Joseph M. Breitenbeck

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Bishop Joseph Breitenbeck circa 1970 consecration.jpg
Styles of
Joseph M. Breitenbeck
Mitre (plain).svg
Reference style The Most Reverend
Spoken style Your Excellency
Religious style Monsignor

Joseph Matthew Breitenbeck (August 3, 1914 – March 12, 2005) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He was the eighth Bishop of Grand Rapids from 1969 to 1989, having previously served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit (1965–69).

Early life and education[edit]

Breitenbeck was born in Detroit, Michigan, one of seven children of Matthew Joseph and Mary Agnes (née Quinlan) Breitenbeck.[1] His father lost his job during the Great Depression, and two of his brothers also entered the priesthood.[2] After graduating from Holy Redeemer High School, he began studying pre-law at the University of Detroit in 1932.[3] However, he abandoned his ambitions for a legal career after a priest suggested he consider the priesthood.[2]

In 1935, Breitenbeck enrolled at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.[1] He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sacred Heart in 1938, and continued his studies in Rome at the Pontifical North American College and the Pontifical Gregorian University.[3] In 1940, he was forced to leave Rome following the outbreak of World War II.[1] He transferred to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Licentiate of Sacred Theology in 1942.[3]


On May 30, 1942, Breitenbeck was ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward Mooney at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.[4] His first assignment was as an assistant pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Detroit, where he remained for five years.[3] In 1947, he returned to Rome to pursue his graduate studies.[1] He later earned a Licentiate of Canon Law from the Pontifical Lateran University in 1949.[1]

Upon his return to Detroit, Breitenbeck served as secretary to Cardinal Mooney from 1949 to 1958.[3] He was named a papal chamberlain in 1953, and raised to the rank of domestic prelate in 1956.[3] Following Mooney's death in 1958, he served as secretary to his successor, Archbishop John F. Dearden, for a year.[1] He was pastor of Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit from 1959 to 1967.[5]

He accompanied Archbishop Dearden to the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965.[2]



On October 18, 1965, Breitenbeck was appointed auxiliary bishop of Detroit and titular bishop of Tepelta by Pope Paul VI.[4] He received his episcopal consecration on the following December 20 from Archbishop Dearden, with Bishops John Anthony Donovan and Gerald Vincent McDevitt serving as co-consecrators, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.[4]

As an auxiliary bishop, he continued to serve as pastor of Assumption Grotto. In addition to his pastoral duties, he became vicar general of the archdiocese and delegate for religious in 1966.[1]

Grand Rapids[edit]

Breitenbeck was appointed the eighth Bishop of Grand Rapids on October 15, 1969.[4] His installation took place on December 2 of that year.[4] During his tenure in Grand Rapids, he distinguished himself as an advocate of progressive values, who vigorously implemented the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.[2][6] In 1971, he expressed his support for the ordination of women and for ending clerical celibacy in order to address the priest shortage.[6] He also encouraged the practice of communal confessions, and allowed divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments.[2] Some parishes strongly resisted changing the language of the Mass from Latin to English; St. Isidore's Church even took Breitenbeck and the diocese to court over the issue.[2] He also spoke out against nuclear warfare and in favor of a fair wage.[2]

In his 19 years as bishop, Breitenbeck oversaw the establishment of seven new parishes as well as the erection of the Dioceses of Gaylord and Kalamazoo from the Diocese of Grand Rapids.[7] In the 1980s, he created policies and procedures for handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse; these rules remained in force until major revisions in the early 21st century.[2] Having a sister with mental retardation led him to establish a ministry to help people with disabilities.[2] He also helped establish the Deposit & Loan Cooperative Investment Program, which allowed parishes to borrow money from diocesan funds at a lower interest rate, and supported the Michigan Catholic Conference's efforts to provide retirement benefits for priests and laity.[7] He instituted regular changes and appointments of pastors and oversaw one of the renovations of the Cathedral of St. Andrew.[2]

Instead of living at the episcopal residence, Breitenbeck sold it and then moved into a modest home in Grattan Township.[2] As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he served as chair of the Liaison Committee for Major Superiors of Women, member of the Committee for Latin America, and member of the Committee for Canonical Affairs.[7] He also served as episcopal advisor for the National Catholic Laymen's Retreat Conference, treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Conference, and member of the board of directors of the American College at Louvain.[7] Outside of ecclesiastical activities, he was active in the Old Newsboys, Rotary Club, United Way, Urban League, and Economic Club.[7]

Later life and death[edit]

Shortly before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75, Breitenbeck resigned as Bishop of Grand Rapids on June 24, 1989.[4] Serving for nearly 20 years, he was the second-longest serving bishop in the history of the diocese; the diocese's first bishop, Henry Richter served for 33 years between 1883 and 1916.[6]

In 2002, having long-suffered from severe and chronic back pain, he moved to St. Ann's Home in Grand Rapids.[6] He there died at age 90.[1] He is buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Wyoming.[1]

Episcopal succession[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Allen James Babcock
Bishop of Grand Rapids
Succeeded by
Robert John Rose


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "BREITENBECK, Joseph Matthew" (PDF). Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Honey, Charles (2005-03-14). "Recalling 'a loving shepherd' – Local Catholics say bishop Breitenbeck was progressive thinker, humble man". The Grand Rapids Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Curtis, Georgina Pell (1961). The American Catholic Who's Who. XIV. Grosse Pointe, Michigan: Walter Romig. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Bishop Joseph Matthew Breitenbeck". 
  5. ^ "Noteworthy Highlights on Assumption Grotto's Pastors". Assumption Grotto Catholic Church. 
  6. ^ a b c d Honey, Charles (2005-03-17). "Bishop remembered as 'nice man' – Hundreds to gather today for funeral of former leader of Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese". The Grand Rapids Press. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "Joseph M. Breitenbeck". Find A Grave Memorial.