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Interview with: Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: May 27, 2008
DG: Today is May 27, 2008. We are in the offices of the Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza, interviewing him for the Houston Oral History Project. How are you today?
JAF: Good morning. Doing really well, thank you.
DG: Thank you so much for your time.
JAF: My pleasure.
DG: Usually, we start at the beginning with early life but in this case, I want to start with today and talk about the recent opening of the co-cathedral. Now, it is very much on the top of people's minds today but people doing this 15, 20 years from now might want to know about the significance of this time for the church here in Houston, so tell us about the cathedral.
JAF: Well, the cathedral is a project that we thought about for about 10 years, and the reason for thinking about it was that the present cathedral for Houston was small, relatively small, and was getting old and in need of some major repairs. So, rather than trying to undertake a huge renovation project, which would cost a considerable amount of money, we thought the time was right for Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, to have an appropriate and significant cathedral that would be much more representative of the large Catholic population both in the city of Houston and the surrounding area. We have at least 1,300,000 Catholics and it continues to grow. So, the project of a new cathedral was surface. We discussed with the Council of Priests and there was a strong desire to proceed. So, we began the difficult process of selecting a fund raising company. After we decided that, we did some surveys among the Catholics of the area, a random survey of 5,000 people asking about your questions, about the different needs that we saw for the Archdiocese and certainly the Cathedral is one. In fact, the Cathedral received the highest number of support among the different projects that we proposed. So, that gave us a great deal of confidence that what we were going to do, we would have a large amount of support. So, we had the fund drive and the fund drive was rather successful and we felt good about it but then some things intervened which we did not foresee. For example, the collapse of Enron, which caused a lot of people to lose their jobs. There was this tropical storm Allison which flooded a great portion of the city, put many people out of their homes. A lot of those people were good Catholic people on the east end and the southeast, and there were other difficulties that intervened also. There was the priest sex scandal that began to evolve. For one reason or another, there was a delay in moving forward but after we thought that we had gathered a sufficient amount of funds, we felt we could proceed. So, we hired an architect and selected a contractor and began the detailed planning of it.
From the very beginning, we wanted a rather large church building but a cathedral that would be both simple, traditional but with some modern features to it. We did not want the type of baroque cathedral that you see in Europe or in Mexico. We wanted something with clean straight lines, simple, hopefully the simplicity would have its own beauty and elegance about it. That was the instruction to the architects and I think they did a good job of achieving that. So, the construction began and as always, during a project of that size, it takes a great deal of meetings and cooperations between the architects and the contractors, the owners, the subcontractors, but in the end, after 3 years, I think that we presented to both the Catholic community and the larger general community a beautiful building which I think is a witness to our faith in God and hopefully that it also testifies to the larger community our need for God; that in this large modern city that has many intricate places working all the time, that if we get so busy and forget about God, who God is and our relationship to God, then the city is not going to work properly -- people are not going to be properly served, justice will not be truly beated out, there won't be the type of harmony and peace and the amity that should flow among many different religious groups and ethnic groups in a large city. So, we hope that the cathedral as a house of God, is open to all, it is a house for all people to come and pray, but it is specifically for Catholic worship, but we think that it is a beautiful new structure for the whole city and we hope the city is as proud of it as we are.
DG: Well, I am sure the generations to come will look back on this moment and appreciate the significant contribution that has been made to our city. Now, we will go back to the beginning. Archbishop, you were born in Beaumont in 1931. Can you tell us about your early years, your earliest memories?
JAF: Yes. Beaumont, I think, back in those days, was maybe a city of 50,000, not any much more than that. I was born into an immigrant Italian family. My father was a barber. We lived very close to relatives and we were part of the Italian community in that area but we lived next door to many other different people so I think we assimilated rather easily into the whole community. I went to Catholic schools from the beginning, all grade school through high school, and the Catholic community there was a close knit community also. Beaumont, then as it is now, is a rather small city with, I think, a lot of wonderful small town qualities about it that lends itself to being a good place to have a family, raise a family. It was an all-producing city. That is where really oil became an industry they say in 1901 with the discovery of the stone top oil fields and, of course, because of that, there are numerous refineries in Beaumont in the surrounding areas, in Port Arthur and Orange and so forth. Because the Neches River in Beaumont connects easily to the Gulf of Mexico, there is quite a bit of shipping out of Beaumont also. So, a lot of the rice farming in that area is shipped out throughout the world from there. So, I am proud of my hometown. I still like to go back and visit there. I do not have too much family still remaining there but it is always home for me.
