Documentary Chronicles Bishop Michael Portier, the ‘Servant of the South’

Bishop Portier, a Frenchman, was appointed to lead a vast swath of what is now the southern United States in the early 19th century.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Ala., consecrated by Bishop Michael Portier in 1850.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Ala., consecrated by Bishop Michael Portier in 1850. (photo: DXR via Wikimedia / (CC BY-SA 4.0))

MOBILE, Ala. — In the early 19th century, what is now the southern United States was — at least from the Vatican’s perspective — largely empty and unknown. It was into this frontier that a young French clergyman ventured, seeking to serve the people of Alabama. 

A new documentary chronicles the life of Bishop Michael Portier, the first Bishop of Mobile and a giant in the history of Catholicism in the American south. 

Produced by the Archdiocese of Mobile and 4PM Media, “Servant of the South- The Life of Bishop Michael Portier” is set to air on EWTN on May 22 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. It is also available to view online, now. 

Bishop Portier, a Frenchman, was appointed to lead a vast swath of what is now the southern United States in the early 19th century. During his remarkable tenure, Bishop Portier oversaw the establishment of the first university in Alabama, founded a hospital that continues to serve patients to this day, and built Mobile’s cathedral. 

“His legacy is perseverance. He was planting the seeds of what we have now,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile said. 

“You can’t write the history of Alabama without mentioning the Catholic Church.” 

Born in Montbrison, France in 1795, Portier was a contemporary of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. Portier grew up under the French First Republic, the product of the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church was largely suppressed by the new government, and many were guillotined for their loyalty. The revolutionaries adopted a ten-day a week calendar, in an attempt to demote the importance of Sunday. 

Though none of Bishop Portier’s writings talk about this time of his life, he likely saw “a society in disarray,” said interviewee Dr. Charles Nolan, formerly the archivist for the New Orleans archdiocese. 

In 1801, a concordat between the Vatican and France allowed the country’s seminaries to reopen, and in 1815, Portier entered a seminary in Lyon which would become an incubator for priests being sent to the fledgling U.S. and other parts of the world. 

At the time, Bishop Louis William Valentine Dubourg, of St. Louis, was pleading to the seminarians in France for help in his diocese, but did not mince words about the miseries that they were likely to endure as missionaries in the harsh territory of North America. Despite his mother’s reluctance to let him become a missionary, Portier felt called to come and help to convert the people of this new land, and to lay down his life for them in a heroic fashion. 

Immediately upon arrival in the United States in 1817, Portier continued his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and then was called to New Orleans to minister to young people there. 

Portier was ordained a priest on September 29, 1818 in St. Louis, and was tasked with starting a Catholic school in New Orleans. Soon after, however, he was asked to minister to the people of the territory that is today Alabama and Florida. 

The territory was vast and sparsely populated. Father Portier traveled — with some difficulty — from town to town preaching, an event which attracted both Catholics and Protestants in the towns he visited. 

The territory was home to many free blacks, slaves, and mixed-race people. Father Portier himself had several slaves as housekeepers, but by all accounts treated them well. 

Father Portier’s priesthood was marked with challenges at every turn. At one point he fell ill and nearly died; at another, his church burned down and two other priests abandoned him. Desperate, he went back to France on a begging tour, and brought back some additional help. 

Eventually, the Vatican asked him to become the bishop of a new local Church, the Vicariate Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas. At Bishop DuBorg’s prompting, Father Portier wrote back to Rome saying he felt inadequate for the role, citing his youth and inexperience. But Pope Leo XII would not hear of it. 

Father Portier was consecrated a bishop, and in 1829 the vicariate was raised to the Diocese of Mobile.

Bishop Portier wrote about striving all the greater for his own sanctity, in order to be a “worthy instrument” of God’s will. 

As bishop, Portier established Spring Hill College in Mobile, with the goal of giving the Church an institutional presence that would serve students, including women, of all religions, and serve the greater community. The college was the first institution of higher learning in Alabama, and despite some setbacks over the years, continues to provide Catholic education to college students to this day. 

Bishop Portier ministered to the territory’s extreme poor during the late 1830s. He helped to establish a women’s charity to care for orphans, and the Daughters of Charity later took over the operation, helping with Mobile’s orphanage, hospital, and schools. 

During this time, the capital of Alabama moved several times as the territory gained more residents and the balances of power shifted. Bishop Portier made sure there was at least one Catholic Church in every capital of Alabama. 

After 13 years of work, on Dec. 8, 1850, Mobile’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated. The cathedral is, today, one of the oldest cathedral buildings still in use in the U.S.

On May 14, 1859, Bishop Portier died at the hospital he helped to found. His legacy was not only a planting of the Catholic faith in the hearts of many residents of Alabama, but also an establishment of an institutional presence for the Church in the form of a cathedral, parishes, a university, a hospital, and more. 

“Servant of the South: The Life of Bishop Michael Portier” can be viewed on EWTN on May 22 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, or viewed online.