Discover the Diocese of Little Rock

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Little Rock (LatinDioecesis Petriculana) is a Roman Catholic diocese in Arkansas. It was founded on November 28, 1843.


A dozen Catholic priests accompanied Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto down the Mississippi River in 1541 to a Quapaw Indian village near present-day Helena-West Helena, where they lifted a cross and sang praise to God. This marked the first Christian ceremony within the future boundaries of Arkansas.

In 1682, French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed the territory for a Catholic king, Louis XIV of France. A La Salle lieutenant, Italian-born Henri de Tonti, established Arkansas Post at the mouth of the Arkansas River but scrapped plans for a Jesuit chapel and mission house after battles with the Indians.

Father Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit priest, celebrated the first Catholic Mass in a Quapaw village on November 1, 1700. Bernard de la Harpe took an exploratory trip up the Arkansas River in search of gold and silver in 1722, and rumors of wealth brought French and German emigrants a year later. The land swung back and forth between French and Spanish rule as ecclesiastical progress waxed and waned.

After the United States acquired the Arkansas territory in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, newcomers arrived from Europe, Africa and older Southern states. Most were Protestant. Father Ennemond Dupuy, who built the first Catholic Church near present-day Pine Bluff in 1834, was the only priest living in Arkansas upon statehood in 1836. In 1838, the Sisters of Loretto opened the first Catholic school along the Arkansas River, downstream from Pine Bluff. Five years later, Rome turned its eye to Arkansas.

Pope Gregory XVI established the Diocese of Little Rock on November 28, 1843. His appointed bishop, Andrew J. Byrne, was consecrated March 10, 1844, in New York and rode into Little Rock on horseback June 4. The Irish-born bishop found a scattered Catholic population of possibly 700.

The first Cathedral of St. Andrew, at 2nd and Center streets in Little Rock, was consecrated in November 1846.

Bishop Byrne established the College of St. Andrew in Fort Smith in 1849 and envisioned a colony of Irish immigrants in the west Arkansas city, even traveling to his home country to recruit Catholic families. Though that dream was never realized, the bishop persuaded an Irish religious institute, the Sisters of Mercy, to come to Little Rock, where they founded Mount St. Mary Academy in 1851.

The bishop battled a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment fueled by the Know Nothings, a quasi-political party. The church in Helena was burned in 1854. As the country edged closer to Civil War, soldiers occupied diocesan property in Fort Smith. Bishop Byrne died June 10, 1862, in Helena. Arkansas remained without a bishop for nearly five years.

Edward M. Fitzgerald, another Irishman, came to Arkansas by steamboat after his consecration as the second bishop of Little Rock on February 3, 1867, in Columbus, Ohio. At age 33, the nation’s youngest prelate rebuilt churches and mission stations damaged by the Civil War.

While in Rome for the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, Bishop Fitzgerald publicly opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility, which states the pope is always correct when he speaks ex cathedra on church doctrine. The young bishop explained that to vote otherwise would have hampered evangelization efforts in Arkansas, where there were fewer than 2,000 Catholics.

Bishops and Administrators of the Diocese

Bishop Byrne (1843-1862)

Andrew Byrne arrived in Little Rock on June 4, 1844, as the first bishop assigned to the frontier state of Arkansas. Pope Gregory XVI had established the Diocese of Little Rock on November 28, 1843. Two months earlier, then-Father Byrne, pastor of St. Andrew Church in New York, had been told of his appointment to shepherd the new Arkansas See, which included for a time the Indian Territory west of Fort Smith.

The native of Navan, Ireland, brought two New York priests with him to Arkansas. They encountered a largely undeveloped land most recently served by Lazarist missionaries and the Sisters of Loretto. This was more than 300 years after the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, erected a cross west of the Mississippi River near present-day Helena-West Helena.

