November 6, 1975 was the day of my installation as Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee in the Civic Center in Pensacola (Sacred Heart Cathedral was too small for the ceremony) on November 6 and the following day, November 7, I was installed in Saint Thomas More Co-Cathedral in Tallahassee.
Northwest Florida, “The Panhandle,” is rich in history. Pensacola was settled in 1559, 48 years before Jamestown, making it the first city in the United States. Saint Augustine in Florida (founded in 1565) rightfully claims to be the oldest city in the United States in continuous existence since Pensacola was destroyed by a hurricane and not rebuilt for several years. Up until the creation of the Diocese of P-T on November 6 the counties west of the Apalachicola River were part of the Diocese of Mobile and those East of the River were part of the Diocese of Saint Augustine. The culture of the Western part was that of Mobile/New Orleans and the Eastern part was “Bible Belt Georgia.” There were only 25,000 Catholics in the new Diocese, and most of them were in the Western part.
I moved into an abandoned rectory (St. Stephen Church) and made it both my residence and the Chancery.
I saw my challenge as the first Bishop was to undertake the evangelization of all the people of the Diocese. The Diocese could not afford a newspaper so I took advantage of the existence of about a dozen local weekly newspapers in the Diocese. Every Saturday the Diocese took over a full page in each newspaper and filled it with news about the Diocese, the Church in the U.S. and the Church Universal along with sacred scripture and its interpretation and my homilies. The effort proved successful. One day as I was driving from Tallahassee to Pensacola I stopped in Bonifay, Florida for gasoline. Bonifay was notorius as a center of K.K.K. activity. When a priest tried to celebrate Mass there in a dance studio owned by a Catholic woman, the K.K.K. burned the studio down. As the gas station attendant washed the windshield of my car he kept his eyes fixed on me. When he came to collect for the gasoline he asked, “Are you that preacher who has a full page in our newspaper every Saturday?” I said, “I am.” He said, “I want you to know how much I enjoy reading it each week.” I was thrilled!
We had no money with which to start the Diocese. Cardinal Cody, President of the Extension Society, gave me $25,000 to purchase a rectory. Since I had a bedroom in the old St. Stephen Rectory I decided that I needed a place to stay in Tallahassee, the Co-Cathedral of Saint Thomas More was also the Student Center for Florida State University and I could have an office there I could not live there. I purchased a home ten miles East of Tallahassee in a beautiful wooded area (Tallahassee is famous for its oak trees with Spanish Moss profusely hanging down) that had been built by a retied Navy Captain who enjoyed swimming laps in a pool so he built a lap-pool at the house. It proved very helpful in enabling me to get much needed exercise.
The house in Tallahassee had a large garden and a very large dog-run. I planted a vegetable garden every year and I raised chickens, ducks, pheasants and guinea fowl. A large female great horned owl that nested nearby started killing my poultry one by one every night and so I had to cover the pen with chicken wire to save them. I had a few goats. One nanny refused to nurse her male kid and so I had to take the kid to the office at Saint Thomas More each day and several times a day I would give it a bottle of milk. I successfully raised the kid, had him scent glands removed and gave him to one of the altar-boys at the Co-Cathedral.
The Diocese was dominated by the military. In addition to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the diocese contained three very large U.S. Air Force Bases. The pastoral challenge of quick marriage followed by divorce common to military and naval personnel prompted me to ask Cardinal Krol for a canonist to be my Judicial Vicar and to establish the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal. It had its work cut out for it. Years later when I made my Ad Limina visit to Pope John Paul he asked me why my report showed so many marriage annulments. I explained, to his satisfaction, the unique military nature of the population of the Diocese.
Because I had slowly been acquiring a national reputation for being a socially progressive/theologically conservative Bishop I began to attract vocations to the priesthood from within the Diocese as well as from outside. The Diocese started with six seminarians and as these seminarians told other seminarians about their new bishop and the new diocese other seminarians wanted to ‘get in on the exciting action.’ Soon the Diocese had twenty-six seminarians. Part of the explanation for the movement to the Diocese of P-T was the fact that in many northern dioceses it took fifteen or twenty years before a priest could expect to become a pastor while in the south with the rapidly expanding general population after the Second World War a priest could expect to become a pastor in three to five years.
