The Church in the East Bay has long been a diverse and multicultural church, that has, throughout its history, exhibited a dynamism and spirit commensurate to its age. Since the Mission epoch, the Church has accommodated era after era of explosive growth and change. Serendipitously the Diocese of Oakland was erected the same year as the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The optimism and spirit of the council has been part and parcel of the diocese ever since. In keeping with the council's directives, the diocese has tried to observe the "signs of the times," and to serve the East Bay community in bringing about a more just social order. It has striven, not always successfully, to make visible "Christ the Light."
Mission solidifies faith
Despite its mixed legacy, the mission firmly established the faith in the East Bay. In 1836, the mission was closed though it continued to operate as a parish center. In 1840 the first bishop of "Ambas Californias" was appointed, though this was short circuited by the Mexican War of 1846, in which California was transferred to U.S. jurisdiction. In 1850, a US diocese was established, the Diocese of Monterey, with Spaniard Joseph S. Alemany, OP, the first bishop. In 1853, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was created encompassing what was to become the Diocese of Oakland with Alemany serving as the first archbishop.
Over the next 109 years Oakland and the East Bay grew dramatically. As of 1850, Oakland remained sparsely settled; however in 1869 Oakland became the terminus of the newly constructed transcontinental railroad. By 1880, Oakland topped 35,000 residents and the East Bay supported 12 parishes and four missions. Oakland boomed once again after the tragedy of the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as many of the displaced resettled in Oakland. Oakland rose to more than 150,000 by 1910.
Influence of religious
Once again during and after World War II, the East Bay experienced explosive growth. The Catholic Church responded to this growth. Many men and women worked diligently to build the Church in the East Bay, particularly men and women religious who laid the institutional framework of the future diocese. Schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and other institutions of charity were constructed. Indeed, in the pre-welfare era, in many ways the religious established what we now call the social "safety net."
On Jan. 13, 1962, the Diocese of Oakland was created, consisting of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Later that year, the Second Vatican Council convened. The new Diocese of Oakland accepted the changes and spirit of the council with optimism and enthusiasm.
Bishop Floyd L. Begin was appointed the first bishop of Oakland on Feb. 21, 1962. Born in 1902 in Cleveland, Ohio, Bishop Begin was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Cleveland in 1927 and was named auxiliary bishop of Cleveland in 1947.
Though personally conservative, Begin was not a rigid ideologue. He was perhaps best described by his second chancellor, Rev. Brian Joyce, as having a "canonical mind with a pastoral heart." Though trained in canon law, Begin was a good listener with an open mind and open heart. He was an able delegator, who trusted the men he placed in charge of an agency or apostolate. He boldly appointed a diverse cabinet, consisting of young and old, liberal and conservative, showing particular trust in the younger clergy of the diocese. He appointed a series of priests in their early 30s to key diocesan positions, including John S. Cummins as chancellor; Frank Maurovich as editor of The Catholic Voice; Joseph Skillin, his personal secretary; and Michael Lucid, director of CCD. Balancing the youth were several older priests including Msgrs. Nicholas Connolly, his vicar general, John Connolly, officialis and chief financial officer; Pearse Donovan, superintendent of Catholic schools; and John McCracken, director of Catholic Charities. He listened to them all.
As Bishop Cummins reflected in 1992, "Bishop Begin was open to new initiatives, and he gave freedom to try new things, a quality widely appreciated, indeed cherished and guarded carefully to the present."
In the early years of his episcopate, Begin saw his main task as implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He had dutifully attended every session of the council. So close was Begin's identification with the council, that in later years, when a young cleric read a portion of a council document to him, Begin snapped, "Don't quote those documents to me. I wrote them!"
Begin was a strong supporter of the ecumenical movement. Even before the Council opened, Begin sponsored an extraordinary dinner. On Sept. 13, 1962, Begin hosted a gathering of more than 400 Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis and their wives at the Claremont Hotel. Following the dinner, Begin stated simply, "I do not really know why I invited you all here this evening. All I want you to know is that I love you." Begin's profession of love set a positive tone for interfaith relationships that paid dividends years later.