DG: Was your parents' immigrant experience a formative influence for you?
JAF: Well, yes. I think so. I think my father went to the second grade, my mother, the fourth grade, so they were not highly educated people but they were people of hard-working people and great faith. We realized that we were Italian - we were proud of that - but we also realized that we weren't fully accepted by others who looked upon us as foreigners. Beaumont was not a heavily Catholic area so we felt that a lot of our neighbors and friends, while not any type of overt discrimination, looked upon us as being foreigners for being Catholic and foreigners for being Italian but I think generally speaking though, we got along very well with them.
DG: You were a young boy during World War II. Do you have any memories of that particular period and how it impacted Beaumont?
JAF: Well, I do remember because I was beginning high school then. We tried to be very patriotic, you know, having different war bond drives in the school, scrap metal drives. We participated in all of that. The school had an SMTC, Student Military Training Course, so we did a certain amount of drilling with wooden rifles and those things. But the war did affect us because of relatives who went to war, very close relatives who were killed. I do remember the whole war effort: the rationing, the lack of Coca Cola, butter, meats. I remember practicing air raid warnings, you know, at night time and all those things, so I have rather strong memories of the war and particularly because as I said, relatives in the war being threatened in the theaters of Europe and then South Pacific, too. And I had lost _______ a dear cousin of mine who was only 19 years old at the time.
DG: That was also a time when the entire country came together with the unity of purpose. Did you have a sense of that happening as well?
JAF: Yes. President Roosevelt at that time was just so effective in bringing the whole country together with the war effort and unified us against the enemies we saw in Germany and Japan and energized, I think, all the small communities throughout America to do whatever they could to be a part of the war effort. We often felt that we were not able to go ourselves into the service because I was still a young boy then but even the older generation felt that they could be a great part of the war effort in doing the little things which communities did at that time to show that we were true patriots, that we were Americans. One of the things I am talking about in the Italian community, we were very sensitive to that because Italy was part of the action and our family was brought into different Italian organizations and they just stopped going to them and stopped being participants. We did not want to convey in any way that we were not patriotic. So, the country came together in a magnificent way and I think there was a great sense that all of the country was a part of the war effort and we did our part to help bring about an end to the war.
DG: When you were growing up in Beaumont, what was your awareness of Houston?
JAF: Houston was a city far away, far away. Rarely ever came to Houston. The only time I came to Houston was I had 2 cousins who became nuns and they were here in Houston, and periodically, we would come to visit them. That was always a long trip. It was a trip that was anxiously awaited and then, halfway to Houston, we would stop and have our lunch, a picnic lunch somewhere, and then you'd come on in to Houston. Then, the trip back. It was a full day trip. But that was about it. I think once in high school, I came to Houston to attend a football game at Rice Stadium, the old Rice stadium which, to me then, Houston was just a big city far away.
DG: You attended seminary in Laport. When did you first have a sense that you wanted to be a priest?
JAF: The thought came into my mind from time to time as a young boy which was not unusual in those days, a young Catholic boy going to Catholic schools, seeing the work of priests. You often think, well maybe I should do that, too. But then it faded away and I forgot all about it. I got involved in sports and all the activities. I gave it no thought until I was finishing high school, my last year of high school. Then, the idea came back and came back rather strongly, and by the time I graduated, I was pretty well convinced that was what I wanted to do. So, instead of trying to enlist in some college, I decided to enter into seminary. Seminary at that time was in La Porte, so that is what I did.
DG: I am curious - at what sports did you excel?
JAF: In high school, I played football, basketball and baseball. We were a small school, a small Catholic high school, so we didn't have hardly any athletic facilities at all, but I played those 3 sports and played them rather well. No great athlete but I did well in those sports. We didn't have tennis or golf or track. We didn't have all those in that day. Just 3 basic sports.
DG: Did you approach seminary with a specific plan in mind of how you wanted to be a priest, what your career would be, what it would look like?
JAF: No, not at all. The idea was just to be a priest and be of service to people in whatever way that the church would assign me to serve. I had no idea - just I knew that priests were serving people. You were ministers of the gospel. An important part of the priest ministry was to bring the teachings of Jesus Christ to the people who served, to celebrate the Eucharist for people on Sundays, to be with them in their moments of joy and moments of sadness, to be a counselor, a friend, to be someone who would be available to sit with people when they are sick and when they are dying - just the normal ways of ministering as a servant of the Gospel. That is all I had in mind. I had no idea of a career other than I would be assigned to a parish and do whatever _______ to do in that parish and someday perhaps, to become a pastor. That was it. That was my career thought.
