St. Augustine Catholic
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Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley (1894-1967)  
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The Builder Bishop
His vision and leadership is greatly attributed to the reason the Church of Florida flourishes today.

By Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

Forty years ago, on Monday, Oct. 30, 1967, at 9:30 in the morning, at Mercy Medical Center in Orlando, death came for the archbishop. In the 27th year of his episcopacy, all spent as bishop of Saint Augustine, Joseph Patrick Hurley left behind a legacy of 74 parishes and 100 schools that he personally founded in this state west of the Apalachicola River. (The west Panhandle at that time was under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Mobile. In 1958, the 16 southernmost Florida counties were formed into the Diocese of Miami.)

Archbishop Hurley is best remembered as our state’s “Builder Bishop.” He was the Robert Moses, if you will, of the Florida church. Today, whenever pastors and their people step out of their churches, look around, and wonder how their property happened to be situated in the heart of their town, or their suburb, or their retirement community, the answer likely is that Archbishop Hurley, by dint of his research and foresight, purchased those lots many decades ago when the Florida population boom was just igniting and real estate prices were low.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Catholics were pouring into the state at much the same pace as found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when northern U.S. dioceses had to expand to handle the high tide of European immigration. To handle the increase, Archbishop Hurley studied the projected growth plans of the Southern Bell and Florida Power and Light companies. He took note of the off-ramps of the interstate highways I-95 and I-75. He chartered twin-engine propeller planes and surveyed the earth below with grids and a pair of dividers. Every so many miles he marked out 10 acres for a parish. Every 10 or 12 parishes he marked out 20 acres for a high school. Every 40 or 50 parishes he marked out 100 acres for a cemetery. When money became available he made the property purchases through a third party. Many lots were not built on until long after his death.

Though no high school or other significant building bears his name in any of today’s seven Florida dioceses, no doubt he would regard the churches and schools he caused to be erected, both during his lifetime and afterwards, to be memorial enough.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Jan. 21, 1894, Archbishop Hurley was ordained a diocesan priest on May 29, 1919. After eight years in parish work, he was selected to be secretary for Archbishop (later Cardinal) Edward A. Mooney, apostolic delegate to India. In 1933-34 he served as charg d’affaires in Japan, and was promoted afterward to attach in the Papal Secretariat of State, Vatican City, where he oversaw matters relating to the United States.

After that distinguished diplomatic career, in August 1940, he was appointed sixth bishop of St. Augustine. In the whole of his Florida diocese, which was nearly twice the size of Ireland, there were 62 parishes, 137 priests, 373 sisters and 45 schools. Almost before he could begin to build up the diocese, the U.S. plunged into the Second World War, and Archbishop Hurley’s few priests were confronted with the obligation to serve many thousands of military personnel, who were sent into Florida for combat training. The 65,000 Catholics Archbishop Hurley found here in 1940 expanded to more than 250,000 in just one year. The military chaplains were not numerous enough to meet the need. Archbishop Hurley implored the bishops of priest-rich northern dioceses for help. But, to his distress, New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago turned deaf ears to his pleas. Inadequately, but with great heart, Florida’s own exhausted clergy struggled to meet what Archbishop Hurley called “the spiritual emergency.”
Above Right, Archbishop Joseph Hurley officiates at a groundbreaking with the assistance of Fathers John P. Lawler (left) and James F. Gloekler (right).

Above Left, While at Vatican Council II in 1963, Archbishop Hurley is seen here in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with priests of the diocese. (l-r) The late Msgr. Patrick Madden, the late Msgr. John McNulty, Father Irvine Nugent, Father Bernard McFadden and Msgr. Eugene Kohls.

In his see city St. Augustine Archbishop Hurley took on another kind of wartime emergency. Then as now, St. Augustine depended 80 percent on tourism for its economy. But with wartime restrictions, gas and oil were rationed, and manufacture of new tires was stopped. The highways in and out of St. Augustine became almost vacant. Furthermore, the passenger trains that once brought tourists to the city’s Florida East Coast Railway Station were increasingly commandeered for military troop transport. Letters from the local Chamber of Commerce to U.S. Representative Joe Hendricks and Senator Claude Pepper asking for aid were unavailing.