Perhaps the greatest ecumenical endeavor of the era was the founding of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1962, a consortium of Protestant seminaries. Begin was enthusiastic about Catholic participation in the GTU, and warmly endorsed a Dominican plan to associate their seminary, St. Albert's College, with the GTU, which was accomplished in 1964. The Jesuits (1966) and Franciscans (1968) soon joined as well. As Begin put it simply, "This is the work of the Holy Spirit."
In 1962, St. Francis de Sales was named the cathedral parish for the new diocese. Rather than build a new cathedral, Bishop Begin decided to remodel the old church in accord with the new liturgical directives from the council. The remodeled cathedral was blessed on Feb. 4, 1967.
With the cathedral successfully remodeled, Bishop Begin appointed Rev. Donald Osuna to "take charge of the cathedral worship services and create a 'model of Vatican II liturgy.'" Father Osuna engaged John L. McDonnell, a local attorney and gifted musician, to assist him in forming a cathedral choir and in developing the new liturgy. McDonnell and Osuna created an "instrument ensemble: strings, brass, piano," and musicians in lieu of an organ. The ensemble performed songs that ranged from classical to pop, including songs that reflected the ethnic make-up of the parish including spirituals and Spanish hymns, creating what came to be known as the "Oakland Cathedral Sound," which garnered national attention. In October 1971, the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions held its national convention in San Francisco. Its planners told Osuna, "We want to worship with your people, in your space, which all of us agree is the most exciting in the country."
Rev. Gary Tollner celebrated the first all-English Mass in California at the cathedral on Aug. 31, 1964.
The birth of the Diocese of Oakland coincided with the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods of U.S. and Bay Area history. The national trauma ignited by the civil rights movement, deepened by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and sustained by the anti-war movement and student demonstrations, deeply affected the diocese. In the midst of this exploding world, the Vatican Council urged Catholics to engage the world. As Bishop Begin explained the council's vision, "Catholics owe the world the obligation to live in it, with it and for it. The council calls on Catholics to serve all men. The problems of the world are our problems." The diocese quickly became engaged in the struggle for civil rights, support for Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, the right to life and anti-abortion movements, and opposition to US policy in Latin America. Standing out in this regard was Rev. William "Bill" O'Donnell, who was arrested more than 200 times for protests ranging from support of the farmworkers to opposition to nuclear research at the Livermore laboratories.
Bishop Begin died on April 26, 1977. Despite the sorrow at the passing of Bishop Begin, the diocese was delighted to learn that one of its own had been appointed to succeed him, John S. Cummins. Bishop Cummins was ordained a priest in 1952, in 1962, he became the diocese's first Chancellor. In 1971, he left the diocese to become the first executive secretary of the Conference of California Catholic Bishops., before being named in 1974 auxiliary bishop of Sacramento. Three years later, on May 3, 1977, he was appointed the second bishop of Oakland.
Throughout Bishop Cummins' 25 year episcopate, two virtues became his hallmarks: hospitality and consultation.
The Church in Oakland has always been an immigrant church. In the early years, Irish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Mexican and other immigrant groups built the church in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. During World War II and after, the African American community grew significantly. During the 1960s, a dramatic increase in new immigrants came to the diocese primarily from Latin America and Asia. The new immigration brought the total number of Latinos to close to 50 percent of the diocese's total Catholic population. Large numbers of Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese and other immigrants dramatically changed the make-up of the diocese. By 2002, ethnic minorities made up a majority of the diocese.
Bishop Cummins sounded a positive note as to the ethnic change. "We, as a Catholic people particularly, should be characterized as welcoming. We are aware that like so many who came to America, we were treated at least with ambivalence. Many of our parents and grandparents can remember unacceptance." In 1984, the Office of Ethnic Ministries was established; an ethnic pastoral center was established for each ethnic group to assist them in celebrating and maintaining their faith.
In 1992, the diocese began sponsoring an annual multicultural celebration, dubbed the "Chautauqua." On Oct. 11, 1992, the first Chautauqua was held at St. Monica's in Moraga, billed as "A Celebration of Diversity and Reconciliation in the Diocese of Oakland." Since then, the Chautauqua has been held annually in a different parish in the diocese.