DG: Could you give us the timeline of when you got to seminary and what your first postings were?
JAF: Yes, the seminary was in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, of course. In that time, there were a number . . . I was young. I had finished high school at 16. So, I went into the seminary, I was 16 years old but at that time, too, there were men returning from the service, who were entering the seminary at the same time so I just was with some rather older men. But we began to study the college studies and in the curriculum for the priesthood, you had to study philosophy. That was a major. The major course of studies in those collegiate years was philosophy. Then, when we finished the college years with the emphasis on philosophy, we began our theological studies which were the next 4 years. So, I finished then in May of 1954, actually 54 years ago this week that I finished the study and was ordained a priest by, then the bishop was Bishop Wendolyn Jay Knoll (sp?) who was the bishop serving at that time. Then I was assigned. My first assignment was here in Houston so I got the chance to come to Houston.
DG: Was that the Queen of Peace Church?
JAF: The Queen of Peace Church on Telephone Road, Telephone Road and Wayside right there. Yes. I began my priestly ministry right there and actually, my first impression of Houston - I didn't like it. I didn't like the city of Houston. It was much bigger than anything I had known. I remember I would just get lost a lot and I could not find my way around so great easily at all. So, I think that lasted for about the first year. Then, I got used to Houston and came to like it and love it as really now my home. But in the very beginning, I was a little taken back by how big the city was and that it just did not seem to be as friendly as Beaumont back then. But I got used to it rather quickly.
DG: In 1957, you became a Professor of Medical Ethics at Dominican College?
JAF: Yes. At that time, after I finished my 3 years at Queen of Peace Church, I was assigned to St. Joseph's Hospital to be a hospital chaplain. Part of the responsibilities there were the nurses, the student nurses, who were getting their Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Dominican College. And, of course, one of the courses they were required to take was medical ethics. So, I was teaching that course to them. And it was delightful. I really enjoyed doing the hospital ministry. That was a very important part of my priestly life - being with the sick and the dying and the family, and getting to know well doctors and nurses and the whole staff. I was the only chaplain there at St. Joseph's at that time of about 800 beds. But part of it was teaching. I still see these persons. In fact, just one month ago, a whole group of them called and were having a reunion and they came to see me. It was good. Yes, they are women now but they were young girls when I taught them 50 years ago.
DG: This is early in your priesthood - did you have a sense immediately that your decision was validated - this is where you were meant to be, what you really wanted to do? Or did you have doubts that maybe you had taken on too much?
JAF: I was blessed by not having doubts. I never had a doubt. Once I decided to enter seminary and the first couple of years, you know, during the different studies, there was some question about am I going to be able to pass these courses? But, you know, once I _______ the first year or so, I felt yes, I could do this work. I was not having doubts in my abilities to learn. Then, I never had a doubt. And I never had a doubt about being a priest. Once I became a priest, I knew that was it. I was blessed that way. I never looked back and have to say, did I make the right decision, could I have been happier somewhere else? You know, I could have gone on into law or some other profession I think but no, I never had a doubt. And, as I say, I have been blessed in that way because I know that when I was in the seminary studying for the priesthood, I had fellow classmates who always had doubts and were struggling with the doubts whether they should go on or not go on. For some of them, there was a struggle about that just almost to the very end. But I had a particular blessing from God for which I am deeply grateful. Deeply grateful. So, I look back at 54 years - no, I never had a question about that was what God wanted me to do.
DG: 1959 to 1967, you were at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral.
DG: What were your duties there?
JAF: Well, at that time, I was the administrator of Co-Cathedral. The teacher of the pastor was Monsignor Roach but he was in charge of Catholic Charities at that time. So, he was just the title of pastor. I ran the parish, so to speak. It was my responsibility. That also was a very enjoyable time in my priesthood. I got very involved in the parish. At that time, the parish was still a very popular place because at that time, there was still a rather large downtown population and near downtown. It was only some years later that people were then moving out to the suburbs and out further. But back in 1959, this was still a heavily populated area. And now we know the last 10 years, it is coming back, all the midtown apartments and condos. So, this was a rather busy parish. It was a busy parish and a well-attended parish. So, those years were only very happy memories about those years.
DG: And as an administrator, does that imply that you spent less time in pastoral duties and did that suit you?
JAF: No, I still did all the pastoral duties but you have to take care of all the administration, too. But in those days, we had a secretary but that was about the only staff person we had, maybe besides the maintenance men. But we didn't have a large staff. The administrator did a lot of things which today are done by maintenance people and all types of others, facilities people. But you did it all. So, we had a school. So, my responsibility was to ______ for the school operation, too. So, being administrator did not lessen any of my pastoral duties at all.
