Rediscovering the Missionary Bishop

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

Renowned Catholic historian Dr. Patrick Foley
discusses his dedication to Church history
and his new book about  Jean-Marie Odin, Texas’ first bishop

Foley_for_WEB.jpg
Dr. Patrick Foley at home in his office with his latest book, Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans. French-born Odin first set foot in America in 1822, and in 1847 he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Galveston, encompassing the entire state of Texas. (Photo by Jerry Circelli / North Texas Catholic)

For 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.

The result of Foley’s work is a fascinating must-read biography entitled, Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans.

Although his work in America spanned nearly 50 years, starting in 1822, Odin has clearly reached across the centuries and connected with us in our modern times through Foley. The historian has been immersed in Odin’s diaries, letters, and other writings that have, before now, been tucked away in historical archives.

Of the three books Foley has written, in addition to more than 50 others to which he has contributed his talents, the author’s work on Odin is the most gratifying, he said.

“I was just drawn in by this great missionary,” said Foley, adding that the more he learned about the first shepherd of the Texas Catholic flock, the greater his respect grew.

“He is one of my great heroes,” Foley said. “It’s because of what he stood for.”

In the course of his work in Texas during its years as a republic and then a state, Odin literally re-evangelized residents in the mid-1800s. Catholicism had fallen into decline, along with many of the Church’s missions during that time. Odin brought in devout priests to replace those who had fallen away from their faith, legally reclaimed and rebuilt churches whose titles had been acquired by the new government of Texas, restored Catholic principles, and lit a fire in the spirit of the faithful. And he did it under constant threat from marauding Comanches, yellow fever epidemics, and other challenges faced on the Texas frontier.

“His main concern was that no matter what the history of the country was, and those were difficult times, it was that the priests, the nuns, and brothers be able to carry out their mission,” Foley said.

Foley also explained that Odin was a man who stood up for Catholicism and its Christian doctrines.

The historian and author said when he hears about the growing travesty of abortion, the increasing legal sanctions of same-sex marriages, threats to religious freedoms, and other issues, he reflects on the first man to serve as bishop in Texas.

“I often think, ‘How would Odin have reacted to that?’”

When asked just what would Odin do today, Foley is quick to respond, “He’d be right there with Cardinal Dolan saying, ‘Let’s stand up and say No!’ I have no doubt about that.”

Foley holds Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, in high esteem.

“To me, he’s one of the great heroes, because he’s not backing down. He’s another Odin. And we need somebody like that, who is standing up for the faith.”

Foley was deeply honored recently when he received a letter from the archbishop, who requested a copy of the new book and the author’s curriculum vitae.

It was not the first time, however, that Foley has shared his work with highly respected leaders in the Catholic Church.

In 1987, prior to Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Antonio, he received a call from an official with the San Antonio Archdiocesan Papal Visit Office.

“He said, ‘We need an essay written for the pope summarizing the Church in Texas, so he can study it before coming to San Antonio.’”

Foley said he suspected he received the call because he was president of the Texas Catholic Historical Society at the time. “So I said, ‘OK.’ Then I very innocently asked, ‘Who do you want to write it?’ He said, ‘You,’ and I nearly dropped the phone.”

Not one to refuse a request on behalf of the Holy Father, Foley made a priority of completing a comprehensive 30-page booklet titled, The Birth of Catholicism in Texas: The Era of the Franciscan Missions. It was written exclusively for the pope. Several months later, Foley received one of the highest honors of his life when the man we now know as Blessed Pope John Paul II sent him a Papal Medallion, honoring him for his work on the booklet.

Foley received another memorable honor when he was knighted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 2007. Foley was recognized with knighthood for his exhaustive research and valuable writing about Spanish Catholic history.

The history of Catholic Spain and Texas Catholic history are not the only specialized fields of study for Foley. He is an expert on the history of Catholics in the American Southwest, Catholic Ireland, and the Vincentian Order’s missionary work, as it ranged from Missouri to Texas, to name only some of the areas about which he is noted for his research and writing.

Foley was the first editor of the Texas Catholic Historical Society’s Catholic Southwest: A Journal of History and Culture and served in that position for 19 years. In 2006 he was named editor emeritus. Foley also edited and served as consultant for several other Catholic reviews and bulletins. His work has appeared in more than 140 publications.

The historian also has a long history of learning about Catholicism and teaching others.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1959 from California State University’s Chico State College, Foley went on to receive a master of art’s degree from Santa Clara University, also in California. In 1983, Foley earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of New Mexico with a well-received dissertation about the Church in Spain.

Since 1965, Foley has taught history at several colleges across the United States. Now professor emeritus at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Foley served as a full-time professor of history there from 1975 to 2002. From 1993 to 2010, he also served as visiting fellow at the College of Saint Thomas More (now Fisher-More College) in Fort Worth. In 2010, he was appointed to teach Church history for the diocese’s Pope John Paul II Institute School of Lay Ministry.

Foley’s vitae, which runs to 17 pages, is full of appointments, honors, awards, and offices held, articles written, as well as books he has authored and for which he has served as contributor. In addition to his native English language, he speaks, reads, and writes in Spanish and German. He is skilled at Church Latin and is studying French, Gaelic, and Italian.

Foley continues to learn and become stronger in his faith by continually reading the writings of St. Thomas More, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Augustine, Blessed John Paul II, Blessed John Henry Newman, Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, and many others.

The noted historian said the more we learn about the history of the Church, the deeper we grow in faith and trust in God. Foley contends that a stronger grasp of our Church history and our nation’s founding principles would help many people develop a true understanding of issues involving religious freedoms, the sanctity of marriage, and the God-given right to life.

“We are human beings who live in a society in which we are always commanded to seek the truth of history,” Foley said. “Because the truth of history is our story. It’s who we are. It’s what we believe.”

At the heart of the story of our history, Foley said, is Jesus Christ. “To me, the center of civilization is the Holy Eucharist. … When we go to Mass, we know that the Holy Eucharist we are receiving is the Body and Blood of Christ. And that’s what strengthens us.”

As to why he has used that strength for the majority of his 80 years to teach and write about history, especially that of the Catholic Church, Foley said, “What has come to me, and Odin has reinforced this, is that we were created by God for a purpose in life. And we all have to figure out what that is. I’m a historian and that’s what He wants me to do.”

See Also

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

Missionary-Bishop-Cover-BUTTON.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.

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.

Published