By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2016
ALEXANDRIA, La.—When the Catholic community was established in central Louisiana, it would be another 100 years before the Diocese of Atlanta came into existence.
Alexandria, Louisiana, the new home of Bishop David P. Talley, was once part of the Diocese of Natchitoches, established in 1853. (It became the Diocese of Alexandria in 1910.) The Atlanta Diocese began in 1956.
About half the size of the Atlanta Archdiocese, the farthest reaches of the diocese are less than a three-hour drive. Father Chad Partain, the chancellor of the Alexandria Diocese, said Bishop Talley will be in for a surprise when he travels from one side of Alexandria to the other that it takes no more than 10 minutes. Father Partain is a church leader as well as historian. He has written 10 books about central Louisiana and the diocese.
“We are a small, rural missionary diocese, and yet it is blessed with a big variety of people and culture,” he said. “We call this in Louisiana, a gumbo.”
French explorers brought Catholic faith in 1682
Father Partain said the first celebration of the Catholic faith within the present diocesan boundaries was by a French priest, Father Zenobius Membre, who traveled with explorer Robert de La Salle in the region in 1682. Later Catholicism again came with Spanish and French colonists, in addition to Catholic Native Americans chased from Florida “long before America was thought of as a country,” said Father Partain. The diocese was established in Natchitoches, the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1910, the Holy See approved having the diocese centered in Alexandria, a railroad hub.
Former enslaved black Catholics, followed by Italians, Lebanese, Irish and Belgian immigrants and clergy from Ireland and France put their stamp on the spirituality and Catholicism in the diocese, the priest said. Since the 1970s, it has been immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines and Central America who have added to those in the pews, he said.
There are about 36,000 Catholic in the diocese, about 10 percent of the population. It is the second largest religious community, after the Southern Baptist Convention, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. There are some 50 parishes, which is about half the number in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
The people know their deep roots and Catholicism’s role in shaping it, he said.
“They have a real sense of their past and their cultures,” said Father Partain, who was ordained in 2003.
The diocese is split geographically with most Catholics living in the southern half and fewer Catholics in the north. It is one of seven Catholic dioceses in Louisiana.
Faith communities have a history of interfaith outreach. More than a century ago, the cathedral choir would cross the street to sing in the Jewish synagogue and during holy days, the Jewish choir joined in Catholic celebrations, he said. And from the 1950s to the 1970s, local Protestants claimed the beloved Catholic bishop, Bishop Charles P. Greco, as “their bishop” even as they disagreed on Catholic teachings, he said.
“There’s a mutual respect and great degree of cooperation,” said Father Partain.