After the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez in 1521, the Spanish tradition of establishing a diocese as soon as possible after taking territorial possession was quickly evidenced in the new colony. The Diocese of Mexico City was formed in 1530 with Bishop Juan de Zumarraga. Since there was no northern border to the Diocese, the Inland Empire area was technically part of this Diocese.
The Diocese of Guadalajara separated from Mexico City in 1620. In 1680, the Diocese of Durango was assigned jurisdiction to the lands north and northwest of the city. Over the next century, several bishops from Durango visited the New Mexico area, but no one came to the area known as Alta California. When Rev. Junipero Serra began the first California mission in 1769 at San Diego, he and his successors were granted the power to confirm. This reduced the need for the Durango Bishops to visit the missions in the northern areas. (Note – the current State of California was part of Alta California.)
In 1779, the Diocese of Sonora was formed and had jurisdiction over the northern areas which included the California area. The first Bishop in Sonora was Bishop Antonio de los Reyes. He and his four successors did not directly concern themselves with the missions and their activities in the Two Californias (Alta and Baja) as the coastal chain of missions expanded with 16 more missions from 1776-1823.
The Mexican Congress on September 19, 1836 formally petitioned Pope Gregory XVI to erect a diocese for Alta and Baja California. Unfortunately, international problems in Europe and North America caused a delay. On April 27, 1840, Pope Gregory signed a papal bull erecting the Diocese of Both Californias and confirming the appointment of Rev. Garcia Diego as its first bishop. The Diocese was located initially in San Diego and later in 1842 it was moved to Santa Barbara.
Bishop Garcia Diego died on April 30, 1846. The Mexican War began on July 7, 1846 and continued for two years. This war precluded a timely replacement for Bishop Diego. The Bishop’s secretary, Rev. Jose Maria Gonzalez Rubio, became the Administrator and was formally appointed as Vicar on October 7, 1847. Locally, it was in the mid 1840’s when some New Mexico pioneers settled by the Santa Ana River near San Bernardino. The first parish in the area was founded in 1852, San Salvador de Jurupa.
After the war, the name of the Diocese was changed to Monterey on November 20, 1849, a name it retained for a decade until the Diocese was moved to Los Angeles on July 8, 1859. After California became an American state with its admission to the Union on September 9, 1850, it became necessary to change ecclesiastical jurisdictional lines so as not to have a diocese cross a national boundary. The decree removing the Diocese of Monterey as a suffrage of the Archbishop of Mexico City was received on June 20, 1852. (Note - suffragen refers to a diocese that is part of an archdiocese).
The first American bishop, Most Reverend Joseph Sadoc Alemany, had been appointed on June 30, 1850. On July 29, 1853, acting on the advice of the First Plenary Council in Baltimore, the Holy See erected a separate province in California. With this action, Alta California was divided into the Archdiocese of San Francisco for the north and the larger suffragan Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles in the south. Bishop Alemany became the new archbishop, and he was succeeded in the south by Bishop Thaddeus Amat on March 12, 1854.
With the Gold Rush and international commerce, northern California and particularly, San Francisco, experienced tremendous growth. A comparative statistic is most telling – In 1880, Los Angeles had only 11,000 people, while the Archdiocese of San Francisco boasted 185,000 Catholics. This growth in northern California resulted in the formation of the Vicar Apostolate of Marysville on February 3, 1861. This Vicar Apostolate was renamed the Diocese of Grass Valley on March 22, 1868. Then, the Diocese of Grass Valley was renamed the Diocese of Sacramento on May 28, 1886.
On June 1, 1922, under the leadership of Bishop John Joseph Cantwell, the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles was divided into the Diocese of Los Angeles – San Diego and the Diocese of Monterey – Fresno. Fourteen years later, the Diocese of San Diego was formed, and Los Angeles became an archdiocese. The first Bishop of San Diego was Bishop Charles Buddy (1936-66) who built 57 parishes in San Bernardino and Riverside counties during his 30 year episcopacy.
The Catholic Church continued to grow in northern California after World War II. On January 13, 1962, the Dioceses of Stockton and Oakland were created from the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The next month, the Diocese of Santa Rosa was formed from the Archdiocese of San Francisco on February 21, 1962. Almost 20 years later, the Diocese of San Jose was created from the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Today, the Diocese of San Jose is the youngest Diocese in California, created on January 27, 1981.
The post-World War II church growth was also evident in Southern California. On December 14, 1967, the Diocese of Monterey was re-established, and the next day, the Diocese of Fresno was created. On June 18, 1976, the Diocese of Orange was formed from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Two years later, the Diocese of San Bernardino was created from the Diocese of San Diego on November 6, 1978.
In an article from the Catholic Register dated April 19, 1851, a writer describes the hope for the California church: “In every portion of the State, churches are being erected, charitable and literary institutions are being founded, and with the blessing of God, we hope, in a short time, that California will shine forth a bright spot on the map of the Catholic Church.” From the 21 California missions started by Rev. Junipero Serra, the Catholic Church in California today boasts 12 Dioceses, 1,069 parishes, 573 schools and over 12 million baptized members.
California has become that bright spot on the map of the Catholic Church.
Peter Bradley is Archivist for the Diocese of San Bernardino.