DG: And what followed them were 3 pastorships at St. Augustine Church, St. Benedict Church and Assumption Church for brief times. Is that sort of a normal career cycle to go through?
JAF: No. At St. Benedict's, I was there. That is out in southeast Houston. I was very happy. As I recall now, one of my classmates, a priest who had been serving for over 5 years in the missions in Guatemala returned home. He was looking for a place to pastor it and St. Benedict's at that time was beginning to have a large Hispanic population moving in. He felt that he would like to be there and I was willing to accept a transfer somewhere else if he wanted to come there, and that is exactly what happened. He went to St. Benedict's and I took an assignment to Assumption, which was a very brief time because when I was there then, the Bishop then asked me to come here at the Chancery office and I became vice-chancellor at that time. So, that is how all that happened.
DG: For the non-Catholics who will view this, what sort of talents do you think recommended you to that kind of posting, to that sort of leadership position and the chancellor?
JAF: Well, you know, you never know what are the reasons a bishop wants you for a particular job but I think at that particular time, I was recommended to the Bishop. The Bishop was looking for someone to assist him with a lot of the desk work he was having at that time. It was getting to be quite heavy. I was told that I would be a good one to be able to do that, so he asked me to do it. Why I was suggested to do that, I have no idea. I was happy to do it. So then, I became a member of the chancery staff there and worked closely with the Bishop. And then eventually became the chancellor. I was serving as the chancellor which is an administrative position, does a lot of the administrative work for the bishop, for about 7, 8 years until I was named a bishop myself, a bishop in San Angelo. I had been to San Angelo once in my life. I only knew one person there, one priest, that was all I knew. I did not know anything about west Texas. I was from East Texas. So, it was a totally new experience for me. But I was a new bishop and I was very excited and happy to be there. I came to really like West Texas. It is so different from Houston. It is mostly small towns. You have San Angelo, Midland-Odessa - they are the only towns of any size, but it was a large, large area - 45,000 square miles to cover. So, the Catholic population was small. I think there were about 70,000 Catholics spread out throughout that whole area but a lot of them were in these little small towns. They were both cotton farmers or raising sheep, or in the oil business in the Midland-Odessa area. But I came to like it. San Angelo is a pretty little city. It is right in the middle of the area I serve. It has a river running through it, the Concho River running through it, and it has more vegetation, trees, than you would find in most of West Texas, but I found it to be a delightful place. I was very, very happy serving out in San Angelo for a little over 5 years before the Holy Father assigned me back here to Houston in 1985.
DG: I am assuming that you do not get to volunteer where you want to go - that you go where you are sent?
JAF: That is right.
DG: So, were you surprised at posting back to Houston? Gratified? How would you describe when you heard the news?
JAF: Back to Houston? Well, the Bishop was retiring. He was 75, so he retired. Bishop Markowski. I knew there was a possibility of coming back. I was not anxious to come back but I was very happy to come back if that was what the decision was. The only thing I found a little difficult for me in San Angelo was the traveling - that 45,000 square miles, you are in a car all the time, going, going, going. That was the only drawback that I found out there. So, I was happy to come back here. I knew the area. I knew the priests. I knew the people. But it was an enormous change, an enormous change from having a small diocese of about 70,000 Catholics, then to come back here and be in charge of this diocese which, at that time, was about 600,000 Catholics when I came back in 1985. And a growing area, too. It was growing. The number of schools, high schools, all of that. So, it was quite a change but I think that the fact that I was familiar with it helped me a great deal. And also, you know, I knew the priests. They knew me. They knew what they were getting. I think -- I may be deluding myself -- I think, you know, that I had a good relationship with them and they were happy to see me back. And they were very good and very kind and very cooperative with me. You know, the great success of a bishop is how his own priests get along with him, relate with him. That is the key to it all. So, I was happy to come back. I found I was welcome back by the priests. They were happy to see me back here. That began my over 21 years of being in charge of this large diocese and, of course, in those years, it just grew enormously.
People were moving in here from all over the country. We were blessed, as you know, with a good economy. There was only a slight period during the 1980s when the oil industry took a dip for a couple of years but then it bounced back right away. So, jobs were numerous. I remember that the Houston Chronicle was selling more papers in Detroit than in Houston because they were looking for job opportunities here. And then, of course, the Hispanic population began to grow and grow from Mexico and Central America particularly. So, that large Hispanic presence increased the population greatly and it remains to this day an there will continue to be a large Hispanic presence here. No matter what they do on the border, we will still have a large group of Hispanics here.
