Francis August Janssens, D.D.

Fourth Bishop of Natchez A Biographical Sketch

By MARY BELLAN EIDT

After Bishop Elder's departure on April 4, 1880, Very Reverend Mathurin Grignon administered the affairs of the diocese of Natchez until the appointment of Francis August Janssens on February 23, 1881.

A native of Holland, Janssens entered the American College at Louvain in Belgium where he offered his services to Bishop McGill of Richmond, Virginia. Serving as rector of St. Peter's Cathedral and as chancellor of the diocese of Richmond, he was appointed administrator of the diocese upon the death of Bishop McGill. Subsequently, he was appointed rector of the American College at Louvain, but he never assumed this position.

Well-known in ecclesiastical circles, he was appointed the fourth bishop of Natchez and was consecrated on May 1, 1881. John Gilmary Shea wrote: "The ceremony was the grandest eccelesiastical function ever seen in Richmond and attracted the largest gathering in the history of the church in the state."

Bishops Janssens wasted no time. He left Richmond on May 4 and arrived in Vicksburg on May 6 to journey by boat to Natchez. Met by a large number of clergy and citizens at the foot of Silver Street, he boarded a carriage to travel to the rectory and proceeded to the cathedral for his first official ceremony. He addressed the congregation and closed with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The next morning (Sunday) he offered Mass and again addressed the large gathering, humbly expressing his thanks for the warm reception of the people.

After spending only two weeks in Natchez, the new bishop, set out to visit his churches throughout the state of Mississippi. By the end of the year he had administered the sacrament of Confirmation in 36 churches in the diocese. He continued his ministry throughout the diocese during the first half the next year.

After laboring in the diocese for one year, Bishop Janssens traveled to his native Holland to see his aged Mother. His hometown of Tilburg welcomed him with pomp and ceremony before he was escorted to his childhood home where he blessed his mother and enjoyed several days with his family.

Upon Bishop Janssens' return to Natchez, he immediately turned his attention to the improvement of the cathedral. Patrick McGraw, an active parishioner, had willed the church $1,000 for a clock in the tower of the cathedral. The city added $400 and promptly installed the clock.

In 1882 Bishop Janssens initiated three major projects--the building of the present sacristy, the beautification of the sanctuary, and the installation of a new organ in the church. The beautification of the sanctuary included the painting of the Crucifixion on the wall behind the altar and the installation of four stained glass windows.

The physical improvements were major accomplishments, but his greatest accomplishment was freeing the church of debt. Free of debt the cathedral could be consecrated. (It had been blessed earlier.) On September 19, 1886, Bishop Janssens presided over the consecration of the cathedral. Admitted by ticket, 1,250 Catholics and non-Catholics filled the church for the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Archbishop William Henry Elder, of Cincinnati, formerly of Natchez.

After the church was consecrated, the bishop continued efforts to improve the building. Repairs to the roof and the front steps, installation of a furnace, frescoing the entire interior, and cementing the firewall were completed during his administration.

Bishop Janssens also focused his efforts on Catholic education. He worked to improve existing schools and to open new ones in the diocese. To encourage school children to study, he initiated diocesan competition. He succeeded in improving the little school for Negro children. He arranged for the Sisters of Charity to take over the school and move it from the basement of the church to the building adjoining the bishop's residence.

Like his predecessor, Bishop Elder, he was called to be an archbishop. On September 7, 1888, Bishop Janssens received official papers naming him archbishop of New Orleans where he remained until his death on June 9, 1897. He is buried in St. Louis Basilica (formerly Cathedral) in New Orleans.

Source: Cradle Days of St. Mary's at Natchez by R.O. Gerow, Bishop of Natchez


Lithograph on stone - St. Mary Cathedral