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In Missouri, Bishop Law helped build bridges to other churches

By Richard Higgins, Globe Staff, 1/28/1984

Third of three articles

 The series
Part One
In early years, a close-knit family

Part Two
Calming factor in tense '60s Miss.

Part Three
In Mo., working to build bridges

After serving in the diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Miss., from 1961 through 1973, with a three-year interlude on the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bernard F. Law became Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield- Cape Girardeau on Dec. 5, 1973.

PRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The Ozark rains fell without mercy that November night two years ago. Bishop Bernard F. Law had ordained a priest in one corner of his 26,000-square-mile diocese, in Cape Girardeau, and had promised to speak the next morning to a group of nuns on retreat in Springfield, 300 miles away. Except the rain had grounded his scheduled night flight back.

"Let's drive," the bishop told Robert Lee, his friend and diocesan editor. If things went well, the trip in Lee's 1966 Pontiac Catalina would take five hours.

They didn't. An hour from Cape Girardeau, Lee hit a truck that swerved in front of him, cracking his windshield, dashboard and denting a door. No one was hurt, but it was 11 p.m., they had no money ("neither of us figured we'd need any," Lee says), it was still raining and they were in tiny Poplar Bluffs.

At the bishop's urging, they woke up a local Ford dealer, "rented" a car on credit and kept going. They got home at 5 a.m., after stopping once to help a motorist in a ditch. Law gave his 8 a.m. talk at the nuns' "Day of Recollection."

"That's the man," Lee said of Boston's new archbishop. "His commitment, his interest in people, is total. Being pastoral, that's his whole life. . .. And he has a way of (using* that to motivate others."

If there was an crosscurrent of sadness as southern Missourians celebrated Bishop Law's impending move, there was hardly any surprise. Many said they had long sensed that their bishop was destined for higher posts.

"We always knew we had a pearl here," said Nancy McGreagor, co-director of an ecumenical urban campus ministry. Echoing the views of others who assessed his decade at the helm of this diocese of 52,000 Catholics, McGreagor said Bishop Law stood out for his blend of spiritual orthodoxy with a belief that the Gospel compels social action.

"And his warmth," McGreagor added, as if unable to put it right. "He was so easy to approach."

That quality was evident last week. On Tuesday, the day of his elevation, Bishop Law broke away from the stream of well-wishers and press to visit the hospitalized mother of an employee. On Wednesday, while leaving the chancery for an hour alone at a local monastery, he got out of an elevator in which a Rhode Island reporter waited, notebook in hand, when he saw the five-week-old baby of Connie Jenkins. He blessed the girl, who yawned a great yawn. "I can see you're not impressed I'm an archbishop," he cooed.

That evening, after he said Mass in the cathedral, scores waited patiently to embrace him, hold his hand or recall the day he shared a meal or visited them. "You're going to take a part of us with you," one woman said.

Law came in 1973 to succeed William Cardinal Baum as head of the Springield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, headquartered in this Bible Belt city of 130,000.

Closer to Oklahoma than to Illinois both on the map and in its heart, Springfield has as many Bible schools (six -- including Jerry Falwell's alma mater) as it does Roman Catholic parishes. Catholicism, in fact, took seed slowly in the agrarian plains and hills Bishop Law came to shepherd. In Caruthersville in the Ozarks' impoverished Boot Heel region, for example, the explorer Hernando DeSoto erected a Catholic cross in 1541; the first permanent Catholic parish in town was founded 359 years later.

For Bishop Law, skilled at adapting as a child on the move with his Air Force father, as a Catholic at Harvard and as a civil rights advocate in Mississippi, Missouri was familiar only in its newness.

"When you move around a lot, you develop a homing instinct, an ability to relate," Bishop Law said, pausing to take a call from US Senator Thomas F. Eagleton. "My whole ministry has been sort of in the minority. When I was in Mississippi, Catholics were about 2 percent of the population. Here in southern Missouri, they number about 5 percent (out of 999,000 residents in his diocese.* I told people I felt like I had been moved to a Catholic ghetto."

Bishop Law got to know the corpus of his diocese as well as its soul; he would often drive as much as 1000 miles per week, confirming children in Joplin, opening a hospitality house for street people here or visiting poor soybean farmers in Gideon, in the Boot Heel. Last year, Bishop Law figures he drove 30,000 miles to visit his people.

"That doesn't include flying," he said, "and it doesn't count the times I had to hitch a ride."

Bishop Law's imprint on this diocese came in his "intensive parish visits," in which he would meet for hours with parishioners, individually and as a group, to pray and speak of goals.

"To him, the parish is the hope of the church," said Rev. Michael McDeavett, diocesan vocations director and pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish here, which Bishop Law visited last weekend. "He goes to a parish not to talk about paying the bills or fixing the furnace or whatever, but to help people dream about what should be the mission of that local church."

" What are we doing?' he would ask," the priest said, "not just for each other, but for those on the outside, the divorced or separated, the sick and widowed and lonely."

In an interview last week, Bishop Law put it this way: "The parish," he said, "is where church occurs."

It also occurs in working for others in the wider community, Bishop Law believes, and he led several efforts in Missouri "to broaden our outreach to the poor and hungry."

These included a kitchen for the hungry in Springfield -- "I happen to think that there are hungry people around," he said last week -- and a home for battered women, the city's first. Another part of his legacy was leading diocesan efforts to "open our hearts to Southeast Asian refugees." He invited two refugee religious orders to set up US headquarters in his diocese and ordained 20 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees as priests.

While Bishop Law is best known in the Ozarks for his parish renewal work and social justice efforts, he is also a consummate insider in the US hierarcy. Instead of the usual stint in Rome after his elevation, he joined the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, working on Latin America and communications and becoming an influential backbencher on the bishops' central administrative board. He also became a leading American Catholic voice on ecumenical relations, serving on two Vatican commissions to reach out to other Christians and to Jews.

In 1980, Bishop Law was named US director of a program to receive into the Catholic Church married, former Episcopal priests. (Rev. James Parker, the first priest ordained under that program in the US, celebrated Mass with Bishop Law the morning of his appointment to Boston.) He was active in writing the third draft of the bishops' recent pastoral on nuclear arms.

Bishop Law's ecumenical efforts were hardly restricted to the national level. He created a statewide forum for Missouri religious leaders of all faiths, and, by all accounts last week, made vast strides in bridging the distance between Catholics and Protestants in the region.

"He built bridges to non-Catholic clergymen all over," said Dr. T.T. Crabtree, pastor of the 130-year-old First Baptist Church in Springfield, a prominent local clegyman and "close friend" of Bishop Law's.

"It wasn't just me, but many of my brethren who sensed in him man a kindred spirit," Dr. Crabtree said at his red brick church last week, "a man of transparent integrity and learning who came across not so much as a Catholic bishop as a man with a genuine faith in Jesus. You got the feeling that he was more interested in getting people to know Christ than to get another scalp for the Roman Catholic Church."

"This is a buckle on the Bible Belt, and there's a lot of suspicion and misunderstanding about Catholics here," said Circuit Court Judge George Donegan, by his account the first and only Roman Catholic elected to the Missouri Legislature.

"In the minds of people who don't know better, Catholicism is despotic. As a result, many Catholics withdraw, aren't really part of the total life of the community. Bishop Law made people more informed about the church here, by being helpful in a great number of secular services. And by the simple goodness of his personality."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/28/1984.
© Copyright Globe Newspaper Company.


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