By DEIRDRE C. MAYS, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 16, 2007
Pope Benedict XVI has named Bishop Robert J. Baker to head the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala.
The appointment was announced in Washington, D.C., Aug. 14 by Msgr. Martin Krebs, charge d’affaires of the Vatican nunciature.
Bishop Baker, 63, succeeds Bishop David E. Foley, who has been head of that diocese since 1994. Pope Benedict XVI accepted Bishop Foley’s resignation May 10, 2005, and he has served as administrator since that time.
Bishop Baker will continue to serve as administrator for the Diocese of Charleston until his installation in Birmingham on Oct. 2.
“I am sad to be leaving the diocese and the people I love and will always cherish,” he told The Catholic Miscellany, Charleston’s diocesan newspaper, in an interview.
In an Aug. 14 statement to the Diocese of Birmingham, the bishop said he was humbled and honored by the appointment.
“I pledge to serve you good people of this diocese with all the grace, wisdom and spirit the Lord will give me and to always faithfully reflect back to you the Gospel message of Jesus and the teachings of our Catholic faith in their fullness, in support of the pastoral leadership of our Holy Father,” he said.
Bishop Foley welcomed his successor during a press conference held in Birmingham.
“I have known Bishop Baker over the years from participation in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His efforts for evangelization and his love for the vulnerable is a testament to his dedication to Jesus Christ and the Gospel for the Third Millennium,” he said. “We have waited a long time for a bishop. I tell you the wait has been well worth the time. Through the intercession of Mary, we are receiving the shepherd who truly will lead us in the ways of the Lord. We are blessed to have a bishop who is known for his pastoral ministry and faithfulness to his mission as successor of the Apostles.”
As leader of the Atlanta Province, which includes Charleston, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory expressed his appreciation for his brother bishop’s many contributions to the church in this region in an interview with The Georgia Bulletin. “I congratulate the Diocese of Birmingham at the appointment of Bishop Baker to become their new Shepherd. Bishop Baker is a man of incredible love for the Church and dedication to the mission of Christ. He will be missed in the Diocese of Charleston and here in the Province of Atlanta. Although he leaves this local province, he will continue to serve the Church in the South that has been blessed with his ministry from his priesthood ordination. May the Lord watch over him and grant him every happiness and success in this new appointment. The people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta accompany him with their prayers and best wishes.”
Bishop Baker was born June 4, 1944, in Willard, Ohio. He was ordained a priest March 21, 1970, for the Diocese of St. Augustine. His first assignment was from 1970-1972 as assistant pastor at St. Paul’s Parish, Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where he also taught at Bishop Kenny High School.
From 1972-1975 he studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, where he received a licentiate and doctorate in dogmatic theology. During 1975-1999, he served assignments that included spiritual director of college seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum, pastor of the Cathedral¬-Basilica of St. Augustine, and pastor of Christ the King Church, Jacksonville, Fla. He also directed the Catholic student parish at the University of Florida in Gainesville and taught sacramental theology at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla.
He was appointed 12th bishop of Charleston on July 13, 1999, and ordained and installed on Sept. 29, 1999. He has served on various boards and USCCB committees. He is currently chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Stewardship.
Bishop Baker has published several articles and books including “When Did We See You, Lord?,” which he co-authored with Father Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR, and a pastoral letter, “The Redemption of Our Bodies: The Theology of the Body and Its Consequences for Ministry in the Diocese of Charleston.” He wrote a historical novel with Tony Sands called “Cacique: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Mission History.” His latest book, “The Questioner’s Prayer,” was released in April 2007 by Our Sunday Visitor publishing company.
He recently ordained six men to the priesthood for the Diocese of Charleston, which is a number not seen in South Carolina since 1956.
Bishop Baker said he hopes to be remembered in Charleston for his emphasis on Mary. He established the Shrine of Joyful Hope in Kingstree and worked with the Vietnamese community to create a shrine to Mary in Greer.
“When the Blessed Mother is remembered, many blessings can come to the diocese,” he said. Bishop Baker hopes devotions to Mary flourish through Our Lady of Joyful Hope.
He also encouraged South Carolina Catholics to continue to support his successful capital campaign, which provides the financial backing for the spiritual and pastoral needs in the diocese.
During his tenure in South Carolina, the bishop highlighted central tenets of the Catholic faith through the Year of Prayer, the Year of the Rosary, the Year of Stewardship, the Year of the Eucharist and now the Year of the Family.
Bishop Baker said he will bid farewell to the diocese at the upcoming Fire at the Beach event on Sept. 15 in Myrtle Beach. Fire at the Beach is a multi-ministry event with an emphasis on evangelization, the Eucharist and Catholics’ call to holiness.
Similar to South Carolina, the Diocese of Birmingham is considered a missionary region with Catholics representing just over 3 percent of the population in the diocesan area. It was established Dec. 9, 1969, out of what is now the Archdiocese of Mobile. It is located in the northern part of the state and includes 39 counties, covering 28,091 square miles.
Deirdre C. Mays is the editor of The Catholic Miscellany in Charleston, S.C.