By J.E. GUERCIO
Most Rev. John Edward Gunn served as the sixth Bishop of Natchez from 1911 to 1924. The oldest of eleven children, John Gunn was born in Fivemiletown, County Tyrone, to Edward and Mary (née Crew) Gunn. From 1875 to 1880 he studied at St. Mary’s College in Dundalk. He then attended the Marist House of Studies in Paignton, England (1880-1882) before furthering his studies in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University (1885-1890). While in Rome, He made his profession in the Society of Mary on August 23, 1884, and was ordained to the priesthood by Patriarch Lenti on February 2, 1890.
Father Gunn, S.M. taught at St. Mary’s in Dundalk until 1892, when he became professor of moral theology in the Marist House of Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In 1898 he was assigned to Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as pastor of the newly erected Sacred Heart Church. (Now known as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
On June 29, 1911, Gunn was appointed the Bishop of Natchez by Pope Pius X. The diocese contained 75 churches, 46 priest, and 17,000 Catholics. After 13 years of labor in his vast vineyard, there were 149 churches and over 31,000 Catholics.
Bishop Gunn found Natchez a difficult base from which to govern his 48,000 square miles diocese. He realized that the railroad was the main source of travel and none of the states three main lines passed through Natchez. In July 1912 Bishop Gunn had the priest’s retreat at Bay St. Louis. It was the first time the center of Mississippi Catholic activity was moved away from Natchez. 1914-1918 brought tough years with World War I. The bishop was a major force in voicing justification in defense of one’s country. The bishop relied on Fr. Patrick Hayden, and after 1921 Fr. Peter Ahern to run the Natchez parish. The move to the Gulf Coast was not all logistics as Bishop Gunn was suffering from rheumatism: “A bishop’s job is no job for a man suffering with my kind of rheumatism.” He was thinking of retiring.
On December 20, 1923, Bishop Gunn left Pass Christian to officiate in the Christmas Mass at the Cathedral in Natchez. While there, he fell ill and died the following February (1924) at the Hotel Dieu in New Orleans. He is buried beside the Celtic Cross of Ireland on Catholic Hill, Natchez City Cemetery, along with Bishop Heslin. “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.” Bp. John Gunn