diocese there were 86 parishes (Fresno’s Holy Spirit added in 1981), 39 missions, 4 hospitals, 2 high schools, and 23 elementary schools being served by 128 priests, 8 brothers, and 152 sisters. The Catholic population for the eight counties was estimated as being 344,416.

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