Bishop Byrne cut an imposing figure and was blessed with a rich, powerful voice. He worked quickly to establish parishes at Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Arkansas Post and New Gascony in his first year. He ordained his first diocesan priest at St. Ambrose Church, Arkansas Post, in 1845 and dedicated the first Cathedral of St. Andrew the next year at Seventh and Center streets in Little Rock.

The bishop introduced the Sisters of Mercy to the diocese in 1851. Also that year, he opened a college for boys in Fort Smith, which at the time served as an edge-of-the frontier supply depot for the U.S. military. The sisters occupied a convent in Fort Smith, where they also operated the first of three parochial schools in the state. The other two opened later in Little Rock and Helena.

A countryside beset by sickness, slavery, lawlessness, and waves of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment — best personified by the Know Nothings — combined to defeat Bishop Byrne’s larger purposes. He had hoped to settle an Irish colony in Fort Smith but a pilgrimage of 75 families whom the bishop recruited in 1849 was plagued from the start by a difficult ocean voyage, cholera and, ultimately, general disenchantment with their new surroundings upon arriving in Arkansas. Some went to St. Louis, some to Little Rock and some completed the trek to Fort Smith. The bishop eventually abandoned the colonization plan.

Other difficulties arose. A forest fire destroyed the cypress lumber gathered for construction of a permanent college building in Fort Smith in 1853. A blaze of more-suspicious origin destroyed the Catholic Church in Helena in 1854, as the Know Nothings’ influence strengthened. A Civil War was coming and the bishop realized the diocesan property in Fort Smith was destined for use as soldiers’ camps.

Bishop Byrne died June 10, 1862, in Helena and was buried in the Sisters’ garden. He left a diocese of maybe 1,000 Catholics served by nine priests. Arkansas would be without a bishop for nearly five years. In 1881, Bishop Byrne’s remains were taken to Little Rock and placed in a crypt under the sanctuary of the newly dedicated Cathedral of St. Andrew at Seventh and Louisiana.

Bishop Fitzgerald (1866-1907)

The cornerstone for the Cathedral of St. Andrew was set July 7, 1878, at Seventh and Louisiana in Little Rock. An English gothic structure arose as the first building constructed of Arkansas granite, hauled in from the Fourche Mountains. The Cathedral was consecrated on the first Sunday of Advent in November 1881.

In 1884, Bishop Edward Fitzgerald attended the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore, where he heard the call for U.S. bishops to build a Catholic school in every parish. This proved a daunting task for a poor rural diocese, yet Bishop Fitzgerald, at his Silver Jubilee in 1892, could point to 31 schools and 58 churches either built or under construction. The Catholic population approached 10,000, with 32 priests.

Much progress owed to the bishop’s business acumen. He worked with the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad Company to award land to settlers from Germany, Italy, Poland and Switzerland. The railroad donated 640 acres (2.6 km2) in Logan County to the Benedictine fathers who built St. Benedict’s Priory, now Subiaco Abbey.

Religious institutes opened four hospitals around the turn of the century. In 1888, the Sisters of Charity founded Charity Hospital (now St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center) in Little Rock and the Sisters of Mercy opened St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hot Springs. The Olivetan Benedictine Sisters established St. Bernard’s Hospital in Jonesboro in 1900, amid a yellow fever epidemic. In 1905, the Sisters of Mercy named their new Fort Smith hospital St. Edward’s to honor Bishop Fitzgerald, who lay paralyzed by a stroke. The bishop died February 21, 1907, in Hot Springs.

Bishop Morris (1907-1946)

The third bishop of Little Rock, John Baptist Morris of Tennessee, had been appointed diocesan coadjutor in 1906 and took office immediately upon the death of Bishop Fitzgerald. He continued mission work among black Arkansans, establishing black Catholic parishes in Little Rock, North Little Rock, El Dorado, Fort Smith, Helena, Hot Springs and Lake Village.

