The first half of the 20th century saw unprecedented growth in Baton Rouge. In the metropolitan area alone, the Catholic Church grew from one church parish in 1900 to nine by 1950 and to 15 by 1960. In the more rural areas, outside of city limits, church parishes gradually evolved from mission chapels as congregations grew and resident priests became available. 

In a Papal Bull entitled “Peramplum Novae Aurelia,” Blessed Pope John XXIII established the Diocese of Baton Rouge on July 22, 1961. Carved from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the new diocese covers 5,513 square miles over an area of 12 civil parishes: Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupée, St. Helena, St. James, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana. St. Joseph Church in Baton Rouge was chosen as the cathedral. The Diocese of Baton Rouge began with 51 church parishes, 26 missions, 14 chapels, 110 priests, 278 sisters, 19 brothers and 90 seminarians.

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The first bishop, Bishop Robert E. Tracy, energetically organized the diocese in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, of which he was a participant. Bishop Tracy was born on Sept. 14, 1909 in New Orleans. He attended St. Joseph Seminary College and Notre Dame Seminary and was ordained on June 12, 1932. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Lafayette by St. John XXIII on March 18, 1959, becoming the first native of New Orleans and first alumnus of Notre Dame Seminary to be raised to the episcopacy. On Nov. 8, 1961, Bishop Tracy was installed as the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s first bishop. 

Vatican II’s progressive vision of the church as the people of God, with clergy, religious and laity collaborating on the work of the Lord was the inspiration for Bishop Tracy’s leadership during the first years of the diocese. The chancery and tribunal were among the first departments to be formulated, followed by the establishment of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Commentator, as well as the Department of History and Archives. Religious women and lay men and women were encouraged to actively participate in the outreach and internal affairs of the diocese. Workshops were held to train parishioners on topics of lay leadership, which would evolve into lay congress and pastoral councils. Within seven years of existence, 13 new church parishes were formed in the diocese, with 10 outside of the Baton Rouge city limits. 

The Diocese of Baton Rouge became a model for other dioceses in establishing a full consultative process as an integral part of the diocesan administration, and encouraged laity and religious to join with the priests in sharing responsibility for the mission of the church. 

Jones is the associate archivist for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. 

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Bishop Robert E. Tracy’s episcopal installation took place at St. Joseph Cathedral on Nov. 8, 1961.  Catholic Commentator file photo