Diocese of Fort Worth Past Bishops: John Joseph Cassata (1969-1980)

By Nicki Prevou

Correspondent

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Bishop John Cassata’s official portrait.

John Joseph Cassata, the first bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, was born in Galveston, on Nov. 8, 1908, the son of Vincent and Anna (Pizzitola) Cassata, both natives of Sicily, Italy. When he died in Houston on Sept. 8, 1989, from complications of  heart surgery at the age of 80, he was eulogized as a “wonderful” priest and bishop, as a loyal, generous friend, and as a devoted brother to his six siblings.

During Bishop Cassata’s funeral Mass celebrated Sept. 16, 1989, at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Houston, then-Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston recalled the “awesome task” that Bishop Cassata was given at the age of 60, when he was installed as the first bishop of the brand-new Diocese of Fort Worth in 1969, shortly after the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth was divided, by papal decree, into two separate entities on Aug. 22, 1969.

“And there for 11 years he guided that young diocese with great love, tact, prudence, and saw it grow into a large, thriving diocese. But, above all, he spent his time and energy helping that group of priests and people to form themselves with a clear identity as the local Church of Fort Worth,” noted Bishop Fiorenza.

As a child, Bishop Cassata attended St. Mary’s Cathedral School in Galveston, and later completed high school at St. Mary’s Boarding School in La Porte. In a 1968 interview with the Texas Catholic, Dallas diocesan newspaper, he recalled that he took on many jobs in order to raise money for his tuition, working as a “soda jerk,” lifeguarding, and running concession stands at Sylvan Beach Park in La Porte. “Anything to continue my education,” he explained.

The young high school graduate worked as a bookkeeper and as a floor covering salesman before beginning his studies for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary in La Porte. He was the diocese’s first seminarian of Italian parentage.

Upon completing his studies in La Porte, he attended the North American College in Rome, completed a licentiate in theology at Propaganda de Fide College, and also studied at Gregorian University. He was ordained to the priesthood on Dec. 8, 1932, in the chapel of North American College. The second native Texan of Italian parentage to be ordained a priest for the state of Texas and the first for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Cassata was known throughout his lifetime for his fluency in the Italian language and for his abiding love of Italian food and culture.

Assigned to Holy Name Church in Houston as assistant pastor in 1934, he became pastor of the parish in 1945 and served in this capacity until 1968. He became “Monsignor Cassata” in 1956, when the Vatican honored him with the title of “domestic prelate.”

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In this undated photograph, Bishop Cassata greets Pope Paul VI.

Increasingly visible at the diocesan level, he attended the first session of the Second Vatican Council in the role of “diocesan procurator” and served as a judge for the diocesan marriage tribunal, as a member of the diocesan board of examiners, as a member of the Catholic Youth Organization board, and as a member of the diocesan board of education.

Msgr. Cassata was also the diocesan moderator for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and served as the director of diocesan radio and television programming; as chairman of the diocesan building commission; and as a lieutenant colonel in the Texas State Guard, Eighth District.

He was serving as vicar general for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston when on March 12, 1968, Pope Paul VI appointed Msgr. Cassata titular bishop of Bida and auxiliary bishop to Bishop Thomas K. Gorman of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop at St. Michael Church in Houston on June 5, 1968, and was immediately established in Fort Worth in a dual capacity as pastor of St. Patrick Co-Cathedral and as episcopal vicar for Fort Worth. He was also appointed vicar general of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth and vice chancellor of the University of Dallas.

Slightly more than a year after Bishop Cassata’s move to Fort Worth, Pope Paul VI separated 28 counties of North Central Texas from the Diocese of Dallas and established the area as the Diocese of Fort Worth, naming Bishop Cassata the leader of the new diocese.

The late Father Robert Wilson, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth who was ordained in 1957 and later became chancellor of the diocese, was quoted in the North Texas Catholic diocesan newspaper at the time of Bishop Cassata’s death: “He came [from Houston] with a reputation for being a priest’s priest. In his first year in Fort Worth as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth and as pastor of St. Patrick Co-Cathedral, it became obvious that he would be a priest’s bishop,” recalled Fr. Wilson. “Bishop Cassata was above all a pastor. He spent more than 30 years as the associate pastor and pastor of a parish in Houston, and continued to bring that orientation to the Diocese of Fort Worth.”

