The Most Rev. Joseph Fiorenza, fourth bishop of the Diocese of San Angelo, was involved in many things that set forward progress in the diocese: the establishment of Christ the King Retreat Center and the adjacent chancery; the settlement of many religious orders in the diocese; and the beginnings of two of the diocese’s largest parishes — St. Stephen’s in Midland and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Odessa.
There were other physical accomplishments, to be sure, but in the five brief years he served (1979-84), Bishop Fiorenza, currently retired Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, feels that perhaps his longest-lasting accomplishment while here was something more intangible.
“The thing I hope I achieved that was most important was to help the people in West Texas feel they were a part of the larger Church, a diocesan family; that they were not separate and individual congregations with no relationship to other churches; that they were part of a larger family over which there was a chief shepherd, the bishop,” Bishop Fiorenza said in 2010 from his chancery in Houston. “If that idea was successful then I think that would be my best achievement. They were beginning to understand it when I left, and Bishop Pfeifer, who is a great bishop and a wonderful holy man, has pushed that same idea.”
Bishop Fiorenza said it was not uncommon to find a congregationalist mentality in many of the parishes when he began his tenure as bishop of San Angelo in September 1979.
“When I went to San Angelo that was the mentality,” he remembered. “It was more congregationalist. The people knew there was a bishop but they weren’t quite sure who he was or what he was supposed to do. A lot of the small towns of West Texas are far removed from the bishop and they didn’t quite understand that they were part of a larger church. They thought the congregation was the congregation and that was not unusual for a small diocese.”
One of Bishop Fiorenza’s main developments was the retreat center, which, once built, became the first place where Catholics or — as it would prove later on — people of any number of religions could retreat. Like many other things he accomplished, Bishop Fiorenza built the retreat center to bring people together.
“We had no place to gather people,” he said. “Priests would go into San Antonio to make their retreats. We just needed to help the people of a large area have the sense they all belonged to the same diocesan family.”
Bishop Fiorenza’s first task as bishop was establishing Midland’s St. Stephen’s parish, amid much controversy. The church had been approved by the Most Rev. Fiorenza’s predecessor, Bishop Leven, but the Oblates in the diocese squelched the establishment of St. Stephen’s, saying Bishop Leven was not well when he signed papers declaring it a Church.
“The Oblates objected to the starting of a new parish there,” Bishop Fiorenza said. “It’s sad, but it’s history. They objected to Rome that the parish was started while Bishop Leven was ill and that he didn’t do the proper consultation. That caused a big eruption. After Leven died and they made this objection, it became a contentious issue and the apostolic delegate suppressed it and said wait till you get a new bishop and he will resolve it.”
Bishop Fiorenza was that new bishop and would, after a while, finalize the establishment of St. Stephen’s.
The priest’s pension fund was down to $25 when Bishop Fiorenza came to San Angelo. His decision to sell the bishop’s mansion along the Concho River helped rescue the fund from being nearly penniless. When the fund was headed in the right direction, Bishop Fiorenza and the diocese would purchase a smaller house on San Angelo’s southwest side.
Bishop Fiorenza is a Houstonian through and through, and, in fact, with the exception of the five years he served as bishop in San Angelo, has spent his entire life in and around Houston and the Coastal Bend region. When he was appointed bishop in West Texas, he knew he was in for something far different than to what he was accustomed.
“I was going to San Angelo without great knowledge or experience of West Texas whatsoever. I quickly came to like it very much. San Angelo is a very nice city but compared to Houston it was very, very small. It was a different experience for me, and an enjoyable one; I loved the wide-open spaces. The diocese was just getting started. As a newly ordained bishop with a lot of enthusiasm I was very anxious to be able to serve the Church there very well.”
For nearly 10 years, from October 22, 1969, to April 16, 1979, the Diocese of San Angelo was shepherded by its third bishop, the Most Rev. Stephen Leven, of Blackwell, Oklahoma.
Bishop Leven was known as a street preacher before and even during his time as our bishop here. He began a series of open air talks given on courthouse lawns, in vacant lots, and on street corners, as early as 1932. He used the time to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The West Texas Angelus, known then as the Texas Concho Register, recorded Bishop Leven’s words when he was installed as bishop in 1969:
“It is with great joy and total commitment that I prepare to follow in the footsteps of two great young bishops who labored strenuously to nurture the seeds of faith already deeply planted in your hearts.”
Within a week of his ordination as bishop, Bishop Leven had celebrated Mass at every deanery within the diocese and within a month he had visited every parish and mission.
Bishop Leven said he felt meeting parishioners throughout the diocese was important and he would brush off any notion of self sacrifice because of the great distances traveled in what had become known as a “frontier” diocese. Bishop Leven noted at the time that the parishes were so few and far between, Catholics in West Texas were virtual strangers to one another.
“Bishop Leven immediately sensed the lack of unity in the diocese and knew that it would be the most serious problem he would encounter in his new assignment,” the Register reported. “He also realized that without a sense of community in the diocese little could be accomplished to build up the Church.”