Archbishop Hurley, who as an attach in the Secretariat of State had done numerous favors for U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells, decided to call in some chits. To Welles he wrote: “Virtually every independent business in the town is headed for collapse unless immediate relief is forth-coming.”

Welles at once set up meetings with the top military brass in Washington. Accompanied by Chamber of Commerce official John Dillin, Archbishop Hurley traveled on a priority train ticket to the nation’s capital and argued the Ancient City’s case before the War and Navy departments. It was the Coast Guard that responded affirmatively, offering to place a Coast Guard Indoctrination and Training base in four St. Augustine hotels: the Ponce de Leon and the smaller Monson, Bennett and Ocean View. By August 1942 Coast Guard personnel were spreading dollars throughout the city, and the economy was saved.

At war’s end, Archbishop Hurley launched a major campaign to stimulate homegrown vocations to the priesthood. At the same time, he began recruiting priests from Ireland and, later, from Spain. Both efforts proved eminently successful.

In October 1945, answering a call from Pope Pius XII, the bishop left his pastoral duties to serve as Regent ad interim at the Apostolic Nunciature in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He was the first non-Italian prelate to be raised to the equivalent rank of nuncio.

During the next four years he struggled to bring relief, both spiritual and material, to a church that suffered unspeakable persecution from the Communist government of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. By Vatican count Tito killed 243 priests and imprisoned 169 others. The most noted prisoner in 1946 was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Alojzije Stepinac, of Zagreb, whom the government placed on trial. Bishop Hurley attended each day of the mock proceedings as a symbol of protest, and a wire service photograph of him bowing respectfully toward the archbishop was printed around the world.

Throughout his term as regent Bishop Hurley used his own funds as well as those he raised from the (U.S.) National Catholic Welfare Conference to funnel foodstuffs, clothing, and other supplies through Trieste to the desperate bishops, priests and nuns in Yugoslavia. In 1949 he departed Belgrade under awkward circumstances. Pius XII awarded him for his service with the title Archbishop ad personam.

Typically thought of during his lifetime as conservative, even reactionary, Archbishop Hurley took a number of progressive positions. In 1943 he anticipated by 20 years the Catholic ecumenical movement, when he stated in an address at the University of Florida that the time had come “when Christians can lay aside the divisions which rose among them” and pursue “the grave obligation of exemplifying in unity that universal brotherhood of man under God which is the very core of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, the Man-God.” In the same year his was one of the few hierarchical voices raised against the Nazis’ “pogrom against the Jews.” And he surprised many with the speed and thoroughness with which he implemented the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican Council II.

He was withal a remarkable leader of God’s people. He was a bishop to his fingertips, a man in love with the beauty of the House of God. The church was his mother, his home, his spiritual native country. To her he responded with unwavering faith, maintenance of principle, uncompromising honesty and indefatigable energy. He never bowed before wealth or privilege.

Joseph P. Hurley was one of the great shepherds in the long history of the Florida church. His once powerful oratory may be stilled, but his deeds will grow in volume with each passing year.

From the priests that knew him best...

Like most of the young priests, I served as Archbishop Hurley’s driver. I remember when he asked me to come with him to Cleveland, his hometown, for two weeks. From the very beginning it was a disaster. From the back seat he would shout, “Go West.” “Go East.” “Go North.” “Go South.” Never having been to Cleveland I didn’t know my way around - I had no idea which way to go. After two days of trying to learn my directions, the archbishop said, “when we get back to Jacksonville there will be a new man replacing you.” And that new man happened to be Father John Lenihan!

Father Daniel Cody

I was doing summer work with a Catholic Worker community in Malaga, Spain. It was a chance to study Spanish and an opportunity to do something about poverty. My hair was long and I had very little money. I was zealous for the social mission of the church.
A telegram came from the Archbishop Hurley’s assistant. I was to meet him at the Palace Hotel in Madrid. I flew from Malaga in my best-ragged suit and checked into the most elegant of hotels right in the middle of Madrid. We met for dinner in the hotel dining room.
The archbishop wanted a good education for his students. Being at Louvain was already a great education but on this particular night the archbishop wanted me to taste the best of Spain’s good food.
The next day, waiting in the airport for a flight home, the archbishop pointed out an article in the Herald Tribune about a policeman in southern Spain who had decided to trim the hair of certain students by force. Then he recommended a visit to the Prado Museum: “Make sure you see Los Borrachos by Velazquez,” he said. I got a haircut when I made it back to Malaga and I’ve spent 40 years wondering why he liked that painting.

