Diocese of Allentown Has a Rich, Faith-Filled History


Staff writers


The early 1960s were a time of hope and inspiration. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States, was in the White House, propelling a time of new beginnings in the nation as Pope John XXIII was about to lead the Catholic Church into a new era with the Second Vatican Council.


Change and hope were also palpable in the five most northern counties of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – Berks, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton and Schuylkill – comprised to create the new Diocese of Allentown in 1961.


This new charge was given to Bishop Joseph McShea, Founding Bishop of Allentown, who, as a loving father, nurtured the new Diocese into fruition. The mission continued in 1983 with Bishop Thomas Welsh – a native of Weatherly – who would guide the Diocese a generation later with a gentle shepherd’s hand as Second Bishop of Allentown.


The course was charted next with Bishop Edward Cullen, now Bishop Emeritus of Allentown, who invigorated the Diocese with new ideas to move it into the future, beginning in 1998.

As the Fourth Bishop of Allentown, Bishop John Barres took the helm to guide the faithful on July 30, 2009.


As Bishop Alfred Schlert and the Diocese look toward the future, the rich, faith-filled history of the Diocese will no doubt shine a light as a beacon of hope for the future.


Bishop McShea 1961-83

Bishop McShea

Under Bishop McShea’s tutelage, the young Diocese came into its own and thrived.


In the early 1960s, Bishop McShea undertook a $7.5 million education expansion program, which surpassed its goal by more than $4 million. Three new high schools were built, wings were added to two others and DeSales University, Center Valley, which opened in September 1965 as Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, was established.


He convoked a Diocesan Synod to shape the personality and character of the youthful Diocese in 1968. It lasted 18 months and considered more than 10,000 suggestions from the clergy and laity of the Diocese.


Bishop McShea welcomed 35 men into the Allentown Diocese’s first permanent deacon program. On Oct. 16, 1982 he ordained 33 of the men in a historic ceremony in which they became the Diocese’s first married clergy.


The Allentown Diocese came to be the center for two national movements under Bishop McShea’s leadership: National Shut-In Day and Operation Rice Bowl. National Shut-In Day encourages the visitation of the sick, elderly, incapacitated and imprisoned. Operation Rice Bowl is an ecumenical Lenten spiritual program designed to sensitize people to the plight of the world’s hungry and feed the starving. It has raised millions of dollars.


Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop McShea’s resignation in February 1983. McShea died at age 84 on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 28, 1991. He is buried on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown.


Bishop Welsh 1983-97

Bishop Welsh

A new era dawned with the installation of Bishop Welsh March 21, 1983, at the Cathedral. Immediately after his installation, the Second Bishop of Allentown gave indications he wanted to be a pastor among his people.


Bishop Welsh held six regional celebrations throughout the Diocese to which he invited not only the faithful of the area, but also religious and civic leaders, to meet him.


Well known nationally for his staunch pro-life stance, he established the Diocesan “Stand Up for Life” campaign to encourage heightened pro-life efforts among the faithful.


He held two one-day workshops for the priests of the Diocese on Natural Family Planning and the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” The bishop personally led a group of couples preparing for marriage through three sessions of the Diocesan marriage preparation dialogues.


Highlights of Bishop Welsh’s tenure include establishing the first Youth Ministry Office in the Diocese and raising $13 million in an endowment campaign, “Forward With Christ,” for Diocesan schools and other educational efforts.


After Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop Welsh’s resignation, the pontiff appointed Bishop Cullen to succeed him. Bishop Welsh shared his faith, compassion and love of Christ in the Diocese and beyond after his retirement, until his death at age 87 on Feb. 19, 2009.


Bishop Cullen 1998-2009

Bishop Cullen

The Diocese had grown and changed in the 37 years since it was established when Bishop Cullen was installed Feb. 9, 1998. More changes lay ahead – some joyful, some challenging.

Soon after his installation, Bishop Cullen reorganized Diocesan administration and created the Secretariat Model. He also launched a spiritual initiative called Renew 2000, a Diocesan-wide, parish-level program in keeping with Pope John Paul II’s call for new evangelization in the Church.


In 2003 Bishop Cullen launched the $28 million Diocesan capital campaign Strengthening Our Future in Faith (SOFF), to which Diocesan faithful pledged more than $54 million to benefit parishes, schools and programs throughout the Diocese.


Bishop Cullen convened the Second Synod of Allentown in 2005. The process began with hundreds of people attending listening sessions in each of the deaneries of the Diocese to offer input on synod topics.


As the synod closed in 2006, in accordance with its statutes, Bishop Cullen appointed the Diocese’s first Diocesan Pastoral Council. The 23-member, lay-dominated council became actively involved in implementing the statutes of the synod.


Highlights of Bishop Cullen’s tenure included changing the name of Catholic Social Agency to Catholic Charities, Diocese of Allentown. He appointed the first lay Executive Director of Catholic Charities and Secretary for Catholic Human Services, as well as the first lay Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Diocese and Secretary for Temporal Affairs.


Under Bishop Cullen’s guidance Catholic Charities, Diocese of Allentown procured its first professional accreditation after a five-year process. He also established a two-tiered governance system for Catholic Charities: a Board of Members and a Board of Trustees.


Bishop Cullen’s direction led to the creation of the Offices of Adult Formation, Banking and Investments, and Prison Ministry, and a new approach in the Office of Stewardship and Development.