Bishop Morris extended diocesan support to the discarded and disadvantaged. He founded St. Joseph’s Orphanage near North Little Rock, entrusting the children to Benedictine sisters; the Morris School for Boys near present-day Searcy, under the tutelage of Franciscan brothers; and St. Michael’s in Hot Springs, a school for wayward girls run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge.

What would become St. John Home Missions Seminary opened in 1911 as a wing of the Little Rock College for Boys. In its first 12 years, the seminary trained 45 priests, including 38 for its home diocese. This led to a system of assigning newly ordained priests as assistant pastors of established parishes, which brought in mission stations as satellite churches.

Catholic High School for Boys opened in 1930 on the grounds of Little Rock College, which had closed the year before. By 1940, more than 33,000 Catholics attended 125 churches in Arkansas. The state’s 141 priests included 59 native-born.

Albert L. Fletcher, was appointed auxiliary bishop in 1940. Bishop Morris died October 22, 1946, in Little Rock.

Bishop Fletcher (1947-1972)

The first Arkansan raised to the Catholic Church hierarchy, Albert Lewis Fletcher became the fourth bishop of Little Rock on February 11, 1947. His quarter century of service spanned canonical and social change that shook the Church and the world.

The civil rights movement led to the closing of most black Catholic churches in Arkansas over a 12-year period, beginning in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools. After the Arkansas National Guard blocked nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Bishop Fletcher wrote in the diocesan newspaper that it was wrong to interfere with peaceful integration. By 1962, Catholic High and Mount St. Mary began enrolling black students.

From 1962 through 1965, Bishop Fletcher attended fall sessions of the Second Vatican Council. For Arkansas Catholics, the most noticeable change arising from Vatican II happened the first Sunday of Advent in 1964 when the priest faced the people to celebrate Mass in English.

In the latter part of the 1960s, Bishop Fletcher split with young priests teaching at St. John’s seminary on social and theological questions, including birth control and papal infallibility. After a seminary priest wrote a series of newspaper articles critical of Catholic doctrine, the seminary closed in 1967.

The Vietnam War proved as divisive for the church as it did for the nation. Bishop Fletcher declined to vote with most U.S. bishops in their resolution calling for an end to the war and, later, he opposed amnesty for draft evaders.

In July 1972, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Bishop Fletcher, who had reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. He died December 6, 1979, in Little Rock.

Bishop McDonald (1972-2000)

Andrew Joseph McDonald of Savannah, Ga., became the fifth bishop of Little Rock on September 5, 1972. Three months later, the church in Arkansas, home to more than 55,000 Catholics, was reassigned from New Orleans (where it had been part of the Southern province since 1850) to the archbishopric of Oklahoma City.

Social action defined Bishop McDonald’s tenure. The former seminary, renamed St. John Catholic Center, became the hub of the diocese. Church offices emerged to serve a rapidly growing Hispanic population and to welcome political refugees from Vietnam, Cuba and Central and South America. The diocesan Office of Justice and Peace championed fair treatment at home for people lacking food, adequate housing and other necessities while joining an international push for nuclear disarmament. Bishop McDonald endorsed amnesty for Vietnam-era draft evaders in 1974.

Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision released January 22, 1973, legalizing abortion, triggered an immediate protest from Bishop McDonald in words and action. An annual March for Life processes down Capitol Avenue in Little Rock each January to advocate against abortion. Mother Teresa of Calcutta opened a home for unwed mothers in Little Rock in 1982.

An active laity found purpose in myriad programs. A local couple developed the now widely distributed and often progressive Little Rock Scripture Study program to deepen an appreciation and understanding of the Bible. RENEW helped unify parishes through small-group sharing. Cursillo weekends strengthened friendships in a spirit of community. Couples participated in Pre-Cana programs to prepare for marriage, Marriage Encounter retreats to strengthen relationships and Retrovaille sessions to heal them.