He proceeded to set forth an 11-year plan for more cohesiveness in the diocese, by encouraging parish and pastoral councils to foster diocesan-wide communications.
“We have to see our problems together and then go after them together,” Bishop Leven said.
His tenure would also be marked by his support of Catholic Women’s concerns, specifically the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, which he widely supported through his life in the Church.
Bishop Leven would also establish the separation of the Catholic school administration from the diocesan CCD office, and his changes would prompt Sister Mary Eva Geiskopf, OLVM, one of the program’s supervisors, to note that Leven came, listened, acted, and provided what was needed to better the religious education needs of the diocese.
He would also establish the permanent diaconate, a program that, at the time, permitted men to preach, teach, conduct marriage ceremonies and funerals, and baptize. In 1977, after two diaconate classes had graduated, 63 men had been ordained, which doubled the number of clergy in the diocese.
The third bishop of the diocese was also responsible for the establishment of Catholic Charities, as well as the reorganization of the Diocesan Pastoral Council program.
Forty-seven years of priesthood and almost a decade after being installed in San Angelo, Bishop Leven was forced to step down for health reasons.
In December 1978, he underwent six cardiac bypasses. The illness would slow him considerably and ultimately hasten his retirement.
The Most Rev. Thomas Tschoepe, the second bishop of San Angelo, may have been here for a mere three years but he will forever hold one distinction: he was the first native Texan to serve as Bishop of San Angelo.
Originally from Pilot Point, Bishop Tschoepe, who would spend most of his life in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, was ordained Bishop of San Angelo, March 6, 1966. He would stay for just three years, when he was appointed to serve as Bishop of Dallas on October 29, 1969, where he would remain until his retirement in 1990.
When Bishop Tschoepe assumed the apostolate of San Angelo from its first bishop, Thomas Drury, the diocese was still in its relative infancy. News of Tschoepe’s appointment as bishop led his superior, Bishop Thomas Gorman, to say, “(Bishop Tschoepe) has come to be known as an effective administrator by the clergy and the people of the Diocese of Dallas.
“As one closely associated with him for many years in the development of the diocese, I feel very sure that he will . . . continue the progress already made since the creation of that diocese and that the clergy, religious and people of San Angelo have every reason to be congratulated on having Bishop-elect Tschoepe as their pastor and bishop.”
At a press conference following the announcement of his appointment, Bishop Tschoepe spoke with his trademark humility.
“It is another appointment we have to take,” he said. “We promise obedience. I had no ambition to be a bishop. I always wanted to be a priest, though, ever since I was a kid.”
Mary Sue Brewer, who has served as an assistant to each of the five bishops in the diocese’s 50 year history, recalls Bishop Tschoepe in a number of ways, mostly as “a quiet and humble man” who preferred phone calls and in-person meetings to written correspondence.
“Bishop Tschoepe’s cousin was a bishop in the diocese where the University of Notre Dame was located, so every year he drove up to attend one of their football games, and every year he tossed me a speeding ticket he would always get on the long drive.”
Bishop Tschoepe retired as Bishop of Dallas on July 14, 1990. During the early part of his retirement he lived and served at St. Joseph's parish in Waxahachie, and in his later years he lived at the St. Joseph Retirement Center in Dallas, where he died on January 24, 2009, at 93.
The Most Rev. Thomas Drury, a native of Balleynote, Ireland, spent just four years as Bishop of San Angelo, but in many ways they were four of the most important years in the history of the West Texas Church. Appointed first Bishop of San Angelo by Pope Paul VI, he served in that capacity from January 24, 1962, until July 19, 1965, when he was named the fourth bishop of Corpus Christi.
Archival issues of the Texas Concho Register, which preceded the West Texas Angelus, reported the following upon news of Bishop Drury’s installation in Corpus Christi:
“The first bishop of San Angelo leaves behind a real missionary area of 42,000 square miles, with a total population of 600,000 and more than 61,000 Catholics.
“During his years of service, as spiritual shepherd of the Diocese of San Angelo, Bishop Drury worked most diligently on his efforts to get the new diocese on its feet. Bishop Drury has seen to it that approximately 15 or more new churches and chapels have been constructed.”
During his time as bishop in San Angelo, Bishop Drury also guided and completed a census of the diocese; established the diocesan newspaper, which eventually became the West Texas Angelus, still in circulation 25 years later; consecrated the Cathedral; had the diocese placed under the principal patronage of St. Michael the Archangel and the secondary patronage of St. Pius X.
Bishop Drury also began the diocese’s application of the Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy and began the tithing program here.
Bishop Drury showed great devotion to both vocations and Catholic education in the early 1960s, and also developed the ecumenical movement in the diocese, including a January 1964 interfaith prayer service in San Angelo.
Two young men in the Diocese of San Angelo entered the priesthood through Bishop Drury’s encouragement, as well as another three by way of the apostolic delegate. The year he would assume his apostolate in Corpus Christi, another four men would enter the priesthood in the Diocese of San Angelo.
Bishop Drury died in 1992.