Born in Mobile, Alabama, longtime Catholic bishop and activist Richard Oliver Gerow spent most of his life in Mississippi. He was the only son of Warren Gerow, who was a maker of Mardi Gras floats and a volunteer fireman, and Ann Vickers Skelan Gerow, an Irish immigrant.
Gerow received his education at Mobile’s cathedral school and McGill Institute before attending St Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. While there, he decided to become a priest. Under the tutelage of Bishop E. P. Allen, Gerow spent five years at the North American College in Rome and was ordained on 5 June 1909 in the Cathedral of St. John Lateran by Cardinal Pietro Respighi, the vicar of Rome.
Gerow’s first priestly assignment was in a black parish in Pensacola, Florida. From there, he went to the cathedral in Mobile, remaining there and moving up the clerical hierarchy until 23 June 1924, when the thirty-nine-year-old Gerow was named bishop of Natchez. He was a scholar and a man of peace who hated violence in any form. He chose for his coat of arms and motto “In Thee, O Lord, Have I Hoped,” an apt choice given the challenging situation he was about to face.
Gerow began to make changes as soon as he became bishop. He moved his residence from Pass Christian (where his predecessor, Bishop John Gunn, had been) to Natchez and decided to keep a diary of his daily activities and to organize the diocesan archives. Gerow was so faithful in carrying out these decisions that his diary grew to more than seven volumes, and his archives were among the best organized in the Catholic Church.
Gerow oversaw the renovation of St. Mary’s Cathedral (at a cost of nearly eighty thousand dollars) during the desperate years of the Great Depression. Often paternalistic, he stayed close to his clergy through semiannual retreats and conferences. He consistently sought to recruit new members for the priesthood, especially from Ireland, where he traveled almost yearly. He brought more than two dozen religious orders to his diocese to help in every area of Catholic life from education to hospital ministry. He always made sure that the clergy and religious received decent salaries and lived in decent conditions. Gerow was especially concerned with property rights, making it clear that only the bishop would hold rights to any land or buildings. He was also very interested in the diocese’s two orphanages, D’Evereux Hall and St. Mary’s.
In addition to his activities with the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Laymen’s Association, and the Catholic Committee of the South, Gerow paid special attention to the Diocesan Conference of Catholic Women. He felt that the Catholic faith was often treasured by and passed on through the women in Catholic families. Gerow also showed special interest in African Americans and Native Americans, consistently seeking funds for them and working to make sure that their spiritual needs were met. On 22 July 1948, after much thought and consideration and with the help of Monsignor Joseph Brunini, Gerow moved the chancery from Natchez to Jackson.
Between 1948 and 1966 the diocese faced challenges resulting from its growth. Gerow emphasized Catholic education and had Father Joseph Koury take over as superintendent of Catholic schools. Churches were built around the vast diocese so that every Catholic would have the opportunity to go to Mass and receive the sacraments. The diocese started its first newspaper, the Mississippi Register. Gerow’s most significant accomplishments included his establishment of Catholic Charities in 1962. He also asked Rome to change the diocese to the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, which occurred in 1957. He continued to recruit and work on behalf of his clergy. In 1956 he approved the creation of Pax Christi and endorsed the church’s Greenwood movement. He was perhaps most proud when he saw two native Mississippians, Joseph Brunini and Leo Fahey, elevated to the bishopric.
Gerow did not challenge segregation but set up separate black parishes and schools so that African Americans could practice their faith. If any form of discrimination occurred, Gerow usually acted very quickly to stop it and punish those involved. St. Augustine’s Seminary (the only seminary for black candidates for the priesthood) was located in his diocese and received his wholehearted support. He ordained more black priests than any other bishop in America.
Gerow was shaken by the turbulence of the 1960s and particularly by Medgar Evers’s murder, which he publicly condemned. With the support and encouragement of his auxiliary bishop, Brunini, Gerow ordered the integration of all first grades in diocesan schools and followed up by fully integrating all levels. By then, Gerow was aging and his strength diminishing. He left these matters and other diocesan issues to Brunini, who became his successor. Gerow went into retirement and stayed active with fishing and photography. He died on 20 December 1976 at the age of ninety-one, living long enough to see his diocese have one of the first black bishops in the United States, Joseph Howze.
- Richard O. Gerow, Catholicity in Mississippi (1939)
- Richard O. Gerow, ed., Civil War Diary of Bishop William Henry Elder (1961)
- Richard O. Gerow, Cradle Days of Mississippi (1941)
- Richard O. Gerow, St. Mary’s Parish, Natchez, Bishop Janssens’ Administration (1961)
- Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984 (1998)