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Loras, John Mathias Pierre
(August 20, 1792–February 19, 1858)

–first bishop of Dubuque—was the 10th of 11 children of Jean-Mathias and Etiennette Loras, an established bourgeois couple who were devoutly Catholic. He was born just as the French Revolution was entering its most radical and violent phase. His father, as a member of the governing council of monarchist Lyons, was beheaded by guillotine, the first of 17 Loras victims of the Reign of Terror.

    In grade school, Mathias Loras began a lifelong friendship with a poor schoolmate, Jean-Baptiste Vianney, later the sainted Curé d'Ars. As a seminarian in Lyons, Loras was a student of Ambrose Maréchal and a fellow student of the Englishman James Whitfield, both future archbishops of Baltimore. Loras was ordained a priest in 1815 by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, archbishop of Lyons and uncle of the exiled Napoleon I. The young priest was caught up in the great revival of Catholicism in France under the Bourbon restoration. In 1828 a fellow Lyonnais, Bishop Michael Portier, invited Loras, three years his senior, to return with him to Mobile, Alabama. There Loras was involved in the founding of Spring Hill College and served as vicar-general. Nine years later he was named bishop of the new Diocese of Dubuque.

    The rather premature diocese included the future states of Iowa and Minnesota and the Dakotas east of the Missouri River. Father Samuel Mazzuchelli of the Dominican order was the only priest active in the diocese, and St. Raphael's, being built in Dubuque by Mazzuchelli, was the only church. Dubuque, which was officially surveyed the year Loras arrived, was already the most populous town in Iowa and remained so until the 1870s. The early population was about one third Catholic, mostly Irish with a few Germans and a very few French.

    Loras was a man of vision but a realist. After consecration as bishop by Portier in Mobile, he departed for Europe in search of priests, seminarians, and money. His native Lyons was good to him, and he returned to Dubuque in April 1839 with two French priests: Joseph Cretin, who became a vicar-general and in 1851 the first bishop of St. Paul; and Anthony Pelamourges, first pastor of St. Anthony's Church, Davenport. One of the four seminarians, left at St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, was Augustin Ravoux, who became a celebrated missionary among the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota.

    Already in 1839 Bishop Loras began to reconnoiter his vast diocese, with voyages by steamboat up to St. Anthony's Falls and back by canoe; down the Mississippi River and up the Missouri to Council Bluffs and then overland back to Dubuque; and later overland into Wisconsin and the Dubuque hinterland.

    Loras exhibited extraordinary foresight and energy in creating the new diocese. He was already an experienced educator and administrator as well as priest. Immediately in 1839 he organized St. Raphael's Seminary, which eventually evolved into Loras College. In 1843 the Irish Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had been burned out in Philadelphia during nativist riots, accepted Loras's invitation to come to Dubuque. Their St. Joseph's Academy for girls eventually evolved into Clarke College. In 1849 Trappist monks from Mount Melleray Abbey, Ireland, founded the priory (later abbey) of New Melleray on land Loras gave them.

    In 1849-1850 Loras made a second successful journey to Europe in search of clergy and money. He received support from Vienna and Munich, and the missionary society in Lyons continued to be generous to the Dubuque diocese even after Loras's death. As cheap government land in Iowa came up for sale, Loras bought town lots and rural land for future parishes and other institutions. He encouraged especially Irish and German Catholics from Europe and the East Coast to come to Iowa, and he tried to find German-speaking priests. By 1900 there was a notably higher proportion of Catholics in the population of northeastern Iowa than in the rest of the state; Dubuque County was at least two-thirds Catholic.

    When the walls and roof of St. Raphael's gave way, a new, much larger St. Raphael's was begun beside it. Loras offered the first mass in it on Christmas Day, 1857. He died two months later.

    During the 19 years Loras was in Iowa, the Diocese of Dubuque, eventually limited to the state of Iowa, had become viable. The austerities he practiced reflected the frontier hardships borne by his priests. His gracious manners and accent were always those of a cultivated Frenchman, but his breadth of view and directness of approach were those of the American frontier.
Sources Loras's outgoing correspondence is in Foundations, transcribed, translated, and edited by Robert F. Klein, assisted by Benvenuta Bras (2004). His incoming correspondence is being translated and edited by Loras Otting and his staff. There is extensive documentation on Loras in the Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, and in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. See also Thomas E. Auge's essay on Bishops Loras and Smyth (Loras's successor) in Seed/Harvest, ed. Mary Kevin Gallagher (1987); his manuscript biography of Loras in the Center for Dubuque History, Loras College; and his "The Dream of Loras: A Catholic Iowa," Palimpsest 61 (1980), 170–79. See also Rev. B. C. Lenehan, "Rt. Rev. Mathias Loras, D.D., First Bishop of Dubuque," Annals of Iowa 3 (1899), 577–600.
Contributor: William E. Wilkie