First African American bishop to lead US diocese in 20th century dies

Biloxi, Miss., Jan 10, 2019 / 03:21 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, the first black bishop to lead a diocese in the United States in the 20th century, died Wednesday, January 9 at the age of 95 after a lengthy illness.

Howze was appointed as the first bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi in 1977, and served there for 24 years. He had previously served as auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, and as a priest for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.

“While we are saddened by the death of Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, we rejoice in his life,” Bishop Louis Kihneman III of the Diocese of Biloxi said in a statement.

“His was a life well lived in faithful service to Almighty God and to the people of Mississippi, both as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson and later as first bishop of Biloxi from 1977 to 2001.”

“Establishing a new diocese was hard work, but Bishop Howze was very proud of what he, with the help of devoted clergy, religious and laity, accomplished during his tenure as bishop of Biloxi and was forever grateful to the people of the diocese for their unfailing generosity of time, talent and treasure,” Kihneman said.

Howze was born in Daphne, Alabama on August 30, 1923. He was the oldest of four children born to Albert Otis Howze Sr. and Helen Lawson. When he was just five years old, his mother died, and from then on, he spent much of his time in the homes of his grandparents, aunts and uncles. His father would eventually remarry and have three more children.

A bright student, Howze graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1944, and went on to graduate with honors from Alabama State College in Montgomery, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in science and education.

For the next two years after college, Howze taught high school biology and chemistry at Central High School in Mobile, Alabama. It was there that he was inspired by one of his Catholic students, Marion Carroll, Jr., to convert from Methodism to Catholicism.

After his conversion and confirmation into the Catholic Church at the age of 25, Howze’s curiosity about becoming a priest grew, and after a few years he officially began studying for the priesthood, in spite of also having had dreams of joining the medical field.

On May 7, 1959, at the age of 35, Howze was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. He became known for his ability to integrate his parishes despite racial differences, and was known for emphasizing the unity that the body of Christ had in God.

After serving as a priest for 13 years, Howze was appointed as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Natchez-Jackson by Pope Paul VI, and was ordained a bishop on Jan. 28, 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi.

On March 8, 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Howze as the founding bishop of the newly-created Diocese of Biloxi, along the Mississippi coast, where he would serve 42 parishes, 28 Catholic schools and some 48,000 Catholics.

Howze was the first black Catholic bishop appointed to lead a U.S. diocese in the 20th century. The first black Catholic bishop ever appointed to lead a U.S. diocese was Bishop James Augustine Healy, who was of mixed African and Irish descent. He was appointed to lead the Diocese of Portland, Maine by Pope Pius IX in 1875.

When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987, Howze shared with him the concerns of many black Catholics about racism in the Church, and about the difficulty some black Catholics had in reconciling their faith with their race and culture, the Sun Herald reported.

Dr. Todd Coulter, a former student of Howze who is now an internal medicine doctor, said his example as a black Catholic leader was inspiring.

“We looked up to him,” Coulter told the Sun Herald. “He was a trailblazer for us, a hero — period. Especially for those of us who were considering the possibility of becoming a priest.”

Throughout his time as auxiliary bishop and as bishop of Biloxi, Howze served in numerous leadership positions, including as president of the National Black Catholic Clergy, a member of the World Peace Committee of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), the Mississippi Health Care Commission, the NCCB Liaison Committee to the National Office for Black Catholics, and the NCCB Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs Committee, among several others.

He was a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Peter Claver, and a Third Degree member of the Knights of Columbus.

Kihneman said in his statement that he was honored to have had Howze present for his own installation as the fourth bishop of Biloxi, and that every time he visited him, Howze’s “first concern” was for the people of the Diocese of Biloxi.

“He loved the Diocese of Biloxi and prayed unceasingly for its continued success. He had a genuine concern for the salvation of souls,” Kihneman said.

“Now, we pray that God, who called Bishop Howze to priesthood and the episcopate, will now welcome him to his heavenly home where he will continue to intercede for us. May he rest in peace.” ​

The funeral Mass for Bishop Howze will be held at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Biloxi on Wednesday, January 16.


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