Besides hospitality, Cummins greatly prized consultation and dialogue, with men and women religious, clergy, and lay men and women. In 1984 the first Diocesan Pastoral Convention met to establish the priorities of the diocese. A Diocesan Pastoral Council was formed the following year to address the main concerns the convention had surfaced. The process was repeated in 1988; one outcome was "The Ten Essentials of Parish Life," which was to guide parish life in the diocese. In 1990 a strategic planning process and consultation was begun, which produced "Faith in Service to the World" by 1994, to assist the diocese in entering the third millennium.
One particular feature of the Bishop Cummins era was the increasingly high profile of women in the administration of the diocese. In 1979, Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, OP, became the first woman appointed to a major cabinet post; she was named superintendent of Catholic Schools, and in 1994, Sister Barbara Flannery, CSJ, became the first woman to serve as chancellor.
Two extraordinary tragedies hit during Cummins' episcopacy: the Loma Prieta earthquake, which struck on Oct. 17, 1989, and the Oakland firestorm which swept through the Oakland hills on Oct. 20, 1991. Catholic Charities and local parishes went into overdrive to assist the victims of these disasters. One major casualty was the cathedral, which had been significantly damaged by the earthquake. The cost to repair it seemed prohibitive and so St. Francis was demolished. Ten years later plans were begun to construct a new cathedral, but the completion of the new cathedral would be left to Bishop Cummins' successor.
Allen H. Vigneron was named coadjutor bishop of Oakland on Jan. 10, 2003, and became the third bishop of Oakland on Oct. 1, 2003. Bishop Vigneron, born in Michigan, was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1975. He served as president-rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit from 1993-2004. In 1996 he became auxiliary bishop for Detroit.
Bishop Vigneron's brief tenure was marked by two significant achievements: the construction and blessing of the new Cathedral of Christ the Light and continuing to facilitate the healing of the deep hurt caused by the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
Architect Craig Hartman of the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP, was contracted to design the new $172 million cathedral and complex, which was to be located on the shores of Lake Merritt. According to Hartman, he wanted to create a "space of ephemeral lightness" with a "primordial connection to the earth." The new was blessed and dedicated on Sept. 25, 2008, by Bishop Vigneron and Bishop Emeritus Cummins in an elaborate ritual. Bishop Vigneron observed, "The Diocese of Oakland has built this cathedral to testify to this truth, … that Jesus Christ is the light for all peoples, … and that he is found in our midst." The new cathedral complex was to serve the world as well: The Order of Malta Medical Clinic and the Legal Justice Center were established on the cathedral grounds to serve the poor and disadvantaged in our community and to assist the struggle for social justice.
More painful was the hard work necessary to reconcile those who had suffered from the abuse of priests. Bishop Vigneron worked diligently in this regard, hosting a series of apology ceremonies, the first occurring in St. Ignatius of Antioch parish in 2004. A rigorous diocesan policy for the protection of children was established. In 2008, a Healing Garden for the survivors of clergy sexual abuse was dedicated outside the cathedral with a plaque reading, "We remember and we affirm, never again."
Over the years the Oakland diocese has paid about $60 million to settlement lawsuits filed against it for sexual misconduct of minors by priests. It also maintains a Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse public outreach campaign to help survivors connect with one another and provide peer support.
On Jan. 5, 2009 Bishop Vigneron was called back to Detroit to become its new archbishop. On March 23, 2009, Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone was named the fourth bishop of Oakland. Bishop Cordileone, a San Diego native, was ordained for the Diocese of San Diego in 1982. A canon lawyer, he served in Rome as an assistant at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura before being named auxiliary bishop for San Diego in 2002. In his brief time here, Bishop Cordileone has distinguished himself locally and nationally for his defense of marriage, his advocacy of the right to life and an end to capital punishment and his defense of religious liberty. He has committed himself locally and is visiting a parish every month.
As we reflect on out 50 years it is good to consider the words of Blessed John Paul II, "To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future." In reflecting on our past, we recommit ourselves to the task that lies before us that our forebears have thus far so nobly advanced: to proclaim the Gospel of Our Lord in deed and word in a complex and changing world.
(Deacon Jeffrey M. Burns is assigned to St. Patrick Parish, Oakland, and is the archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He and retired Oakland Diocese Archivist Mary Carmen Batiza wrote "We are the Church: a History of the Diocese of Oakland," published for the 40th anniversary in 2001.)
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