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LORAS, Mathias

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Mathias Loras

LORAS, Mathias. (Lyons, France, Aug. 30, 1792--Dubuque, IA, Feb. 19, 1858). John Mathias Pierre Loras was born the tenth of eleven children of a wealthy French family. He was only an infant when his mother pleaded with the tyrant Couthon for the life of her husband, a wealthy aristocrat and councilor of Lyons. Loras' father, however, was in the first group to be guillotined in the Square des Terreaux; a few days later the same fate took two of his sisters and two brothers, one of the latter being Mayor of St. Cry. In all, seventeen persons of the Loras family lost their lives for their political and religious convictions. (1) As a student, he began a life-long friendship with Jean-Baptiste Vianney, later the sainted Cure' d'Ars. As a seminarian, Loras was a student of Ambrose Mare'chal and a fellow student of Englishman James Whitfield, future archbishops of Baltimore. In 1815 Loras was ordained a priest by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, archbishop of Lyons and uncle of the exiled Napoleon I. (2)

In 1828 Loras was invited by Bishop Michael Portier to return with him to Mobile, Alabama. It was there that Loras was involved with the founding of Spring Hill College and served as vicar-general. (3)

In the mid 1830s, a Provincial Council of Baltimore recommended to the pope that new dioceses be created due to the expansion of the United States. Pope Gregory XVI established the Diocese of Dubuque on July 28, 1837, and Loras was named its first bishop. (4) The Diocese of Dubuque of 1837 reached from the northern line of the State of Missouri to the Canadian border and west from the Mississippi River to the Missouri. (5)

Loras was consecrated on December 10, 1837 by Bishop Portier in Mobile. (6) Loras immediately left the United States for Europe in search of priests, seminarians and money. When he returned in 1839, Loras was accompanied by Joseph Cretin who became a vicar-general and in 1851 the first bishop of St. Paul and Anthony Pelamourges, first pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Davenport. (7)

Loras reached Dubuque on April 21, 1839. There were three parishes, an Indian mission, and one priest Samuel MAZZUCHELLI. Since his diocese covered the entire states of Iowa and Minnesota and the Dakotas east of the Missouri River, he started traveling by steamboat up to St. Anthony's Falls and back by canoe, down the MISSISSIPPI RIVER and back up the Missouri to Council Bluffs and then back to Dubuque overland. His first ten years in Dubuque were spent organizing the faithful. All parts of the diocese saw the establishment of missions and churches. It has been estimated that upon his arrival there were no more than two thousand Catholics in the diocese. (8)

In 1839 he organized St. Raphael's Seminary. In 1843, through the efforts of Bishop Loras, five SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM) came to Dubuque. They opened St. Mary's Academy and were soon joined by others of their order. (9)

Loras maintained good relations with those in Europe who might be counted upon for help. In 1846 when he discovered German Catholic immigrants thirty miles west of Dubuque he convinced them to name their community New Vienna in honor of the Austrian capital and home of one of his benefactors. In 1849-1850, Bishop Loras visited Europe again in search of clergy and money. His connections and influence enabled him to secure financial assistance from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith of Lyons, France, the Leopoldine Society of Vienna, Austria, and the Foreign Mission Society of Munich, Bavaria. He visited Mount Melleray, Ireland, in 1849 and expressed his desire to establish a group of Trappist Monks in his diocese. In response to his offer of a tract of land southwest of Dubuque, twenty-two monks came to Dubuque County and established the priory (later abbey) of New Melleray. (10)

Loras had a long history of encouraging Irish immigrants to move to Dubuque. In 1841 a committee of laymen appointed by him corresponded with the Irish Emigrant Society of New York that described Iowa in the most generous terms. Iowa representatives were sent to the 1856 convention of Irish Emigration held in Buffalo, New York. The CATHOLIC SETTLEMENT SOCIETY OF IOWA was another of his activities. (11)

Given his interest in encouraging Irish settlement in Dubuque, it is ironic that many of the most troubling problems Loras faced concerned his dealings with Irish settlers. Generally poor people, the Irish were often more interested in sending money back to Ireland than contributing to the church. They were also angered when more new churches tended to be constructed for German settlers. (12)

In 1844 feelings of frustration with his Irish parishioners surged when they refused to pay pew rent because the clergy of their church were not Irish. Loras left Dubuque and moved to Burlington only to return when the pastor in Dubuque became the leader of the Irish protestors. Loras fled Dubuque again in 1854 and threatened to remove all clergy from the city when Irish parishioners again threatened not to contribute to the church. He returned after the issues involved had been settled through the help of several influential Irish leaders in the community. (13)

