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Bishop DuBourg: First bishop in St. Louis

Though St. Louis became a diocese after he left, Bishop DuBourg laid the groundwork for the diocese in many areas

Bp. Dubourg
Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg arrived in St. Louis on January 5, 1818, and was promptly installed as bishop in the run-down log cathedral on the riverfront. While he was never officially a bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis (founded in 1826), the Archdiocese of St. Louis exists because of him.

A Sulpician priest, then-Father DuBourg was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Two Floridas in 1815. He encountered resistance to his authority at the diocesan seat of New Orleans. To avoid conflict, he made fledgling St. Louis his new episcopal seat.

Bishop DuBourg was passionate about Catholic education. He began his ministry as a schoolman in Paris and later went to Baltimore as a refugee from the “Reign of Terror” in France in 1794. Father DuBourg was involved in the founding of Georgetown University, St. Mary’s Seminary and University, and Mount St. Mary’s University.

In St. Louis in 1818, Bishop DuBourg established the first Catholic school west of the Mississippi, called Saint Louis Academy, which grew into the prestigious Saint Louis University. He invited the Vincentians to build the first seminary west of the Mississippi at St. Mary’s of the Barrens in Perryville.

In the course of his educational aspirations, Bishop DuBourg involved himself with saints as well. Bishop DuBourg convinced Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Seton to stay in the U.S., rather than move to Canada, by hatching a plan for her to direct a Catholic girls’ school in Baltimore.

He brought St. Rose Philippine Duchesne to Missouri. During a recruiting trip to Europe, he asked the Society of the Sacred Heart to send sisters to his diocese to teach; they opened the Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1818.

From St. Louis, Bishop DuBourg sent missionaries to visit scattered European-based and indigenous settlements. Jesuit Fathers Charles Nerinckx and Pierre De Smet traveled through the Great Plains and to the Pacific Northwest to minister to Native American tribes.

According to historical sources, Bishop DuBourg endorsed and participated in the slave trade, using enslaved persons for labor and financial collateral. The Archdiocese of St. Louis’ “Forgive Us Our Trespasses” initiative seeks to research persons enslaved by Bishop DuBourg and diocesan clergy. To learn more about the project, see: www.stlreview.com/3yaUxLP.

Driven to the point of exhaustion, Bishop DuBourg retired in 1826, returning to France where he served as a bishop until his death in 1833.

Schergen is an archivist with the Archdiocesan Archives.

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