Growth 1891-1924 Bishop Theophile Meerschaert

Bishop Meerschaert must have gazed at his new missionary area with some sense of awe and, perhaps, a little dread. Indian Territory, including Oklahoma Territory, was six times larger than his native Belgium. The rolling, seemingly endless rust colored prairie was a foreign environment to him. The new Vicar Apostolic of Indian Territory had three diocesan priests with whom to work.

The statistical picture of the vicariate (the ecclesiastical grade between a prefecture and a diocese) was not altogether gloomy. Besides the diocesan priests, there were 23 Benedictine priests, 21 churches, seven day schools, five Indian boarding schools, one college, one monastery, six convents and about 5,000 Catholics (one for every 14 square miles).

Theophile Meerschaert was born in Russignies, Flanders, Belgium, on August 24, 1847. Moved by word of the needs and opportunities in the American missions he became a theological student at the American College in Louvain. Ordained to the priesthood in 1871, Father Meerschaert came as a missionary to Mississippi the following year.

For 19 years Father Meerschaert labored among the difficult circumstances of a reconstructingSouth. At one point he was felled by yellow fever and his case thought hopeless. The stout constitution that would carry him through 33 years of ceaseless effort in Indian Territory survived the fever crisis.

From one viewpoint. Bishop Meerschaert's third of a century in Oklahoma was mainly toil and trouble. He had difficult time recruiting American-born clergy (maybe a dozen in his whole tenure). Conditions of life were severe, often dangerous. The vicar stayed in dugouts with families, slept outdoors, swam across rivers with his unhitched team of horses. Travel by horse and buggy or railroads occupied a good deal of his time. He had a long standing tiff with the Benedictine monks. He was aware of many Catholics lapsing from the Church. He was the leader of a Church that was feared, badgered, mistrusted and ridiculed.

On the other hand Bishop Meerschaert must have felt joy in the tenacious faith of his priests and people. One can imagine him praising God as he stared at the starry sky from his blanket-bed on the open ground. He had the satisfaction of dedicating about 100 new churches and of becoming the first bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma in 1905.

In person, Theophile Meerschaert was of medium height and stocky frame. He was simple, direct, kind and, when occasion called for it, austere. Joseph Quinn, editor of The Southwest Courier and friend of the bishop, described him as a "dominant personality." For certain, he was not destroyed when most others would have been.