Rural Ministry and Jim Pillar, O.M.I. 

Oblate legacy

By Harry Winter, O.M.I. 

Fr. James J. Pillar, OMI

In 1969, Jim Pillar submitted his first article to the Journal of Mississippi History. This article developed from his doctoral dissertation The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837-1865.  At first, the Journal editors were not that happy to receive articles from a Catholic priest.  There was still some opposition to Catholicism among the intelligentsia of Mississippi. 

However, his investigation of the Grange Movement for farmers across the USA was deemed accurate and objective. We may conclude from Pillar‘s childhood (see below), that his interest in rural ministry was deep.  St. Eugene de Mazenod observed that Catholics from rural and small town areas were neglected in many ways,  compared to those in large cities.  So Pillar was pursuing a very Oblate concern. 

Personal Disclosure: I grew up in Norwich, NY, where one of the six  Grange Halls for Chenango County is located.  My public high school speaking and debate coach took me to that hall to speak during the monthly dinner meeting.  My topic was  Irish Heroes in the American Revolution, a subject I had written about in the eighth grade of our parochial school.  As I searched the web for New York Stage Granges, I found its great concern for soil and water, a vital part of the environmental movement today. 

Historic Grange Hall near Belleville, IL

Let us look first at Jim Pillar’s article, and then at his upbringing which led him to his interest in rural Mississippi. 

  1. “Catholic Opposition to the Grange in Mississippi” (Journal of Mississippi History, 1969, pp. 215-228, click here for his entire article)

Pillar begins his article with statistics about the growth of the “Patrons of Husbandry” (the formal name for the Grange) from 1874, statewide 613 units, reaching its peak in 1875 with 645 units enrolling 30,797 members, and decreasing after 1878 to 9,898 members.  He noted though that even after 1878, “the Grange continued to be a vital force in Mississippi for several years” (p.  215). 

Bishop William Henry Elder

The first bishop of Mississippi, William Henry Elder, was “one of the Catholic bishops most suspicious of the Patrons of  Husbandry” (formal name of the National Grange, p. 216). Pillar is careful to explain that all new societies were examined most closely both by Rome and by American bishops.  He lists the Freemasons, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Fenians, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Labor, the Knights of Pythias, and the Sons of Temperance, along with the Grange (pp. 216-17).   

When Father John Ireland and Bishop Thomas Grace, both of St. Paul, MN, consulted Rome, they received the instruction that “the Pope allows the petitioner to join the Grange of Patrons of Husbandry, and be a member thereof, if he finds nothing  therein conflicting with his conscience or the creed of the Catholic Church” (p. 218).  However, both the tossing of the responsibility back on the individual, and the way it was done (in a private letter, not a formal statement), did not satisfy Bishop Elder.  

He told one pastor to forbid his parishioners to join the Grange after he obtained information that they had chaplains, religious services and pagan deities. The fact that many Grange units met in buildings maintained by Masons was also noted with disfavor (pp 219-20).  However, he decided to consult his metropolitan, Archbishop Perche of New Orleans, LA.  Perche advised against any pastoral letter by Bishop Elder for the entire diocese (p. 220). Moreover, Perche encouraged Catholics of New Orleans to join and support the Grange (p. 222). 

Elder wrote to the bishops of Natchitoches, LA, and Little Rock, AR, and received contradictory responses (pp. 223-25). 

Since Elder and his metropolitan disagreed, Elder wrote directly to Rome.  Pillar notes that “for some strange reason no action was taken on the matter for almost nine months” (May 22,1875) and that action was to ask for much more detailed information on the Grange.(pp 225-26). Pillar found  it “difficult to say” what information was sent. As late as 1913-14, Rome was still asking for information (p. 226). 

Pillar concludes that with the Catholic population in Mississippi being only 12,400 in a total population of almost one million, Bishop Elder’s action did not cause the decline of the Grange in Mississippi. Other problems within the Grange did (p. 227).  Pillar concludes : 

“Finally, it is worth noting that the Holy See’s cautious approach to the question of Catholic  participation in the Grange contrasts favorably with the stricter policy of Bishop Elder. It was  one instance when Rome did not condemn out of hand a movement of which she had reason to  be suspicious” (p. 228). 

Did the editors and readers of the Journal find his conclusion intriguing? 

  1. Jim Pillar‘s Rural Background 

Pillar grew up in St. Casimir’s Parish, St. Paul, MN.  It should be noted that the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, although totaling about a million people during Jim’s youth, were still very rural.  The social media of newspapers, radio and tv even today  give daily crop reports from early spring through late autumn, unusual for a large metropolitan area. 

St. Casimir’s today

These crop reports reflect the reality that a high percentage of the Twin Cities residents are retired farmers, resort operators, and park wardens.  Minnesota is not known for nothing as the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.  Many families spend  much time each summer on the lakes. 

St. Casimir’s Parish, each year on the first Sunday of October, has a Harvest Festival.  Outside of Minnesota, urban areas are not that conscious of harvest time. 

Garrison Keillor, the famed mid-west comedian and philosopher, entitled his small town in Minnesota as Lake Wobegon.  

Conclusion 

As Oblates continue to minister in Minnesota and other rural areas, we are becoming more concerned than ever before, about our environment, especially pure water and fertile soil. May Jim Pillar‘s article on the Grange remind us of the importance of ministry in agricultural regions. Check out the Grange for its crucial role in building community in rural and small town areas. 

 (Editor’s Note: We regret to report that Fr. Pillar passed away on December 19, 2020)