Andrew Byrne was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of the Little Rock Diocese which includes the entire state of Arkansas. A diocese is a district under the pastoral care of a bishop in the Christian Church. Today, there are over 120,000 members of the Catholic faith living in Arkansas, but that wasn’t the case when Andrew Byrne arrived in 1842. Arkansas was a frontier and had only been a state since 1836. The land had been acquired in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase and became a territory in 1819. Little Rock was the capital and the state’s population was only about 98,000 in 1840. The task before Byrne to cover such a large and diverse area was monumental, but he was up to the challenge.
Historical Marker in Helena honoring St. Catherine’s Academy
Andrew Byrne was born in Navan, which is located southwest of Dublin in Ireland. He was the son of Robert and Margery Moore Byrne. Although his exact birthday is not known, he was baptized on December 3, 1802. With that in mind, he was probably born in 1802. Andrew joined the seminary in Navan and was inspired to move to America when he heard Bishop John England of Charleston ask for priests to volunteer. Byrne arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1820s. He completed his formation under Bishop England and was ordained to the priesthood on November 11, 1827. After first serving in North Carolina, Andrew Byrne became pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Charleston by 1830. He then left the Diocese of Charleston in 1836 and transferred to the Diocese of New York. In fact, Byrne was the founding pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York City in 1842.
Because of his abilities as pastor and experience in the South, Andrew Byrne was the perfect choice to head a new diocese in the southwest. Pope Gregory XVI created the Diocese of Little Rock on November 28, 1843 and Byrne was consecrated as Arkansas’s first Catholic Bishop on March 10, 1844. He arrived in Little Rock three months later with just two other priests. They would be responsible for the entire state of Arkansas. After much hard work and fund raising, he erected and dedicated the first Cathedral of St. Andrew on November 1, 1846. Byrne was also able to start the College of St. Andrew near present day Fort Smith. He then traveled to Ireland and persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to locate a convent in Little Rock. In 1851, the Sisters opened what was known as the Academy of St. Mary. With the church growing in Little Rock, he turned his attention elsewhere.
The first Catholic Church in Helena was established before 1850 when a log building was constructed. It unfortunately burned in 1854 amid threats from the Know-Nothing Party. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feelings sweeping across Arkansas and the country during this period. The Know-nothings were a national party at the forefront of this attitude and many people felt this group was involved with the burning of the church in Helena. Under Bishop Byrne’s leadership, a new frame church was erected. In 1857, land including the former home of Colonel Henry Biscoe was purchased by the church to establish a convent for the Sisters of Mercy and a day school for St. Catherine’s Academy. The Sisters of Mercy arrived in January 1858. Bishop Byrne was so involved in these efforts that he moved to Helena. He is listed on the 1860 U.S. Census for Helena in Phillips County, Arkansas. The value of the church estate was $50,000. There are also 7 members of the Sisters of Mercy listed in his household. They were all from Ireland. James Doyle and Thomas Maden were also living at this address and identified as laborers. They were from Ireland as well. The school grew quickly as planters and businessmen of all denominations sent their daughters to St. Catherines. All of that changed with the coming of the Civil War. Hundreds of men marched off in 1861 and early 1862. Then the Union Army of the Southwest began their movement toward Helena. As families fled, the school started to have financial trouble. It was at this critical time that Bishop Andrew Byrne passed away on June 10, 1862. He was buried in the Sister’s garden. Bishop Byrne left a diocese of some one thousand Catholics that was served by 9 priests. One month later, the Federal army marched into Helena. General Curtis and his fellow officers seized the nicest homes in town as their quarters. Their men marched the streets and camped where they wanted. Thousands of former slaves from across Arkansas also arrived. Hundreds more would soon make their way to Helena and freedom. General Samuel Curtis housed these refugees where ever he could. This included the barn located on the Sisters of Mercy property. They objected , but General Curtis ignored them. The Sisters of Mercy helped all people in need and struggled under Union occupation. On July 4, 1863, a Confederate army attacked Helena. Once again, the Sisters of Mercy were called upon. Their property was used as a hospital and men from both sides were cared for by them. With hard times coming to the South at war’s end, the Sisters of Mercy closed their school and convent in 1868. The remains of Bishop Byrne were taken to Little Rock and placed in a crypt under the sanctuary of the newly dedicated Cathedral of St. Andrew.
St. Andrews in Little Rock
Through determination and selfless energy, Bishop Andrew Byrne was instrumental in establishing the Catholic faith in Helena and all across Arkansas.
Bishop Andrew Byrne
“Bishop Andrew J. Byrne | DOLR.org
Woods, James M. “Andrew Byrne” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. 2014, “www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net”
McNamaa, Pat. “Bishop Andrew Byrne and Arkansas Catholicism, 1843-1862. McNamara’s Blog, Patheos >mcnamarasblog > 2011/04. “www.patheos.com”