The Institute for Lay Ministry (ILM) – a three-year formation program for the laity to give leadership qualifying them to provide leadership in various ministries in the Diocese – was established under Bishop Cullen’s guidance. ILM received full professional accreditation through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).


His leadership saw the creation of the Commission for Women, which serves as an advisory board to the Bishop on women’s issues. During his tenure Project Rachel – a post-abortion reconciliation and healing program – was implemented in the Diocese.


The span of Bishop Cullen’s leadership witnessed the construction of new churches and schools, as well as Seton Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Orwigsburg. He was intricately involved in the renovation of the Cathedral in 2005.


Challenging and difficult times in the Diocese included the clergy sexual abuse scandal in 2002. Bishop Cullen was proactive in responding to the scandal and to date, all audits have found the Diocese in complete compliance with the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.


A wave of parish closings and mergers took place in summer 2008, and some schools closed their doors as well. A challenging and painful time, the faithful of the Diocese strived to accept what had to occur and move forward with a renewed faith, often in a new parish.


On May 27, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI accepted Bishop Cullen’s resignation and appointed Msgr. John Barres, a priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, to succeed him. Bishop Barres was ordained and installed as the Fourth Bishop of Allentown on July 30, 2009.


Bishop Barres 2009-17

Bishop Barres

More joyful and challenging times were on the horizon as Bishop Barres led the Diocese in “Holiness and Mission” for nearly eight years with then-Msgr. Alfred Schlert at his side as Diocesan vicar general.


Through Bishop Barres’ personal outreach, in the implementation of new ideas, and in his support of growth for existing and ongoing progress, he focused on work that strengthened Catholic faith, brought grace and mercy into the lives of his flock, and kept the Gospel mission at the heart of every effort under the New Evangelization.


He called on the Diocese to be a “field hospital of mercy” by reaching out to all people in need – especially inactive Catholics and victims of clergy abuse.


Bishop Barres also set out to advance the Diocese by devising “The Aspirational Goals of the Diocese of Allentown” as guides for focusing prayer and evangelization efforts.


With a decline in vocations, promoting vocations became one of his chief goals as he expanded Diocesan programs and opportunities for men and women to consider the call to priesthood and religious life by offering the camps Quo Vadis (Latin for “Where are you going?”) and Fiat Days.


In addition, he supported the Diocesan Aspirancy Program to enable young men considering the seminary to experience personal daily prayer, retreats, classes and spiritual direction supported by the Diocesan community of priests. Bishop Barres also encouraged the Come and See programs at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia and worked closely with the St. Andrew Committee.


Responding to the call of priesthood and religious life is only the beginning and Bishop Barres called for the annual Convocation for Priests and new pastor workshops to provide support, direction and assistance to priests.


Following the words of St. Pope John Paul II, he asked parishes to become “genuine schools of prayer” and released “One in Mission: Norms and Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils” in 2015 to assist pastors in establishing, educating and strengthening active parish pastoral councils.


Catholic education was of paramount importance to Bishop Barres, and in 2010 he established a 13-member Bishop’s Commission on Catholic Schools (BCCS) with a three-year charge to significantly strengthen Diocesan schools and ensure a strong, healthy school system.


BCCS recommended a new governance model for Diocesan schools and developed a Tuition Transfer Grant Program to provide financial support for students transferring into a Catholic school. The program brought 900 new students into Diocesan schools in its first two years.


Aware of the impact of social media and advancements in communication, Bishop Barres steered the Diocese into a multi-channel communications outlet focused on the New Evangelization within the Diocese and around the world.


The Diocesan website was redesigned, including a Bishop’s Video Blog, and the Diocese developed an active presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


A strong advocate of Hispanic ministry expansion and evangelization, Bishop Barres brought a special focus to the gifts and needs of the Hispanic community in the Diocese and backed youth and young adult events, adult catechesis, regional “Hombres del Reino” men’s group meetings, parish ambassador’s formation and vocation outreach.


Heeding the reminder from Pope Francis that the faithful have a responsibility to help the suffering, the poor and the most vulnerable, Bishop Barres made regular pastoral visits and lauded the life-affirming ministries at Catholic Charities, and Catholic Senior Housing and Health Care Services – including Holy Family Manor, Holy Family Personal Care Homes, Holy Family Villa and the eight Catholic senior apartment communities within the Diocese.


In response to Pope Francis’ call to serve the poor and vulnerable among us, Catholic Charities established a program to help survivors of human trafficking, opened an additional food pantry in Berks County that serves anyone in need, took over the operation of St. Patrick’s Pottsville Area Soup Kitchen and renovated Our Lady of Mount Carmel Community Center in the heart of Allentown.


In addition, the Diocesan Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization saw new energy in hundreds of Diocesan youth at youth rallies, regional Confirmation Witness Rallies, and Diocesan-wide and regional youth events sponsored by Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).


City Lights, a semi-formal social event for young adults, and Theology on Tap, a monthly speaker series for married and single young adults, also became popular programs across the Diocese.

New Evangelization, pastoral and strategic planning, financial management and stewardship were other areas of concern for Bishop Barres, who launched a strategic planning process and a new phase of pastoral strategic planning designed to assist the Diocese in timely decisions regarding responsible stewardship and fiscal management.


As the Diocese ushers in its new shepherd, Bishop Schlert’s episcopate will be steeped in his personal motto and Jesus’ call to Peter to “Feed My Sheep.”