Bishop John Joseph Chanche, SS

Chanche photo

1841-1852 — Auspice Maria
Born: Oct. 4, 1795 – Baltimore
Ordained a Priest: June 5, 1819
Ordained a Bishop: March 14, 1841
Died: July 22, 1852
Episcopal Motto: Auspice Maria

Ordained in Baltimore in March, Bishop Chanche sailed to New Orleans and traveled by steamboat to Natchez. He arrived near midnight on May 18, 1841, and was greeted at the dock by a porter who carried his bags to a boarding house.

The next morning he addressed the Catholic congregants gathered at the Mechanics Hall. It was here they met for Mass, the small, red frame church of San Salvador having burned in 1832.

At the time Bishop Chanche arrived, the state had two priests—one in Natchez and one in Vicksburg. Catholic laity were scattered throughout the state, served by occasional visits from priests. In 1842, Bishop Chanche appointed Father Jean Claude Francois the first diocesan priest. He began the first missionary work among blacks in the state, visiting plantations, preaching, and baptizing enslaved converts.

In 1840, the year that Bishop Chanche received the papal bull appointing him Bishop, Natchez suffered a devastating tornado that killed 317 people and sank 60 boats. The city was also recovering from the panic of 1837, which had closed the banks. In the midst of rebuilding the economy and the town, the Natchez faithful pledged to build a Cathedral for the new Diocese. Although many in Natchez had enjoyed the prosperity made possible by the production of cotton, most Catholic congregants were not wealthy. Nevertheless, 248 people pledged $13,202. The cornerstone was laid in 1842, construction began, and the church was dedicated on Christmas Day 1843.

The cathedral, dedicated to the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, was not much more than a shell of a building to start. Burdened by debt, the cathedral was improved and furnished thanks to gifts from the Vatican and European royalty and in response to appeals by the Bishop throughout the nation and France. He even traveled to Cuba to try to regain church property lost when the Spanish regime ended.

Bishop Chanche was also instrumental in the establishment of the first Catholic school in Mississippi. This was an academy for young ladies, opened in Natchez in 1841 by three of his nieces. In 1847, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul opened St. Mary’s Home for Girls, an orphanage and day school for young ladies and the first school in the state established by a religious order.

Financial difficulties continued to plague the new diocese, and in 1848 the cathedral was placed at auction. Father Blase Raho, the first vicar general, saved the cathedral by paying the debt while Bishop Chanche was in France appealing for funds. Father Raho also began a prison ministry in Natchez and across the river in Louisiana.

Bishop Chanche_edited

After attending the First Plenary Council of Bishops held in Baltimore in 1852, Bishop Chanche died unexpectedly at age 56. He was buried in Baltimore, the place of his birth, until in 2008 when his body was exhumed and reinterred at St. Mary Basilica in Natchez.

“In his person, Bishop Chanche was rather a tall and commanding figure, and prepossessing his his appearance. The grace and dignity with which he conducted the ceremonials of the church, on marked occasions, will be long remembered,” noted The Catholic Mirror, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in Bishop Chanche’s obituary.

At the time of his death, he had established 11 parishes in Mississippi — in Paulding, Biloxi, Jackson, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Vicksburg, Sulphur Springs, Pearlington, Port Gibson, and Yazoo City — and plans were under way for four more.