New Bishop of Charleston Will Draw on Experiences With Diverse Cultures
The history of Black Catholicism in the area predates the creation of the diocese itself, going back to the 18th century, when enslaved people and refugees from Haiti came to the area.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The bishop-elect of Charleston is set to become the first Black bishop in the diocese’s 200-year history when he is installed this Friday, May 13.
An immigrant, a former missionary, and a polyglot, Bishop-elect Jacques Fabre-Jeune will also be the second bishop of Haitian origin in the U.S., and the first to be the head of a diocese.
Bishop-elect Fabre-Jeune told CNA that he prays that he would be “a good servant” and “the image of Jesus for the people that God has put under me, so that I can serve them with sincerity, with humility, and of course with love.”
He also said he plans to serve and love everyone in the diocese, drawing on Catholicism’s universality “to go beyond languages, beyond culture.”
"As a bishop, our first responsibility is to take care of everyone — we call them souls — that is in the diocese. That's our responsibility,” Bishop-elect Fabre-Jeune told CNA.
He said he believes his years as a missionary, going into other cultures with an evangelizing spirit, will be an asset in his role as bishop.
Fabre-Jeune was born in Port-au-Prince in 1955, one of six siblings; his father worked as a carpenter. Fabre-Jeune’s parents wanted a safer and more stable environment in which to raise their children, and got an opportunity to come to the United States to do factory work. Fabre-Jeune’s mother went to the U.S. first, followed by the rest of the family four years later.
Fabre-Jeune said his mother, who led the local Legion of Mary group, helped to instill a love of the faith in him, and he felt a call to the priesthood when he was 11 years old. The call faded after he arrived in the U.S. at age 16, but reawakened during his college years at St. John’s University in New York. He said the example of priests he got to know in New York, including the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, helped to model the priestly life for him.
After graduating from St. John’s, Fabre-Jeune joined the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as the Scalabrinians. The Scalabrinians were originally founded to support spiritually missionaries going to South and North America, and today its members do much to serve refugees and immigrants.
Being an immigrant himself, Fabre-Jeune said he felt called to the Scalabrinians, and to serve fellow immigrants. His novitiate took place in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently. And in fact, Fabre-Jeune speaks five languages in total — English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Haitian Creole — English being his third.
He was ordained to the priesthood in Brooklyn, New York, in 1986 at the age of 30. At his first parish assignment, he worked with many Haitians and Hispanics, and later served as chaplain to Haitian refugees in Guantanamo Bay from 1990 to 1991. He served as pastor of a parish in the Dominican Republic from 1991 to 2004.
After he arrived in Georgia in 2006, he served as parochial vicar for two parishes. Father Fabre-Jeune has administered the San Felipe de Jesús Mission in Forest Park, Georgia for the past 12 years, a congregation that he described as “99% Mexican.” While administering the mission, Father Fabre-Jeune also served as the director of the Hispanic Charismatic Renewal and a member of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s finance council.
Kathleen Merritt, Director of the Office of Black Catholics and Native American Ministry at the Charleston diocese, told CNA that the diocese’ Black Catholic community is “energetic and hopeful” about Father Fabre-Jeune’s appointment.
The history of Black Catholicism in the area predates the creation of the diocese itself, going back to the 18th century, when enslaved people and refugees from Haiti came to the area. Bishop John England arrived in 1820 and assigned a priest to minister to the plantations and build churches to minister to the many Black Catholics. After the Civil War, Bishop Patrick Lynch established St. Peter's Church as the first parish for the newly emancipated. Later on, during the era of segregation, Bishop Paul Hallahan decreed that diocesan schools would accept students of all races.
Today, the diocese includes about 4,000 Black Catholics as of the latest parish census, Merritt said.
“Our new bishop has put a spark in not just Black Catholics and other minorities but almost everyone,” Merritt said.
“Having a Black bishop may result in more vocations within the Black community because our Black youth will now see and associate with a shepherd that looks like them.”
Still, she said, the numbers of Black Catholics in the diocese has dropped since the 1980s with the closing of parishes, schools, and difficulties associated with 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. But there are at least five predominantly Black parishes open in the diocese today, she said.
Bishop-elect Fabre-Jeune’s appointment was made public Feb. 22. He succeeds Bishop Emeritus Robert Guglielmone, who retired upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The Catholic Diocese of Charleston was established in 1820 and covers the state of South Carolina. More than 5 million people live within the diocese, an estimated 10% of whom are Catholic.
When the news of Father Fabre-Jeune’s appointment as bishop reached his siblings, all of whom now live in the U.S., he said they all thought about how their mother — who has since died, along with their father — would have been overjoyed by the news.
Father Fabre-Jeune said he has received a warm and gracious welcome so far in Charleston, which he said reminds him of Haiti in certain ways, especially the palm trees, a famous symbol of South Carolina. Bishop-elect Fabre-Jeune chose a palm tree as an image for his episcopal coat of arms.
“I love people and feel that I've been loved, and I hope it will be the same” in Charleston, he said.
Bishop-elect Fabre-Jeune will be consecrated and installed as Charleston’s bishop on May 13.