Harrison County

Biloxi’s founding bishop dies. He was first black leader of a U.S. diocese in 20th century.

Bishop Joseph Howze blessed a passing boat at the Biloxi Blessing of the Fleet on May 31, 1997.
Bishop Joseph Howze blessed a passing boat at the Biloxi Blessing of the Fleet on May 31, 1997. Sun Herald archive

Bishop Emeritus Joseph Lawson Howze, the first black bishop to lead a diocese in the United States in the 20th Century, and founding bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, died Wednesday at the age of 95.

Howze became known as the top-ranking American black clergyman. He had led and integrated an all-white parish in Raleigh, N.C., in the 1960s, was appointed president of the National Black Catholic Clergy in 1974, and introduced Pope John Paul II in a historic church gathering in New Orleans in 1987. And he emphasized unity in God regardless of color.

Howze had worshiped in Baptist and Methodist churches when he was younger, and wanted to study medicine. But the call to the priesthood led him on a path to lead and grow the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi for 24 years.

He oversaw parishes in 17 South Mississippi counties after the diocese was founded in 1977 with 42 parishes, 28 schools and 48,000 Catholics.

Howze had been ill and died at Ocean Springs Hospital, diocese spokesman Terrance Dickson said.

“While we are saddened by the death of Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, we rejoice in his life,” Biloxi Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III said in a news release.

“He loved the Diocese of Biloxi and prayed unceasingly for its continued success,” Kihneman said. “He had a genuine concern for the salvation of souls.”

Creation of a diocese

Pope Paul VI appointed him to be the bishop in Biloxi on March 8, 1977. Howze signed a decree from the Vatican on June 6, 1977, minutes after cathedral bells tolled at the Nativity Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary. An overflow crowd watched the symbolic creation of the Biloxi Diocese. A 135-voice choir representing each parish sang. Thousands viewed the historic occasion on closed-circuit TV, Sun Herald archives show.

More than three dozen bishops attended, along with a number of priests.

Howze, then 54, took his seat in the Episcopal chair and was adorned with a mitre, the bishop’s crown and the crozier, the symbol of his role as the diocese’s chief shepherd.

During Mass, he said the foundation of his ministry must be of love.

“Love is eternal,” he said. “Faith and hope are for this life only. Everything else is bound with weakness and imperfections of the present state. Our foundation is love.”

The occasion also celebrated the first Catholic Mass on the Mississippi Coast 278 years earlier.

“Establishing a new diocese was hard work, but Bishop Howze was very proud of what he, with the help of devoted clergy, religious and laity, accomplished during his tenure as bishop of Biloxi and was forever grateful to the people of the diocese for their unfailing generosity of time, talent and treasure,” Kihneman said.

A black leader

The last black Catholic bishop to serve as a pastor had been Bishop James Healy of the Portland, Maine, diocese. He was ordained in 1854 and died in 1900.

Howze became president of the National Black Catholic Clergy in 1974. Three years later, he became the Biloxi bishop.

In 1987, he introduced Pope Paul II at a church meeting in the Superdome in New Orleans. He told the pope that church racism was a major hurdle to black leadership goals and evangelism in the U.S. church, Sun Herald archives show. He told the pope that many African Americans didn’t think that being black and Catholic were made for each other.

“Black Catholics love their church, and they want to become a more significant part of its mission to evangelize and sanctify the world,” Howze said.

He was interviewed by numerous media organizations and magazines, including Ebony, which said in an article, “Bishop Howze wears his awesome power with great humility, preferring simple pastoral duties to much weighty administrative tasks as monitoring a nearly $650,000 annual budget.”

Howze made a lasting impact on many black Catholic high school students who met him, said Dr. Todd Coulter, who went on to become an internal medicine doctor in Pascagoula.

“We looked up to him,” Coulter said. “He was a trailblazer for us, a hero — period. Especially for those of us who were considering the possibility of becoming a priest.”

Howze went on to become Coulter’s patient and close friend, and married Coulter and his wife.

“He was a very saintly, godly man,” Coulter said.

His background

Howze, born in Daphne, Alabama, was shuttled between relatives after his mother died when he was 5. His given name was Lawson, and Joseph later became his baptismal name.

He had foot problems that could have left him wheelchair-bound had he not received treatment, which left him with a shuffle when he walked.

He attended elementary and high schools in Baldwin County, Ala., and at the Mobile County Training School at Plateau. He was valedictorian of his high school class and intended to study medicine, but earned a bachelor’s degree in science and education at Alabama State College in Montgomery.

He taught biology and chemistry for two years at Central High School, a black public school in Mobile.

Howze had first been a Baptist, then a Methodist. He was a choir director, taught himself to play piano and was a Sunday School teacher. He was drawn to the Catholic faith when he was 25 through one of the Catholic students in his biology class.

He began studies to enter the priesthood at Epiphany College in New York in 1950 after being inspired by a Josephite priest, from a congregation of priests whose mission since the Civil War has been to serve the African American community,

Howze began studies at the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary in Buffalo in 1953, and was ordained in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1959.

Pope Paul VI made several appointments for Howze and he rose through spiritual ranks. He was auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson in 1972, and ordained as a bishop the next year in Jackson.

Howze told the Sun Herald he detested church politics and was surprised when he was nominated to become a bishop.

He enjoyed some of the unexpected pleasures of being a priest on the Mississippi Coast. He sprinkled countless shrimp boats with holy water and prayed for safe travels and good catches at the annual Blessing of the Fleet boat parade.

‘Work of a priest’

Howze made it clear that his work was “the work of a priest.”

He was a big believer in Catholic education. He was once quoted as saying, “Catholic schools are not just private schools, but schools with a very definite philosophy of educating the whole man — body and soul.”

Howze later hired Bragg Moore as youth minister for the diocese.

“He was always a man with a big smile and a hearty laugh,” Moore said. “He loved children. He loved people. He loved a good joke and he loved baseball.”

The Biloxi Diocese had been a part of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese before Howze was named bishop.

He once told the Sun Herald he judged his success as a bishop not by the number of parishioners, buildings or schools, but “by the salvation of souls.”

Howze retired on May 15, 2001. Kihneman, the current bishop, said Howze was present when he was ordained and installed in 2017.

Kihneman enjoyed visits with Howze, anointing him with the Sacrament of the sick, and praying with him.

“Without fail, every time I visited him, even as his health began to deteriorate, his first concern was always with what was happening in the Diocese of Biloxi,” Kihneman said.

“His was a life well lived in faithful service to Almighty God and to the people of Mississippi, both as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson and later as first Bishop of Biloxi.”

Funeral arrangements

A visitation is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Jan. 15, at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral, 870 Howard Avenue, with the vigil for the deceased at 7 p.m. There also will be a visitation Jan. 16 from 8:30 a.m. until the funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. at the cathedral. Interment will be at the new Bishops’ Prayer Garden behind Nativity Cathedral following the Mass.

Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.