Bishop Cassata was installed as the first bishop of Fort Worth on Oct. 21, 1969, at St. Patrick Cathedral in Fort Worth, by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Luigi Raimondi. At the time of his appointment, 41 priests and approximately 235 religious women served within the new diocese, which was comprised of 44 parishes and 22 mission chapels.

One of the priests of the diocese recalled him in a privately published biographical sketch, in which he fondly recalled a bishop who was “traditional” and frugal, using the basement beneath the cathedral rectory as his office space.

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Bishop Cassata’s episcopal coat of arms.

“Bishop Cassata developed friendships easily because he was friendly, likeable, and accommodating,” wrote his friend, recalling shared golf and bridge games and homemade pasta dinners.

During Bishop Cassata’s years of leadership in the young diocese, 12 new parishes were formed, and the Catholic population grew from 67,000 to 93,500 in 1981. A strong advocate for increased involvement among lay members of the Church, he was particularly known for his encouragement of parish councils. Under his direction, permanent deacons were ordained, and a diocesan marriage tribunal was established. Seminarians were encouraged to learn Spanish and study Hispanic culture in order to better serve within the diverse Catholic population in North Texas.

In order to assure stability and quality in the Catholic schools of the diocese, Bishop Cassata established a diocesan board of education as well as a system of Catholic school boards, unified under a diocesan Catholic school system. Cassata Learning Center, an alternative school sponsored by the diocese, was established in 1975 and was named in his honor.

The beloved bishop retired on Sept. 16, 1980, citing health concerns. Surrounded by close friends, he continued living in his private residence in Fort Worth, and, until 1984, continued serving as a grand prior of the Southern Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Upon his death in 1989, the Galveston native was buried in the family plot in Houston, at Garden of Gethsemani in Forest Park Cemetery.

“Bishop Cassata was the seventh of the 10 priests who have served here [at St. Patrick Cathedral], and his pastorate was the briefest,” wrote the late Father William Hoover, then-pastor of the cathedral, upon Bishop Cassata’s death. “Both as pastor and as bishop we hold his memory in honor. He served at a difficult time when great changes were in the air. He led us through that era with charity, firmness, and good humor.”

Information provided by the archives of St. Patrick Cathedral, Fort Worth, and by the archives of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

See Also

St.-Patrick-Cathedral-BUTTON.jpgA brief history of the Diocese of Fort Worth

In 1890 the Catholic population of the area of the Brazos and Trinity rivers had grown large enough that Pope Leo XIII established the Diocese of Dallas. As early as 1870 Claude Marie Dubuis, the second bishop of Galveston (the diocese that encompassed all of Texas at the time), had begun sending Father Vincent Perrier twice a year to visit Fort Worth. At that time several Catholic families were meeting in the Carrico home. Fort Worth’s first parish church was a frame structure built at 1212 Throckmorton Street and called St. Stanislaus Church. It stood until 1907. The cornerstone of St. Patrick Church, which eventually became St. Patrick Cathedral, was laid in 1888; the church was built just north of St. Stanislaus and dedicated in 1892. When Dallas was made a diocese the region that eventually became the Diocese of Fort Worth had seven parishes: in Fort Worth, Cleburne, Gainesville, Henrietta, Hillsboro, Muenster, and Weatherford.

Bp-Delaney-in-Choir-Cassock-BUTTON.jpgDiocese of Fort Worth Past Bishops: Joseph Patrick Delaney (1981-2005)

The second bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Bishop Joseph Patrick Delaney, was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on Aug. 29, 1934. The eldest of five children born to Joseph and Jane Delaney, he was part of a devout, close-knit, and loving Irish family.

Diocese of Fort Worth Past Bishops: Kevin William Vann (2005-2012)

Bp-Vann-in-Choir-Cassock-BUTTON.jpgBishop Kevin William Vann was born May 10, 1951 in Springfield, Illinois, the oldest of six children born to William M. Vann, Jr., and Theresa Jones Vann. A graduate of Springfield’s St. Agnes Catholic School and of Griffin Catholic High School, he attended Springfield College and earned a Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology from Millikan University in Decatur, Illinois.

Bp-Cassata-in-Choir-Cassock-BUTTON.jpgJohn Joseph Cassata, the first bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, was born in Galveston, on Nov. 8, 1908, the son of Vincent and Anna (Pizzitola) Cassata, both natives of Sicily, Italy. When he died in Houston on Sept. 8, 1989, from complications of  heart surgery at the age of 80, he was eulogized as a “wonderful” priest and bishop, as a loyal, generous friend, and as a devoted brother to his six siblings.

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