MEERSCHAERT, THEOPHILE (1847-1924)
The first Roman Catholic bishop of Oklahoma, Theophile Meerschaert was born in Russiegnies, Belgium, on August 24, 1847. He was the eighth of nine children. At an early age he decided to study for the priesthood. After preparatory studies, he attended the American College of the University of Louvain, where he was readied for missionary work in the United States. Accepting an offer from the bishop of Natchez, Mississippi, he was ordained at Malines (Mechlin) for that diocese on December 23, 1871.
After ten years of parish work among impoverished Creole Catholics on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Meerschaert was appointed rector of the Natchez cathedral, and there he was consecrated a bishop on September 8, 1891. His title was Vicar Apostolic of the Indian Territory, in charge of an area that comprised all of modern Oklahoma.
From his headquarters at Guthrie, Meerschaert traveled incessantly throughout his vast pastoral territory, establishing parishes, appointing pastors, recruiting communities of nuns to staff schools and hospitals, and raising funds for his missionary charge. With priesthood candidates from Oklahoma in short supply, he returned often to his Belgian homeland to locate missionaries willing to spend their lives in the American hinterland.
In 1905 the Holy See rewarded his efforts by raising Oklahoma to diocesan rank. Thereafter he made his residence in Oklahoma City, even though Oklahoma was not yet a state, nor Oklahoma City its capital. St. Joseph's Church, at Fourth and Harvey in Oklahoma City, became his cathedral.
The second half of his episcopate was marked by the Sacramental Wine Case of 1917-18, which stemmed from the Bone Dry Law passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1917. The case established a religious exemption for the ban against alcoholic beverages; but in doing so, it also made it easier to gain passage of the prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment and subsequent law that was in force from 1920 to 1933.
Bishop Meerschaert kept a detailed diary throughout his thirty-two years in office. This document that has provided much information about Oklahoma life and religion in the period. He died in Oklahoma City on February 21, 1924. At first buried at Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City, his remains now rest in the Bishops' Vault at Resurrection Cemetery in the same city.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: James D. White, Diary of a Frontier Bishop: The Journals of Theophile Meerschaert (Tulsa, Okla.: The Sarto Press, 1994). Sister M. Ursula Thomas, O.S.B., The Catholic Church on the Oklahoma Frontier, 1824-1907 (St. Louis, Mo.: St. Louis University, 1938).
James D. White
© Oklahoma Historical Society