A longtime Catholic bishop active in many aspects of Mississippi life throughout the twentieth century, Joseph Bernard Brunini was born on 24 July 1909, the sixth child of John Brunini and Blanche Stein Brunini of Vicksburg. The Brunini family was a tightly knit group, with the father in full charge. A successful lawyer, he did legal work for the Catholic diocese gratis. Strong willed and very vocal, he decided that his sons would all go to Georgetown and his daughters would attend Trinity College. Joseph was seen as the child who would succeed his father in the law firm. Ironically, however, Joseph found his vocation at Georgetown.
Brunini’s education was a typical Catholic one. He attended St. Aloysius in Vicksburg before moving on to Georgetown, where he edited the school newspaper. During this time Brunini realized he wanted to enter the priesthood and, with the help of his sister, Blanche, told his father during one of his Christmas holidays. John Brunini consulted with Bishop Richard Gerow, who helped decide that Joseph should attend the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he studied for four years. He was ordained a priest on 5 December 1933 by Cardinal Francesco Marchetti-Selvaggiani. Bishop Gerow wanted Brunini to study canon law in Rome rather than going directly into parish work. Having been away from his family for so long, Brunini compromised by agreeing to study canon law at the Catholic University of America.
With his doctorate in hand, Brunini was assigned temporarily to Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1937. In 1941 he was moved to the then cathedral parish in Natchez, where he stayed as rector, chancellor, and eventually named a monsignor by Pope Pius XII. Bishop Gerow frequently relied on Brunini’s advice, and he helped Gerow move the chancery from Natchez to Jackson in 1949. Gerow then appointed Brunini as the pastor of St. Peter’s, vicar general of the diocese. In 1956, Pius appointed him auxiliary bishop of Natchez-Jackson.
Gerow, a native of Mobile, Alabama, who had been bishop in Mississippi since 1924, was happy with Brunini’s promotion. Brunini took as his coat of arms and motto “God and Neighbor.” Having grown up around Gerow, he naturally saw Gerow as his “spiritual godfather.” They worked well together while Brunini also pursued his own tasks such as his work with hospitals. When Bishop Gerow could not attend Vatican II, Brunini took his place and was there for all the council meetings. On 11 July 1966, Pope Paul VI appointed Brunini as apostolic administrator of the diocese without the right of succession. Shortly thereafter, Brunini became the eighth bishop of Natchez-Jackson.
A simple man who loved people, Brunini was down-to-earth and loved to have a good meal surrounded by people who were laughing and talking. Yet underneath this exterior was a man would decide on a course of action and then convince others to do as he wanted, giving them a lot of freedom and responsibility. Under his leadership, Natchez-Jackson grew. He actively recruited priests and religious, appointing Father David O’Connor as his liaison in Ireland for vocations. He constantly communicated with his people, allowed his priests to develop intellectually, brought Spring Hill College into the diocese to offer courses and degrees, and encouraged lay groups to take on more responsibility. He endorsed and attended the annual Mississippi conventions, changed the name of the diocesan newspaper, and wrote a weekly column, “As One Who Serves.” He updated Catholic Charities, closed the orphanages, and implemented the changes called for by Vatican II. He also had the diocese adopt a mission in Saltillo, Mexico.
Within the diocese, Brunini changed the rules for priests staying in a parish, set up a Catholic Foundation for gifts, reorganized the chancery after the devastation caused by Hurricane Camille, and was the first bishop in America to have a black auxiliary bishop—Joseph Lawson Howze. In 1957, after much lobbying by Brunini, Rome divided the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson into the Diocese of Jackson and the Diocese of Biloxi and named Bishop Howze the first Bishop of Biloxi.
Outside the diocese, he worked with his fellow bishops on numerous committees, was active politically with the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, the Three Rivers Ministry, and STAR (Systematic Training and Redevelopment, an antipoverty program). He had the diocese apply for federal grants to help provide better housing for senior citizens.
Brunini really became a church reformer on the issue of school integration. Troubled by Mississippi’s Jim Crow history and sensing that the time was right for action, Brunini worked with Gerow to begin by integrating first grade in the state’s Catholic schools in 1964 and then all grades in 1965. In a 1969 “Christmas message,” Brunini let the world know that things were changing. Between 1967 and 1984 he made sure that the Diocese of Jackson integrated, despite severe criticisms from his own school superintendent. If any sign or action of discrimination occurred, he acted quickly to stop it and punish those responsible. He was one of the founders and first chairs of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference. He and a new superintendent, Msgr. Paul Canonici, established guidelines for school integration in 1974. And he continually supported St. Augustine’s seminary for African American priests, ordained black priests, and continued to support civil rights movements such as the Greenwood movement and Pax Christi. His actions changed the makeup and sense of the diocese and the state.
Joseph Bernard Brunini died on 7 January 1996.
- Joseph B. Brunini, “Memoirs of a Southern Bishop” (Catholic Diocese of Jackson Archives)
- Mississippi Today, special edition (1997)
- Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984 (1998)
- Michael V. Namorato, interviews with Joseph B. Brunini (1987–88)