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OBITUARY BISHOP THOMAS J. WELSH
Diocese’s founding bishop remembered for personal touch
Funeral Mass to be celebrated Saturday in Allentown
Arlington’s founding bishop, Thomas J. Welsh, died Feb. 19 after a brief illness, thus closing a remarkable chapter in diocesan history. He was 87.
All funeral services will take place at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, 18th and Turner Streets in Allentown, Pa.
Memorial Masses were to be celebrated today and Friday at 11 a.m. each day. A vigil service will be held Friday at 7 p.m. Visitation was to be held today from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday from 3 to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday at 11 a.m. Burial will take place at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Weatherly, Pa.
“Keeping his eyes focused on the example of Mary, the Mother of God, he gave himself totally and used his gifts and talents unsparingly to restore all things in Christ,” Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde said in a written statement. “To the vision of steadfast faith and the practice of pastoral charity, he added his welcoming personality and a keen sense of humor.
“Now that he has been called to his eternal reward in our true home, we mourn his earthly passing yet rejoice in his having attained the goal to which each one of us is destined: life on high in Christ Jesus Our Lord. … May Bishop Welsh, our Founding chief pastor, continue to pray for us: bishop, clergy, religious and laity, as we journey on our own pilgrimage of faith towards the Vision of the Triune God.”
A memorial Mass for Bishop Welsh will be celebrated March 16 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington at 7:30 p.m.
Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen asked the faithful of his diocese to “pray for the happy repose of this faithful servant and devoted bishop.”
“In his 15 years as Bishop of Allentown and during his retirement, Bishop Welsh served the faithful of this diocese tirelessly. This deeply spiritual bishop was an ardent supporter of Catholic education and a strong advocate for the unborn."
Pennsylvania to Virginia and back
Bishop Welsh’s installation in Arlington on Aug. 13, 1974, began a historic era for the Catholic Church that covers 21 counties in Northern Virginia. The diocese at the time consisted of 136,000 Catholics in 49 parishes and seven missions. Those numbers have changed dramatically during the past 35 years. Arlington now has more than 410,000 Catholics, 68 parishes and seven missions.
Bishop Welsh was an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., on June 4, 1974, when Pope Paul VI announced that the Richmond Diocese, one of the oldest in the country, would be split to form the new Arlington Diocese. St. Thomas More Church would serve as its cathedral.
Msgr. Richard J. Burke, pastor of St. Thomas More at the time, served as chairman of the installation committee. Msgr. Paul V. Heller, pastor of St. James Parish in Falls Church, read the papal bull, which outlined the boundaries of the new diocese. Concelebrants at the Aug. 13 installation Mass included the late Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate, former Baltimore Archbishop William Borders and the late Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol.
Thomas Welsh was born Dec. 20, 1921, in Weatherly, Pa., in what is now the Allentown Diocese. He was educated at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and received his doctorate in canon law at Catholic University in Washington. He was ordained a priest for the Philadelphia Archdiocese on May 30, 1946. He served the archdiocese in a variety of roles, including parish priest, high school teacher, retreat worker, Tribunal judge and seminary rector. He was ordained auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia April 2, 1970.
After more than eight years in Arlington, Bishop Welsh was appointed the second bishop of Allentown on Feb. 8, 1983, and installed March 21, 1983. He retired from Allentown in December 1997.
Laying a firm foundation
Much of the success Arlington enjoys today is the direct result of the strong foundation established by Bishop Welsh. He welcomed women religious into the diocese with open arms, including the Poor Clares, the Daughters of St. Paul, the Vocation Sisters from England, the Dominican Sisters of Nashville and Our Lady’s Missionaries of the Eucharist.
He recognized the need to reach out to both Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants who flocked to the Washington area in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War was about to end, and many South Vietnamese immigrants were forced to leave their homeland and settled in the Washington area.
The Office of Migration and Refugee Services was established in 1975 after Bishop Welsh was contacted by the U.S. Catholic Conference, now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Deacon Daniel Resendes was appointed its first director. By the end of 1975, more than 2,300 refugees had settled in the diocese. In 1979, Bishop Welsh established Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish in Arlington to minister directly to the Vietnamese community.
A strong proponent of the Catholic press, Bishop Welsh established the Arlington Catholic Herald in August 1975 and hired Charles W. Carruth as its founding editor. The first issue of the new paper rolled off the presses in January 1976.
He approved the establishment of Christendom College in 1977 and approved the purchase of the building and property that now houses Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax.
As a way of mobilizing the laity, the bishop established the Brent Society, an organization of Catholic lay professionals that took its name from the Brent family, the first permanent Catholic settlers in Virginia. The society’s distinguished list of presidents over the years included Bill Grant, Mary Meade and Gordon Hermes.
Bishop Welsh established the Family Life Bureau (now the Family Life Office) in 1977 under the direction of Father Franklyn McAfee. The bureau organized diocesan pro-life activities, which included the March for Life and special Masses and prayer vigils against abortion. The bishop remained throughout his life a strong spokesperson for life issues.
A lasting legacy
While in Arlington, Bishop Welsh established six new parishes: St. Stephen the Martyr in Middleburg; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Lake Ridge; Our Lady of the Blue Ridge in Madison; St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls; St. John Neumann in Reston; and Holy Martyrs of Vietnam.
He dedicated 11 new churches and several more were near completion or in the planning stages when he left Arlington. In fact, Bishop John R. Keating’s first official act after his installation as the second bishop of Arlington in 1983 was the dedication of Precious Blood Church in Culpeper.
“Msgr. (James) McMurtrie always used to say to me that Bishop Welsh would go out and bless your pet rock if you asked him,” said Father James Gould, pastor of St. Raymond of Peñafort Parish in Springfield. “He came for everything. He was always on the road and he drove his old Volkswagen Rabbit with the diesel engine.
“He lived the three calls of St. Louis de Montfort — to live a life of holiness, to live a life of service and be prepared for the spiritual battles that come your way,” Father Gould said.
Father Robert Avella, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Arlington, was the first priest ordained for the Arlington Diocese and the first priest to whom Bishop Welsh had administered the sacrament of holy orders.
“You can really see God’s hand in sending him to found the diocese because the foundation of anything is so important,” Father Avella said. He credited Bishop Welsh with laying a firm foundation for priestly vocations.
“He had always hoped that our diocese would have so many priests that he’d be able to help other dioceses in need,” Father Avella said. “He always had that parish priest instinct about him.”
Even in retirement, Bishop Welsh continued to be a visible presence in the diocese due to his involvement with the Catholic Distance University. Marianne Evans Mount, CDU’s executive vice president, gives the bishop an enormous amount of credit for the university’s continued success. Last year CDU celebrated its silver anniversary. Bishop Welsh’s remarks at CDU’s annual gala were legendary for their wit and self-deprecating humor.
“He was really an education bishop,” Mount said. “He believed in Catholic education at all levels. He thought that for parents to be systematically studying the Faith in the home was a wonderful means of renewing family life.”
Mount said Bishop Welsh’s sense of humor and “his love of life and his love for children and families” were also hallmarks of his ministry.
“He had a beautiful spirit, he was always doing a lot of things in the background,” Mount said.
Catholic Herald Staff Writer Stephanie Tracy contributed to this report.