Jean-Marie Odin’s heroic travels laid the foundation for the Church in Texas

By Jeff Hensley

Editor

North Texas Catholic

8/23/2013

Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans by Patrick Foley.
Texas A&M University Press (College Station, Texas).
224 pp., $40.00.

Missionary-Bishop-Cover-for-WEB.jpg
This is the cover of Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans by Patrick Foley. The book is reviewed by Jeff Hensley. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University Press)

Any images you may hold of the life of a bishop will never be quite the same after you read Dr. Patrick Foley’s Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans. The life of a missionary bishop, which Jean-Marie Odin was the very embodiment of — was a rough and tumble affair in the American frontier he came to from his native France in the 1830s, and where he served until his death as the Archbishop of New Orleans at the end of the 1860s.

Jean-Marie grew up in a farming family in Hauteville, France. Perhaps it was those humble beginnings tending his family’s sheep that helped prepare him for the physical rigors of his life in the little-developed west.

After completing his own studies for the priesthood at The Barrens, a seminary in Missouri, he taught seminary classes and theology classes for laymen there, rising to a position of prominence in the small seminary marked by his surpassing all other students in the study of theology.

The young Father Odin was driven by a desire to bring the Gospel especially to local Catholics, but also to the Native American populations of the area, and the largely unchurched Nativists, who were more united by their dislike of Catholics than by their active faith. He and a kindred spirit, seminarian John Timon (later Father Timon), would venture out to find people to minister to, within 15 to 20 miles from their home base. They would gather local settlers for the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments, and Timon, whose heritage was Irish and therefore was  more comfortable with his English than Fr. Odin, would do the preaching. Fr. Odin would celebrate the Mass on these occasions.

Frs. Odin and Timon engaged in these mission trips for quite some time, on occasion making extended forays into mission territory as far distant as Little Rock. In writing of their mission trip, Dr. Foley describes part of their trip as being along a “direct but extremely hazardous path to Little Rock … the two missionaries were forced to negotiate their way over a dangerous swampy terrain without the guide they had hired. He had determined that the venture appeared too menacing and left the priest and seminarian to return to his home.” Little Rock itself, they found to be a “frontier village where violence, drunkenness, and lawlessness abounded as a normal way of life.”

By the 1830s, Fr. Odin had become the president of the seminary at The Barrens, and as a friend of the first bishop of St. Louis, Bishop Joseph Rosati, also a Vincentian, he was chosen to accompany him to the second provincial council of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America in Baltimore in the fall of 1830. Fr. Odin so distinguished himself in these meetings, he was chosen to carry their decisions to Rome to present to Pope Gregory XVI.

His trip from Baltimore to his home in Hauteville, France, and then on to Rome to present the findings of the council was to become a familiar path for the future bishop of Texas. He continued on from his meetings with the pope to recruit priests and brothers from all over Europe for the Vincentians’ American missions.

Later in his career, after he became the Vicar Apostolic of Texas in 1838 and later, after Texas was accepted into the Union and became a full diocese, with Jean-Marie Odin elevated to the rank of bishop, he would repeat many of these same patterns of his early priestly life.

For 20 years in Texas he would brave great dangers (including attacks by Comanche raiders, outbreaks of Yellow Fever, and various life-threatening illnesses) to proclaim the Gospel, establish new faith communities, and help them raise money to build the first Catholic churches in their communities. Then he would travel to Europe, ranging from France to Ireland to Poland to Italy, always seeking out seminarians, brothers, and priests to serve settlers from their countries, and questing for a religious order brave enough to establish a community of nuns in Texas. Through his recruitment trips, begun as a young vicar apostolic in his 30s and continuing as he reached into his 50s as the first bishop of Texas, he laid a foundation for the Church of Texas.

The sum total of the missionary activity of Jean-Marie Odin is beyond impressive. Most of us must reach back to the works of the Apostle Paul to find an example of such prolific planting of churches among peoples so diverse in ethnicity and language.

Reading of Jean-Marie Odin’s life will change your perception of the hierarchy and the Church, perhaps even your own relationship to the hierarchy and the Church it helps hold together.

See Also

Rediscovering the Missionary Bishop

Foley-Button.jpgFor more than 20 years, Dr. Patrick Foley has been solidly formed in his faith by one of the most remarkable bishops ever to set foot on the North American continent. A Catholic historian who has made his home in the Diocese of Fort Worth for 38 years, Foley has spent the past two decades researching and writing about the life of Jean-Marie Odin, the first bishop of the Diocese of Galveston, which once spanned the entire state of Texas.

Foley-Button-2.jpgAny images you may hold of the life of a bishop will never be quite the same after you read Dr. Patrick Foley’s Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans. The life of a missionary bishop, which Jean-Marie Odin was the very embodiment of — was a rough and tumble affair in the American frontier he came to from his native France in the 1830s, and where he served until his death as the Archbishop of New Orleans at the end of the 1860s.

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