Archbishop Thomas Joseph Toolen (1886-1976) is the most significant figure in the development and role of the Roman Catholic Church along the Gulf Coast and in the state of Alabama during the twentieth century. As the sixth Bishop of the Diocese (now Archdiocese) of Mobile and with a reign of 42 years, Toolen has so far served in that office longer than any other person. When he retired in 1969, Toolen was the oldest active bishop in the United States and logged more than one million miles on official trips to churches and missions throughout his diocese, which at one point encompassed 58,822 square miles. Toolen gained national attention during the height of the civil rights movement for his critical comments regarding the role of Catholics in activism.
Thomas Joseph Toolen was born on February 28, 1886, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Thomas and Mary Dowd Toolen, who immigrated to the United States from Roscommon, Ireland. The young Thomas went to Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic elementary school, Loyola High School, and Loyola College in the Baltimore Archdiocese. Toolen attended St. Mary Minor and Major Seminaries in Baltimore, as well as the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained into the priesthood on September 27, 1910, by James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, in the Basilica of the Assumption. In the years before his elevation to Bishop of Mobile, Toolen served in the Archdiocese of Baltimore first as assistant at St. Bernard Parish for 15 years and then as Diocesan Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for two years. The organization is concerned with spreading the Roman Catholic faith to places where it currently has few or no adherents. The society collects and distributes funds to support Catholic missions all over the world. This great responsibility helped prepare Toolen for his next assignment, through which he would try to spread Catholicism in areas of Alabama where the Church had no followers. When Bishop Edward L. Allen of Mobile died, Pope Pius XI chose Toolen to become the sixth Bishop of Mobile on February 28, 1927.
Toolen was consecrated as Bishop in the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore and arrived in his diocese on May 18, 1927, when roughly one percent of the population living within the diocese, which included all of Alabama as well as northwest Florida, was Roman Catholic. In 1954, Pope Pius XII elevated Toolen to the rank of Archbishop, and the Diocese of Mobile was renamed the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham. In 1968, northwest Florida was reassigned to the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.
As a result of Toolen's evangelization efforts, the Diocese of Mobile underwent considerable changes. He is mostly remembered for his outreach efforts among African American Alabamians in the diocese. Toolen viewed his new diocese as a "missionary diocese" meaning that the Catholic presence in the state was minimal and that it was his job to spread and strengthen the faith in the state of Alabama, especially among Mobile's significant African American population. To advance his missionary goal, Toolen built nearly 200 new churches, many of which were meant to minister exclusively to African American communities. He also opened orphanages, hospitals, and other institutions just for African Americans. In 1950 for example, Toolen oversaw construction of the Martin de Porres Hospital in Mobile which was the first hospital in Alabama where African American doctors could work side-by-side with white doctors. He also ordered the integration of Mobile's Spring Hill College, the first institution of higher learning to be integrated in Alabama. In 1964, Toolen announced that the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham would be integrated beginning with the 1964-65 school year, well before public education in Alabama made the same move. By establishing separate institutions for blacks, however, Toolen furthered the southern practice of racial segregation, yet he also expanded the only truly major multiracial religion of the South.
Toolen later achieved widespread notoriety during the civil rights movement over comments he made about the Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965. In the midst of the controversy, Toolen denounced the methods of the activists and declared that "outsiders," including priests and nuns, were stirring up trouble. The story was picked up and made headlines across the country. Opinions were split regarding Archbishop Toolen, with some viewing him as a hero standing up for a measured approach to change and others viewing him as a racist who opposed progress for African Americans. He was no simple dogmatist when it came to race relations in the state of Alabama. From the beginning of his tenure as Bishop of Mobile, he had been working to provide assistance and religious guidance to African Americans in his diocese, but he, like Booker T. Washington, espoused a desire for change through non-confrontational means, a view that was considered accomodationist and paternalistic by large segments of the African American community and by leaders and supporters of the modern civil rights movement.
During his 42-year reign, Toolen received many honors. Pope Pius XII gave Toolen the title "Assistant at the Papal Throne" in October 1949. Then, in July 1954, Pius XII raised Toolen to the rank of Archbishop and re-designated the Diocese of Mobile as the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham. Archbishop Toolen also received international honors, including the Commander of Order of Merit, one of Italy's highest civilian honors, in 1961. In 1962, Lebanon conferred on the archbishop its "Order of the Cedars" medal, awarded to individuals for acts of courage and devotion to moral values as well as for years of public service.
On October 8, 1969, Archbishop Toolen retired as Bishop of Mobile, and the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham was split into two
dioceses: the Diocese of Mobile, covering south Alabama, and the Diocese of Birmingham in northern Alabama. The division was
made possible through Toolen's successful effort to increase membership in the Church. Toolen died in his sleep on December
4, 1976. He was eulogized by the most famous American Roman Catholic orator of the twentieth century, Archbishop Fulton J.
Sheen of the Diocese of Rochester, New York.
Davis, Cyprian, O.S.B. The History of Black Catholics in the United States. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1990.
Kenny, Michael, S.J. Catholic Culture in Alabama: Centenary Story of Spring Hill College, 1830-1930. New York: The America Press, 1931.
Lovett, Rose Gibbons. The Catholic Church in the Deep South: The Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, 1540-1976. Birmingham: Birmingham Publishing Company, 1981.
Reese, Thomas J. Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989.
Keith R. Claridy
Published January 9, 2009
Last updated October 3, 2012