Local News Archive
Print Issue: March 23, 1978
The Bishops From Georgia
By Michael Motes
(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles examining the careers of priests of the Church in Georgia who have become United States Bishops.)
On August 29, 1911, a front-page article in The Atlanta Constitution states that: "Few ministers in Atlanta have won a larger place than Father Gunn in the affection and respect of the community."
The occasion was an exciting one. Marist Father John Edward Gunn was being consecrated Bishop of Natchez, Mississippi, in ceremonies at Sacred Heart Church in downtown Atlanta where he had served as pastor since 1898.
Anticipating the regal ceremony, the Constitution reported: "With the solemn and beautiful ceremonial fitting the occasion, the Reverend John E. Gunn, SM, DD, will this morning be consecrated Bishop of Natchez, covering the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mississippi. The consecration will take place at Sacred Heart Church with the upbuilding of which Father Gunn is so conspicuously identified, and will be attended by priests and high ecclesiastics from every part of the Southern States.
"Few ministers in Atlanta have won a larger place than Father Gunn in the affection and respect of the community, irrespective of the Church he has served with such zeal and ability. His has been an influence ever exerted for clean and effectual living, high and pure civic ideals. From the standpoint of intuitive sympathy and proved executive capacity, he is splendidly qualified to fill the exalted position to which he is today to be promoted.
"Atlanta will regret his loss, both in spiritual and civic senses. The diocese over which he is to preside gains a bishop whose creed is expressed in the word 'service,' and whose attributes of manhood and spirituality blend ideally those assets needed in a twentieth century ministry."
John Edward Gunn was born March 15, 1863, at Fivemiletown, County Tyrone, Ireland, the son of Edward and Mary (Grew) Gunn. His education was an international one, having studied at St. Mary's College in Dundalk, Ireland; the Marist House of Studies in Paignton, England and Belley, France; Dublin's Catholic University of Ireland, and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.
In 1884, he professed in the Society of Mary and was ordained on February 2, 1890, by Julius Lenti, Patriarch of Constantinople, in Rome. For two years, Father Gunn was engaged in pastoral work abroad then joined the faculty of the Marist House of Studies at Catholic University in Washington where he remained until 1898 when assigned to Atlanta.
'Cash on hand $0.00' at Sacred Heart
At the time of his appointment of the newly-opened Sacred Heart Church, Father Gunn was 35 years old. His young parish was in debt when he arrived, as evidenced by an entry he made in his ledger upon is arrival: " September 25, 1898. Cash on hand $0.00. Advanced by Father Gunn, $150." In February of the following year, it was necessary for him to advance $360 more to meet current expenses.
But Father Gunn did not worry about debt. In order to meet the difficult financial situation, he relied for support on his unshakable faith in the future of Atlanta, on his own religious Society and on persons with means in and out of Atlanta.
In order to arouse the interest of his parishioners, Father Gunn never discussed the lack of parish funds, rather pointed out new improvements the Church needed, thus stirring his flock to "find a way" to meet needed expenditures. One of his first purchases was in April 1899 when he ordered an organ for Sacred Heart, which had been opened for over a year but which was without the much-needed musical instrument.
In order to pay for Father Gunn's purchase, Mrs. R. B. Ridley, President of Sacred Heart's Ladies Altar Society, held a bazaar at her home at the corner of Forest Avenue and Peachtree Street, and raised $2,000. The organ paid for, Father Gunn now faced the problem of hiring an organist, but there were no parish funds for a salary.
An agreement Father Gunn made with several of his parishioners to pay the salary of J. Lewis Brown for six months lasted for years and the organist became a favorite of Atlanta music lovers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, coming to Sacred Heart to hear Brown perform.
Continuing improvements on the new Church, Father Gunn was responsible for installing a furnace and carpeting and in November 1900 the addition of a second story of the priests' residence. During his pastorate, 21 stained glass windows were installed; the choir and organ gallery added; the building was repaired and the twin towers covered with copper. In 1908, the confessionals were installed and basically the structure was complete and would remain unchanged for a number of years.
Marist College Opens in 1900 -- Sacred Heart School Follows
One of the most important events to take place during Father Gunn's Atlanta residency was the opening of Marist College, forerunner of today's Marist School in October 1900.