Shortly after I had been ordained a bishop Bishop Robert Tracy, Bishop of Baton Rouge who was also the National Episcopal Promoter of the Apostleship of the Sea, invited me to become the Assistant Promoter. I accepted. Then, within a few months Bishop Tracy was forced into early retirement by the Holy See because of a drinking problem and I became the Promoter. The Apostleship of the Sea was not under the jurisdiction of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops but was rather directly under the Pontifical Commission for Migration and Tourism in Rome. I was responsible for fostering the pastoral care of seafaring people in the United States for seventeen years, until the N.C.C.B. brought the Apostleship of the Sea under its jurisdiction whereupon I resigned rather than have to deal with the bureaucracy of the N.C.C.B.
At the same time the President of the N.C.C.B. appointed me Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration and Tourism and so now I had responsibility for overseeing the work of the large Migration and Refugee Services Department of the N.C.C.B. Since it was an Ad Hoc Committee it was not subject to the three-year rule for its chairmen and so I remained in that position for fourteen years.
In 1972 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v George that the imposition of the death penalty as a mandatory punishment in murder cases was unconstitutional; there resulted a four year moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in the United States until the Court in Gregg v George again allowed it. But because of ongoing litigation there was not another involuntary execution in the United States for murder until 1979.
In 1976 John Spenkelink was accused of murdering Joseph Szymankiewicz in Tallahassee. There was not much doubt that he had committed the murder, but there was doubt that he was guillty of a First Degree Murder. He was tried in Tallahasse and convicted of First Degree murder and Governor Reuben Askew signed his death warrant. Because of appeals he was not executed for three years and then Governor Bob Graham in 1979 signed a second death warrant. Because of the doubt about whether the murder was a First or Second degree murder, and because there had been no executions for murder in the United States since 1972’s Furman v Georgia, pressure began to build nationally for Governor Graham to commute Spenkelink’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. I issued a pastoral Letter suggesting that since our system of justice was so flawed that our courts should not inflict the death penalty. My letter was one of the first pastoral letter of a Catholic bishop to draw national attention to the moral aspects of our practice of executing murderers In spite of the efforts of many people, the State of Florida executed John Spenkelink on May 25, 1979. At the next meeting of the NCCB, I, along with Archbishop John May, made a strong appeal to the bishops to make a statement against capital punishment and we succeeded in having the Conference make that statement, its first ever statement on the death penalty.
My Vicar General was Monsignor William Kerr. He was also Rector of Saint Thomas More Co-Cathedral and Director of the Student Center for Florida State University. He had a great interest in the history of the Church in North Florida and he researched the Franciscan missions that had been located in the Tallahassee area in the 16th and 17th Centuries. I have always been a history buff and so, encouraged by Monsignor Kerr, I learned a lot about the successful Spanish missionary activity in North Florida. That missionary activity spanned over 100 years and through the heroic activity of the Franciscan missionaries hundreds of thousands of native Americans were converted. Of course the process of converting the natives was accompanied by bloodshed on both sides and many Catholic converts were martyred by hostile natives along with Franciscan friars. But what appalled me most in studying the history was the extermination of the Catholic missions by English soldiers from South Carolina. The hatred of Catholic in England spread to its colonies to the New World and that hatred combined with the need of the plantation owners in South Carolina for native American slaves to work their plantations, combined with the fear of England that Spain’s colonies in the Southeast of America was imperiling its own colonies was the impetus for the massacre of the inhabitants of the Apalachee nation in North Florida In 1704 the former Governor of the English colony in the Carolinas, James Moore, determined to end Spanish colonies in North Florida. He succeeded all too well and the number of martyrs was too great to count.
Monsignor Kerr proposed that the Diocese build a shrine church near Tallahassee to memorialize those Florida martyrs. I agreed and purchased land that had been determined to have been the site of one of the main Apalachee towns. Since then interest has grown and the process for the beatification of the Florida martyrs is progressing well. I continue to support the cause.