Not satisfied with Saint Raphael's Seminary in Dubuque, Loras moved the school south of Dubuque to a region known today as Key West. The new school, named Saint Bernard's College and Seminary, faced financial problems but managed to survive until Loras' death. (14)

On July 19, 1850 Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Saint Paul. The Diocese of Dubuque had been reduced to the boundaries of the state of Iowa. (15) In 1854 he had established thirty-one Catholic churches in the State of Iowa with a membership of more than 15,000. (16)

By the late 1850s, Bishop Loras found that his health was failing. He asked the Holy See to name a coadjutor bishop to assist him. On January 9, 1857, Rev. Clement Smyth, OCSO, prior at New Melleray was appointed as coadjutor bishop. As the Dubuque Diocese grew in size Loras wrote to Pope Pius IX in May 1857 stating that he was considering asking for the Dubuque Diocese to be divided, with Keokuk as the See city for the new diocese. However this was not done in his lifetime. (17)

In the 1850s, under the direction of Bishop Loras, the present cathedral church was begun. This was the third building for St. Raphael's parish, and it was over three times the size of the old cathedral. Bishop Loras would not live long enough to see this cathedral completed, but he was able to offer the first mass in ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL on Christmas, 1857. He died two months later. (18)

On May 28, 1939 a bronze statue of Bishop Loras, sculpted by Vincenzo Miserendino, was unveiled on the Loras campus by Archbishop Francis J.L. BECKMAN.

Loras found a diocese with three parishes, several hundred Catholics and one priest when he came to Iowa. Stretching his limited funds to the maximum, Loras directed the development of the diocese with thirty-seven priests, fifty-two churches, forty-seven missions, and forty-nine thousand Catholics. His vast contribution to Dubuque and America was remembered in the naming of LORAS COLLEGE. (19)

In 2020 research into Loras' history before and after he came to Dubuque cast a shadow on his legacy. A researcher examining Bishop Loras' personal records for scholarship work confirmed Loras purchased an enslaved woman named Marie Louise while he was living in Mobile, Alabama. Loras enslaved Marie Louise from 1836 to 1852 leaving her behind when he moved to Iowa. He hired her out, however, and used proceeds from her labor to help build his various ministries in Iowa. A statue of Loras was removed from campus after school officials learned this information.

Writing in a letter to the campus community on September 9th, Loras College President James COLLINS stated that the statue would be placed in storage

                until we have convened as a community to discuss 
                the impact of this knowledge about our founder and, 
                specifically, whether and in what context the statue 
                could or should be displayed in the future.

A member of Loras College's history faculty researched the new details and confirmed the facts were indisputable. Collins also added there is no evidence Bishop Loras ever expressed remorse for his actions. He says confronting this part of the College's past did not absolve them of their duty to address it.

Collins added--

                 Slavery is an evil in any age, and its legacy of 
                 dehumanizing injustice persists. Bishop Loras’ 
                 abhorrent conduct is antithetical to the mission, 
                 vision, values and Catholic identity of this 
                 institution. Consistent with these values, Loras 
                 College denounces racial injustice and hate in all 
                 its forms.

The board announced it would create a scholarship fund honoring Mary Louise's legacy starting in the 2021-22 school year. Another scholarship fund would be created in honor of Loras' first Black graduate and fifth Black priest to be ordained in the United States, the Rev. Norman Dukette ('22) effective with the 2021-22 school year. (20)



1. Briggs, John Ely. "The First Bishop of Iowa," The Palimpsest Vol. XI Issued in August 1930 No. 8. Online: http://iagenweb.org/boards/dubuque/biographies/index.cgi?read=211677

2. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008

3. Ibid.

4. Briggs

5. Ireland, John Right Rev. "Right Rev. Mathias Loras, First Bishop of Dubuque," The Catholic World, Vol. 67, September 1898, p. 726. Online: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/bac8387.0067.402/751?page=root;rgn=main;size=100;view=image

6. Hudson

7. "Mathias Loras," Virtual American Biographies. Online: http://www.famousamericans.net/mathiasloras/

8. Hudson

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Gue, Benjamin F. "Mathias Loras," History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/Volume 4 Online: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_Iowa_From_the_Earliest_Times_to_the_Beginning_of_the_Twentieth_Century/4/Mathias_Loras

15. Hudson

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. "Loras College Removing Founder’s Statue After Learning of Ties to Slavery," KWWL.com Online: https://kwwl.com/2020/09/08/loras-college-removing-founders-statue-after-learning-of-ties-to-slavery/