Richard Vincent Whelan

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Rt Rev. Richard Vincent Whelan
Bishop of Wheeling
Bishop Richard Vincent Whelan.jpg
ChurchRoman Catholic Church
In officeJuly 23, 1850 – July 7, 1874
PredecessorPatrick Kelly
SuccessorJohn Joseph Kain
OrdinationMay 1, 1831
ConsecrationMarch 21, 1841
Personal details
Born(1809-01-28)January 28, 1809
Baltimore, Maryland
DiedJuly 7, 1874(1874-07-07) (aged 65)
Baltimore, Maryland
Previous postBishop of Richmond (1841–1850)

Richard Vincent Whelan (January 28, 1809 – July 7, 1874) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Bishop of Richmond, Virginia (1841–1850) and Bishop of Wheeling, West Virginia (1850–1874).

Early life[edit]

Whelan was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and at age 10 he enrolled at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where he studied the classics.[1] Following his graduation with the highest honors in 1826, he completed his theological studies at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France. He was ordained to the priesthood in Versailles on May 1, 1831.[2]


Returning to the United States, Whelen became a faculty member and business manager at Mount St. Mary's, and also served as pastor of Harper's Ferry. His pastoral responsibilities included missions at Martinsburg, Winchester and Bath (each separated by significant horseback journeys) as well as numerous Catholic families who could not access Catholic institutions of any kind.[3]

On December 19, 1840, Whelan was appointed the second Bishop of Richmond, Virginia, by Pope Gregory XVI.[2] He received his episcopal consecration on March 21, 1841 from Archbishop Samuel Eccleston, P.S.S., with Bishops Benedict Joseph Fenwick, S.J., and John Joseph Hughes serving as co-consecrators, at Baltimore.[2] The second Catholic bishop in the United States, Bishop Jean Dubois had similarly initially lived in Richmond, but soon moved the seat of his extremely large diocese west (to Bardstown, Kentucky) to serve Catholics in remote mountain areas, as well as to escape anti-Catholic and other civil strife in Virginia's capitol. Furthermore, after the brief American episcopate of his predecessor, the seat had been vacant for more than a decade before Whelan's appointment and consecration, and Richmond had become a stronghold of the Know-Nothing political party, known for its anti-Catholic and racial prejudices and propensity for mob violence.

Since there were only six priests in the still very large diocese of Virginia at this time, Whelan appealed to the Societies for the Propagation of the Faith in Paris, Lyon and Vienna to increase the diocese's clerical ranks.[3] He also established a seminary college on the outskirts of Richmond, where Whelan himself resided and taught when he was not visiting remote areas of the diocese. He also established several parishes, missions and schools.[3]

By 1848 Whelan requested that his see be divided, with the Allegheny Mountains as the natural boundary. The Holy See granted his request by creating the Diocese of Wheeling on July 19, 1850.[4] Four days later, on July 23, Whelan was named Ordinary of the new Wheeling Diocese,[2] and John McGill, a former lawyer and slaveholder, succeeded him as Bishop of Richmond.

Bishop Whelan became a civic leader in Wheeling, the new diocese's largest city (pop. 13,161).[5] It had grown because of its location on the National Road and access to both water and coal power. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad formally reached Wheeling in 1853, but many Irish emigrants building that and other railroads or working in the new factories had already passed through or settled in the city. Other industrializing areas of the new diocese (which initially had only two or four Catholic churches and two or six Catholic priests)[citation needed] included Charlestown and to a lesser extent Huntington and Martinsburg/Berkeley Springs/Harper's Ferry. The mountainous new diocese consisted of several distinct valleys, with many immigrants but limited funds and access to social services.[6]

The new bishop became known for his resourcefulness, even performing carpentry and stone work himself.[7] Bishop Whelan also did not escape anti-Catholicism or the Know-Nothings, for when a papal nuncio arrived on the new railroad in 1853, Catholics were instructed to stand guard in a ring around the Cathedral block to ensure the envoy's safety.[6] West Virginia became a state in its own right in 1863, and abolished slavery at its formation during the American Civil War. As in Richmond, Bishop Whelan invited religious congregations to his new diocese to provide needed social services. By the time he died, the diocese had 48 churches, 29 priests, three religious congregations of women, six schools for girls, a school for boys, an orphanage, and a hospital.[1] From 1869 to 1870, Bishop Whelan attended the First Vatican Council, where he opposed papal infallibility because he thought such a declaration would be untimely.[3]

Death and legacy[edit]

Bishop Whelan fell ill in 1874 and was taken to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, where he later died from liver disease at age 65.[3] A hall at Wheeling Jesuit University, the youngest of the nation's Jesuit Universities (dedicated in 1955), is named for the pioneering bishop.


  1. ^ a b "The Most Reverend Richard Vincent Whelan". Wheeling Jesuit University. Archived from the original on 2008-10-11.
  2. ^ a b c d "Bishop Richard Vincent Whelan". David M. Cheney. Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e Clarke, Richard Henry. Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ "Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston". David M. Cheney. Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-10-11. Retrieved 2015-09-25.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)

See also[edit]

Tricia Pyne, Faith in the Mountains: A History of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (2000)

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Patrick Kelly
Bishop of Richmond
Succeeded by
John McGill
Preceded by
Bishop of Wheeling
Succeeded by
John Joseph Kain