Bishop McDonald, a strong advocate of ecumenism, joined interfaith efforts to further humanitarian causes. By 1993, the Catholic population exceeded 75,000, but the decrease in vocations to the priesthood and religious life had accelerated. Bishop McDonald, as required by age, submitted his resignation in 1998 and formally retired January 4, 2000.

Bishop Sartain (2000-2006)

J. Peter Sartain's six years as Bishop of Little Rock marked by far the shortest length of service in diocesan history but it was time well spent. The youthful prelate’s intellect, piety and charm inspired thousands, many on a deeply personal level. Bishop Sartain had an uncanny knack for remembering names and devoted his full attention to every conversation.

Born in Memphis, he was ordained July 15, 1978, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception after studying for the priesthood in Indiana and Rome. At the time of his episcopal appointment, Father Sartain was vicar general of the Diocese of Memphis and pastor of St. Louis Church. He had vacationed in neighboring Arkansas and made retreats at Subiaco Abbey.

His installation as the sixth bishop of Little Rock on March 6, 2000, drew 2,600 Catholics to Robinson Auditorium. The new shepherd’s shared focus became fostering religious vocations among the youth — he visited often with seminarians and their families — while ministering to the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population, notably in northwest Arkansas. He took a crash course in Spanish at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio in 2001.

Bishop Sartain built on a foundation laid by his predecessor, Bishop McDonald, by continuing to celebrate Masses said on a statewide scale in both English and Spanish and by re-emphasizing the need for priests and seminarians to learn the second language. He dedicated new parishes organized by Hispanic immigrants in Danville and Glenwood, led an eight-day diocesan pilgrimage to Mexico in 2004, ordained a Mexican-born priest and deacon, and joined the nation’s bishops in calling for immigration reform with an emphasis on human dignity. Many Mexican-born immigrants worked in poultry plants across Arkansas.

An intensely prayerful man, Bishop Sartain challenged all priests and religious in the diocese to deepen their commitment by taking time daily to give themselves to God. A gifted communicator, Bishop Sartain spoke and wrote with passion and eloquence. His weekly columns in the Arkansas Catholic often reflected on his relationship with Jesus Christ and the challenges of living a Christian life. He published a 385-page collection of selected columns in 2005.

The bishop held national offices within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including a three-year term as chairman of the Committee on the Home Missions. The need for vocations remained a constant theme, especially given the aging group of diocesan priests who were struggling to serve a Catholic population that rose from 90,600 when Bishop Sartain came to Arkansas to more than 107,000 upon his departure.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Sartain, then 53, on May 16, 2006, as the fourth bishop of Joliet, Ill. The See of Arkansas became sede vacante, meaning the bishop’s seat is vacant.

Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert (2006-2008)

Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert was appointed administrator June 29, 2006, of a diocese left sede vacante, without a bishop. During that time, the diocese enjoyed an increase in seminarians, particularly ones from other countries. Of the diocese’s 22 men studying for the priesthood in 2007, nearly half represented other cultures, including Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Vietnam. Msgr. Hebert oversaw the Little Rock Diocese for 23 months, the longest vacancy in the American Church.

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor (2008-present)

Pope Benedict XVI named Father Anthony B. Taylor, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the seventh bishop of the diocese on April 10, 2008. Bishop Taylor, 54, was ordained on June 5, 2008 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

He has an intense concern for social justice and led the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City's opposition to HB1804, the country's most stringent measure to crack down on undocumented workers.[citation needed] His episcopal motto is "The humble shall inherit the earth".

High schools


On September 28, 2007, Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, the diocese administrator (per the July 11 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) stated that 6 Arkansas nuns were excommunicated for heresy (the first in the diocese's 165-year history). They refused to recant thedoctrines of the Community of the Lady of All Nations (Army of Mary). The 6 nuns are members of the Good Shepherd Monastery of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge in Hot Springs. Sister Mary Theresa Dionne, 82, one of the 6, said they will still live at the convent property, which they own. The sect believed that its 86-year-old founder, Marie Paule Giguere, is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.


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