Priests of the Society of Jesus were the first missionaries to Native Americans in the Nebraska Territory. In 1859, around 35 Catholic families lived in Omaha, but only 20 were tiding to the Church.[i] Governor Thomas Cummings (1827-1858) wrote Archbishop of Kansas, John Baptist Miege, SJ (1815-1884), and Nebraska, claiming that Omaha needed a Catholic Church.[ii] Not seeing enough Catholics in Omaha, the Vicar refused to invest in the area, but established the Vicariate Apostolic of Nebraska Territory in 1859.[iii] The church grew under Bishop James Miles O’Gorman (1804-1874), O.C.S.O., Titular Bishop of Raphanea and first Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska (1959-1874).
Bishop O’Gorman, a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance know as Trappist was appointed as the first Vicar Apostolic of Nebraska.[iv] Born in Limerick, Ireland in 1809 to James and Alicia Myles O’Gorman, he attended Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He left to join the Trappist at the monastery at Mount Melleray, County of Waterford, Ireland. After he was ordained, he managed an outlaying farm for the monastery. After the Irish potato famine, he and others went to America near Dubuque, IA to establish New Melleray in the United States.[v] An effective orator and dedicated to the church, he was noticed by the Archbishop.
Reacting to the news of Bishop O’Gorman’s appointment, the Omaha city council organized a special committee to look into the how the appointment could help the city and increase population and investment.[vi] The city council resolved, “That there be donated to the Catholic bishop twenty-four of the best lots of those not advertised or called for.” Bishop O’Gorman independently made his settlement in Omaha City at a residence on the southwest corner of 8th and Harney, across the street from St. Mary’s Church.[vii]
When he arrived in Omaha on August 6, 1858, and the vicariate covered 357,000 square miles including Nebraska, northeastern Colorado, Wyoming, and parts of Utah, Montana, and the Dakotas with only three priests to assist him. In 1859, he came to Nebraska and consecrated Vicar Apostolic of this See on May 8, 1859.[viii] When Bishop O’Gorman died in 1874, the Vicariate had 19 priests serving 12,000 Catholics in 20 parishes and 56 missions in the region.[ix]
Bishop O’Gorman saw a need to establish a Catholic hospital in Omaha. Many immigrants came through Omaha who needed spiritual along with medical healing. Irish immigrants recruited to work on the railroad lines suffered from accidents and sickness. Bishop O’Gorman turned to the Sisters of Mercy to get the hospital built. He had a promising location at 12th and Mason St, but lacked funding. The Sisters of Mercy, especially Sister M. Joseph and Sister M. Evangelist, collected the funds throughout the Nebraska Territory. Bishop O’Gorman blessed and dedicated the building on September 24, 1870.[x] Priests worked alongside medical personnel to heal the sick.
He also negotiated with the Sisters’ of Mercy to establish a school for girls. The Sisters taught boys at Holy Angels School. Because of the lack of attendance by boys during nice weather, the Church allowed girls to attend the same school to keep it afloat. Bishop O’Gorman wanted to create a school that taught only females in line with Catholic teaching that genders learn separately.[xi] He opened Mt. St. Mary’s Academy in Omaha near 24th and St. Mary’s Avenue.[xii] This was the first Catholic school for females in Omaha City.[xiii]
Bishop O’Gorman came from Ireland and was appointed by the Archbishop of Kansas bishop of a vast area that included Nebraska while working tirelessly to improve people’s lives. He worked to create a Catholic church that was more responsive to people by building a Catholic school and hospital. For this, Omaha Catholics benefit from this bishop with Irish roots.
[i] Henry W. Casper, SJ, History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska: The Church on the Northern Plains, Bruce Press: Milwaukee, 1960, pg. 113.
[ii] “The First Catholic clergyman, the First church and the First White Worshippers of Nebraska” (24 November 1878), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 5.
[iii] Charlie Wieser, “Eight Ordinaries Have Led the Local Church in Past 134 Years” (19 June 1993), Catholic Voices, pg. 2.
[vi] “Death of Bishop O’Gorman” (7 July 1874), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 4.
[vii] Casper, pg. 103.
[viii] Ibid., pg. 104.
[ix] Wieser, pg. 2.
[x] Casper, pg. 98.
[xi] Ibid., pg. 136.
[xii] “Death of Bishop O’Gorman” (7 July 1874), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 4.
[xiii] “Omaha is Well Equipped in High-Class Schools for Girls” (16 April 1911), Omaha Sunday Bee, pg. 1.