One day in the beginning of the 1850 academic year, a scholarly professor at All Hallows College in Dublin welcomed a guest speaker to his class. The visitor was Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, a Spanish Dominican on his way to his new post as bishop of the far-away missionary diocese of Monterey. He talked to the seminarians about the need for priests in California. He must have been persuasive, for the professor himself became one of the hundreds of Irish priests who would journey to that far-off land to minister.
He was Eugene O’Connell, and upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1851, Bishop Alemany put him in charge of the struggling diocesan seminary at Mission Santa Inés. Father O’Connell moved the seminary to Mission Dolores shortly thereafter, where he also served as the pastor of St. Francis Church in San Francisco’s North Beach district. After serving a few years in the missions, O’Connell returned to his quiet life as a scholar in Dublin.
Imagine his surprise six years later when he received a letter from Rome appointing him bishop of the Vicariate of Marysville in California. Alemany had been named the first archbishop of San Francisco, and at the same time Marysville had been selected as the seat of a vicariate under San Francisco. If the 45-year-old O’Connell was able to find a map in Dublin that would show Marysville, he would have discovered it in Yuba County, and his territory covered all of Northern California and half of Nevada — sixteen counties in all.
His vast rural ministry was strenuous, and he approached it with great dedication and a sense of humor. But in 1868, only eight years after his ordination as bishop, he received another letter from Rome which was as puzzling to him as the first was shocking. He had been appointed first bishop of a new diocese covering his area with its episcopal seat in the small town of Grass Valley in Nevada County. Bishop O’Connell was only slightly more acquainted with Grass Valley than we are, and he did not like what he knew. He said it was more a rocky hill than a grassy valley. Furthermore, he felt it was a ridiculous name for a diocese. What was wrong with Marysville? It was, he felt, much more suitable as a diocesan seat and a more appropriate name for a diocese.
St. Patrick Church, Grass Valley, designated as the cathedral
O’Connell made his opinion known to Rome, but to no avail. So with a frontier mentality, he refused to take possession of St. Patrick Church in Grass Valley, designated as his cathedral, and instead established St. Joseph Church in Marysville as his pro-cathedral. The Diocese of Grass Valley, he said, was a “legal fiction.” He signed his correspondence — even to Rome — as “Bishop of Marysville,” where he continued to reside.
St. Joseph Pro-cathedral, Marysville
After nearly 25 years serving the people of his diocese, Bishop O’Connell retired in 1884 and was happy to serve out his remaining days as a simple chaplain to a house of religious women in Los Angeles.
The second bishop of Grass Valley was the witty Patrick Manogue, an Irish immigrant who came to the Mother Lode area to try his luck as a gold miner and later was ordained a priest. After only two years as bishop of Grass Valley, Bishop Manogue achieved what Bishop O’Connell had been unable to do; he had the seat of the diocese moved. Grass Valley became the new Diocese of Sacramento in 1886, and Manogue moved there to become its first bishop. Almost immediately he began work there on the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Diocese of Grass Valley existed for only 18 years, and is the only California diocese to be relegated to the status of a titular see (first and current holder is Christie Macaluso, auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Conn.). It has become largely a footnote in the story of how diocesan boundaries were frequently revised throughout the history of the Catholic Church in California to better serve the People of God. And Bishop O’Connell would no doubt feel Sacramento is a much more suitable name for the area he ministered to for so long.