The Most Rev. Richard Vincent Whelan, first Bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, was the prime energizer, founder and developer of the Catholic Church in West Virginia. From 1850 until his death in 1874, Bishop Whelan's residency in Wheeling was intrinsically woven into the history of the city and the area. He guided the growth of the local Catholic community in the Diocese of Wheeling throughout the Civil War and the creation of a new state.
His resources, when named bishop of the diocese, included four churches, six priests, and two schools (one for girls and one for boys) in an area of 29,172 square miles. He began an extensive building program and, in 24 years, the energy, zeal, and vision of this man was reflected in a diocese which possessed 48 churches, 29 priests, three religious congregations of women, six schools for girls, a school for boys, an orphanage, and a hospital built on the land he purchased for Wheeling Hospital.
Born in Baltimore on January 28, 1809, he entered Mount Saint Mary's College when just 10 years of age. Graduating with highest honors in 1826, he continued his studies in St. Sulpice, Paris before being ordained to the priesthood in Versailles in 1831. After his ordainment, Whelan returned to Mount Saint Mary's as a member of the faculty and acted as business manager for the college. His first pastoral assignment was in Harper's Ferry, Virginia where he served the Catholic communities across a large area of the state.
In 1841, when the Diocese of Richmond was founded, Richard Whelan, then 31, was chosen to head it. From 1841 to 1849, he ministered to people on both sides of the Allegheny Mountains. The Diocese was comprised of the entire state of Virginia, representing some 61,000 square miles. The size and limited nature of the Catholic infrastructure in the state required Whelan to be a true frontier bishop, often traveling on horseback and worshipping with his parishioners in log cabins, barns, homes and even outdoors.
The geographical distance in the diocese was so large that, in 1848, Virginia was split into two dioceses, one in the East and one in the West. The proposal to create the Wheeling Diocese was recommended by Whelan. He suggested that the diocese be divided according to the natural barrier formed by the Allegheny Mountains. Wheeling was the largest population (13,161) and was swiftly becoming the industrial center of Western Virginia so it was chosen as the Cathedral City, with the Diocese of Wheeling officially established on July 19, 1850. Bishop Whelan was installed as its head four days later.
Work was a challenge to this prelate of indomitable will, wonderful courage and endless endurance. The story is told that once, when a candidate for governor was visiting in Berkeley Springs and admiring the new chapel, he asked Father Whelan, "Who did the stone work?" The answer was "I did." He also did the woodwork and served as the pastor. When the new church in Wheeling was built and none of the workmen would risk putting the cross on the steeple, it was Bishop Whelan who climbed the scaffolding and attached the cross.
Bishop Whelan was an inspiring spiritual leader but also was possessed of outstanding executive and business talents. His abilities and influence were recognized not only in the Catholic community but also by those of other denominations who found his compassion and concern extended to all peoples. Whelan’s residency in Wheeling lasted from 1850 until his death on July 7, 1874.
Information compiled from:
Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Website (www.dwc.org)
Faith in the Mountains: A History of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston by Tricia Pyne
Mount De Chantal Website (www.visitationsisters.org)
Ohio County Public Library Website, Wheeling Hall of Fame