Msgr. Vincent Haut


Archbishop Hurley was astute at purchasing valuable real estate especially prime property along Florida’s highways. This property was intended to serve as future sites for Catholic parishes.
He had expressed interest in a particular site, which a real estate agent was anxious to sell. So the real estate agent called the chancery and his message was, “Tell the archbishop he must decide today about the foreclosure of this property. Other people are also interested in it.”
The archbishop’s response was; “Tell the real estate agent we have decided not to decide today - that is our decision.”
Archbishop Hurley attended Vatican II from 1962-65. In addition to the bishops of the world, many theologians were also present. Some of those theologians were very liberal in their thinking. One in particular, was Hans Kung. Archbishop Hurley’s description of Hans Kung was, “Hans Kung is to theology, what Elvis Presley is to music.” Not quite a compliment!

Msgr. James Heslin


In 1965, Archbishop Hurley asked me to fly with him to Detroit. He wanted to speak to the chancery people about the writing of Cardinal Edward Mooney’s biography.
While in Detroit, he decided to fly to South Bend, Ind. to see the sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. [Mestrovic was the sculptor of the Father Lopez statue on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine and the “Pieta” at Mercy Hospital in Miami.] He wanted to go there on a Saturday when Notre Dame was playing a home football game.

We could only fly to South Bend late on Saturday afternoon and the only motel rooms available were at the Maxi Motel, which was in town above a bowling alley. The beds had half sheets (about the waist up) and we had to share a bathroom. I think the archbishop slept in a chair. “Maxi” should have told us a lot about the accommodations!

The next morning we contacted Mestrovic, visited with him at his home and were on our way. The archbishop didn’t want to impose on anyone by trying to stay at a rectory or at the university. The thrust of the story is that he would put up with most anything as long as he knew what he was getting into beforehand.

Msgr. Eugene C. Kohls


The newly ordained priests who came from Ireland usually came by cruise ship. The S.S. America was the one that most of us were assigned to. We sailed out of Cobh in the county of Cork in August 1959. One week later we arrived in Jacksonville.

The next day we said Mass in the chapel at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine. Lunch at the Cathedral rectory with Archbishop Hurley was anticipated with fear and trembling. He asked a lot of questions about Ireland. One of his questions was about tea instead of coffee. He said, “Why does the tea in Ireland taste so much better?” The response he got was one that even the Irish lads were not expecting. “The bog air, your Grace.”

One of the techniques the Archbishop Hurley used to get to know his priests was to get them to be his chauffeurs. My turn to drive came after a day at Clearwater Central Catholic High School. The archbishop was there to establish boundaries for a new parish between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

The evening ended with the statement, “Michael, we’re going to dinner. Do you know any good restaurants?” Michael didn’t, so we drove around until he saw one that looked decent. We parked and I was advised to go inside and book a table, but to make sure the table wasn’t directly in front of any entrances. He never wanted to be caught unawares by a well-wishing Catholic from the diocese.

There was a door close to where we sat; the maitre d’ assured me that nobody used that door. We had been seated all of five minutes when three people came through that door. “I thought you told me…” “I’m sorry your Grace, they told me the door was not in use.”
We came to appreciate the greatness of the man who was leading us. Our well-being was his primary concern. He gave us the opportunity to go back to school. He believed that teaching in a high school was the best possible preparation for ministry in the parish. We owe a lot to him.

Father Michael Larkin

It may come as a surprise, but I found Archbishop Hurley a master of “colloquial” Latin. Take for example an incident just before the Baccalaureate Mass for the 1967 graduates of St. Paul High School, St. Petersburg. As we processed into the church, Archbishop Hurley mumbled to me these words, “I have a ‘rana in gutture’.” I got the “gutture” but I missed the “rana.” So with great glee in his eyes, he proceeded to translate the Latin phrase in these words, “a frog in my throat.” Then I realized he had very successfully thrown a knuckle ball right by me. Later I thought to myself, this is a way Archbishop Hurley expressed his humor even if it resembled ever so slightly the characteristics of a sucker punch. And yet I was able to smile! Be that as it may, to this day I remain very much indebted to him for the opportunities he made possible for me.

Father Michael Williams