By the academic year 1907-08, Marist College had an enrollment of 125 young men. Father Gunn, who had served as President of the educational institution since he founded it, now turned his attention to establishing a parochial grammar school. Two houses were purchased on Courtland Street, renovated and equipped to open in October 1909 under the name Sacred Heart School.
The school, staffed by Sisters of Saint Joseph, opened with 150 pupils in six grades. By the second year, it was too small to accept all the applicants and Father Gunn pleaded with the parishioners:
"We are forced into extensive and expensive changes to accommodate the children for the next year. We need a few thousand dollars to prepare for the coming year. Who will help the priests give our Catholic children a chance?"
A constant champion of education, Father Gunn repeatedly said, "The greatest religious factor in the United States today is the Catholic school system, maintained without any aid except from the people who love it." He felt that all Catholic youth should be equally well-educated, even if their parents did not support the idea.
"Whether the parents contribute to church support or not should not make them punish their children by denying them Catholic education, which is offered them free. Just as the priest administers the Sacrament to all, so the Sisters are with us to teach all," he said.
Named Bishop By Pope Pius IX
The Atlanta work of Father Gunn in growth (he was responsible for his order purchasing the Marietta property which became St. Joseph's parish) and education was rewarded on June 29, 1911, when he was appointed Bishop of Natchez, Mississippi, by Pope Pius IX.
His Sacred Heart parishioners were pleased that their pastor had been made a bishop, yet they were sorry that they would lose him. On July 16, 1911, a group consisting of Jack J. Spalding, James Gillespie, John O'Keefe, Peter Clark, John, M. Harrison and James Wilson met after the 9:30 a.m. Mass to formulate plans for the bishop-elect's consecration. Area clergy jointed in the planning for the biggest event in the history of the parish.
Four-Hour Consecration Described
The Atlanta Constitution gave a full account of the event. Four pictures of the procession appeared on the front page of August 30, 1911, and a large photo on page two of the dinner for the clergy.
"With a triumphant musical announcement, majestic as the advance of the Holy Catholic Church down the ages, the procession assembled to assist in the ceremonies attendant upon the consecration of Reverend John E. Gunn, as Bishop of Natchez, entered the Sacred Heart Church yesterday morning at 10, and a congregation which filled every available space participated with a devotion which was as fervent as it was apparent in the four-hour program which elevated their long-time pastor to the episcopate," the paper reported.
Marist cadets formed an honor guard, "saluted as the ecclesiastics passed them and the picture was a brilliant one, the straight young soldiers in their grey and white uniforms, a loyal guard extending a last salute to their director and comrade."
Leading the procession was Bishop Benjamin Keiley of the Diocese of Savannah. Archbishop Blenk, SM, of New Orleans, consecrated Bishop Gunn. Among those attending were Bishop Lynch of Dallas, Bishop Van de Ven of Alexandria, Bishop Shaw of San Antonio and Abbott Bellama of Birmingham. Bishop Keiley was homilist.
Kept Ties With Atlanta
Even after leaving Atlanta, Bishop Gunn kept in close contact with his former parishioners. He returned in November, 1911, to administer Confirmation at Sacred Heart and the following year administered the Sacrament of Holy Orders for the first time. Among those ordained were Father Edward P. McGrath, SM, a member of Sacred Heart parish, and Father James T. Reilly, SM, a native of Georgia and a member of Savannah's Cathedral parish. Both priests later served in Bishop Gunn's former Atlanta parish.
On January 13, 1924, Atlantans were shocked to hear that Bishop Gunn was in critical condition in a New Orleans hospital. Several weeks later, spirits lifted when word reached town that the bishop's health had improved. The improvement was short, however, and Bishop Gunn died on February 19, 1924.
'Proud Of Three Things'
As he requested in his will, Bishop Gunn was buried beside his predecessor, the fifth Bishop of Natchez. In his will he states, "In life and in death I am proud of three things: My Irish birth, my Catholic faith, and my American citizenship. I tried to translate my love for all three into service and sacrifice."
And from 1898 to 1911, Bishop John Edward Gunn "translated" the Catholic faith to the people of Atlanta.
(The information used in this article is from Father Vincent P. Brennan's History of the Parish of the Sacred Heart in Atlanta, Georgia privately printed in 1948.)