Looking back 100 years – The first bishop of Springfield

Looking back 100 years
The first bishop of Springfield
    Special to the Catholic Times

February 28, 2024, is the 100th anniversary of the installation of Bishop James Aloysius Griffin as the fourth bishop of the diocese and first bishop in Springfield. His installation in Springfield took place the day after his 41st birthday in 1924.

Bishop Griffin was born Feb. 27, 1883, in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His parents were Thomas Griffin and Catherine Woulfe, both immigrants from Limerick, Ireland and he was the oldest of 11 children. Two of his sisters went on to join the Sisters of Mercy (RSM). He grew up in the shadow of the Union Shipyards and witnessed many of the early labor strikes and movements in the late 19th century, which were an influence on his later life. 

A student that both excelled inside and outside the classroom, Bishop Griffin graduated from St. Gabriel High School and St. Ignatius College Prep, both in Chicago. He then attended Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis for a year, before leaving for the North American College in Rome in 1904. There, he studied and completed a six-year course, and he was ordained by Archbishop Giuseppe Ceppetelli on July 4, 1909.

According to descriptions by family and friends, Bishop Griffin was described as faithful, loyal, energetic, and gracious throughout his youth. As a pupil, he demonstrated strong oratory skills and saw obstacles as opportunities. He carried these characteristics with him to his first assignment as a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

He first served at St. James Parish in Chicago, then as pastor of Assumption Parish in Coal City. He became very active in the labor movement of coal miners in that town and acted as the only doctor serving the people during the pandemic of 1918. His last assignment before being elevated to bishop was as pastor of St. Mary Church in Joliet, where he served with distinction. 

On Feb. 28, 1924, accompanied by his mother, siblings, and 200 priests from Chicago, Bishop Griffin was installed in Springfield at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which served as the cathedral for the first four years of his episcopacy.  Cardinal George Mundelein served in the pope’s name to install the new bishop. The day was sunny and crisp with thousands in attendance at the ceremony at the old church located on Monroe and 8th Street.

Immediately, Bishop Griffin set out to tour the diocese and meet with clergy and parish councils to evaluate the needs of each parish. He worked to look after the material, moral, intellectual, and spiritual welfare of the entire diocese. Once he had achieved that goal, he then turned toward the building of a new cathedral. 

On Feb. 14, 1927, he opened the Cathedral Campaign and he governed with complete devotion and focus. The fire of enthusiasm spread so quickly that after asking for $750,000, the campaign closed 12 days later, on Feb. 26, having raised $1.2 million.

Bishop Griffin set upon the task of building a home worthy of the Eucharistic King and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mother. On Oct. 24, 1928, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated over a four-day series of ceremonial events and the mother church of the capital See was complete. The cathedral complex included a school, convent for the sisters that served as faculty, and a residence for the bishop and his clergy.

Bishop Griffin led the diocese through some of the most tumultuous moments in American history. He oversaw the maintenance of our Church through the economic crisis of the Great Depression and the Second World War. He established Catholic Charities, built high schools, consolidated the Catholic press, and worked for vocations in our diocese.  He devoted energy to assist with aiding priests in Mexico that faced discrimination and possible death due to the policies of anticlericalism. Additionally, he fought for fair treatment of coal miners and all laborers across Central Illinois. 

He was always known for his energy and apostolic zeal; in both he showed incredible optimism. He was a treasured leader, and his counsel was sought after by many pastors from all denominations both inside and outside the diocese. His personality and attitude remained true to the motto emblazoned on his episcopal coat of arms: Fide et fortitudine, which means, “By Faith and Fortitude.”

Katie Oubre, MLIS, CA, CRM is vice-chancellor for Archives and Records and P.J. Oubre, MA, CA, is assistant archivist, both of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.