But, at the same time, Houston became a very international city, a cultural city with not just Hispanics but the Pacific Rim. A large number of Chinese, Korean, Indian that are here now. Indonesia. Houston truly took off, I think, the last 15 years and is a world city and has recognized that. Of course, the space industry had a great deal to do with that, too. The Johnson Space Agency. All of the main space projects were controlled from Houston so that gave Houston an international flavor to it.
DG: All those changes you describe, basically attributable to the growth. Did it change the daily responsibilities of being a priest? Did it change the way you ministered?
JAF: Well, it didn't change basically what our ministry is -- ministry to the spiritual and religious needs of our people and also to be very conscious of their human needs, too. It is just much larger and just greater. Our parishes were overwhelmed with numbers. We are still today. So, we had decided to take on a greater load of ministering to the larger number of people. That is the main difference, just that we just had so many more people to be responsible for in the archdiocese. But the basic ministry, no, it did not change. It did not change at all.
DG: Have there been challenges finding the priests to . . .
JFA: Yes, that continues to be a great challenge. With the large number of people coming in from all over the world, they usually don't bring their priests with them. How many people moving in here from the East. So many Catholics have moved in here from the East and the Midwest. And a lot of the traditional Catholic areas around Boston, New York, and Chicago, a lot of those people have moved here but they don't bring any priests with them, so we were having the challenge to supply priestly ministry for them. And then, the number of priests just not as numerous . . . there are not that many studying for the priesthood now as they were when I was going through 50 years ago. But the numbers are beginning to pick up some. So, we have had to depend a great deal upon foreign priests, particularly the Hispanics. Because of a large Hispanic presence here, we need Spanish-speaking priests, a pretty serious need for them. Many of our Anglo priests have learned to speak Spanish but still, we need native Spanish-speaking priests to help us. So, that has been a continual challenge.
Also, we have been blessed in recent years to get a large number of Nigerian priests here. We now have a number of Nigerians here, too. And a very large number of both Vietnamese and Filipino. A large number of Filipino and Vietnamese priests to help us.
DG: Catholic Church has a proud history in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and subsequent. Was there an active role played here in Houston?
JFA: I think so. During those Civil Rights days, there were a number of us priests who saw that this is exactly where the church has to be and the bishop at that time, Bishop Markowski, was very, very supportive of that. So, we began, first of all, to cooperate with other churches, synagogues, on different projects that related to trying to integrate peacefully to diffuse any type of violence, riots and things of that nature. We worked very closely with some of the black leaders in doing that. But we established interracial councils and did a lot of work trying to help sensitize our own people to the evil of segregation, the immorality of it, and that the walls of segregation had come down, and African Americans and others had to be fully integrated into our neighborhoods and society. There was also prejudice at that time against Hispanics, too. It wasn't as serious as the African American one but there was always Hispanic discrimination, too. Not so much here but I saw it way out in West Texas a lot. So, involvement of the Civil Rights Movement was, I think critical for us to, first fulfill our responsibility as a church and minister the Gospel but also it helped us perform ecumenical contacts and head to faith contacts because I think the leaders in the Jewish community and the non-Catholic, the Protestant community also saw that we weren't going to be able to have a peaceful city here unless we could convince city leaders that segregation had to come out. The blacks at that time began the sit-ins at the ______ counters downtown and it was I think working with the city leaders to convince them that they had to not react violently to this; at the same time, to drop all of the segregation of eating places and entertainment places.
There was a resistance to all of this, of course. I still remember vividly going to a movie theater in which some white citizens were very angry and vicious about seeing Negroes in the theater and cursing at them. It was horrible. Those things just did not come about easily but they came about, I think, through the good cooperative effort among the religious community at that time, together with the great leadership of the black community.
DG: If that was the issue at that time that formed the coalitions for change, what are the issues today and in the future that you see?
JAF: Well, the issue today, I think, is to continue that type of interfaith dialog. The way to peace is through dialog. That is, I think, a ________ that we need to continue now, to embrace all the ones in the community and today, particularly the dialog with Christians and Jews with the Muslims. I think it is critical. It is not a love in particular but even before not a love. There was this feeling, I think, generally in the community that the Muslim world was such a strange and unknown world, that it is a violent world, and that it is a world that is bent upon terrorism. I think some of the things that they did helped contribute to that, particularly 911, but the more and more we get to know one another as friends, we know that you just can't paint the Muslim community with that broad brush. After all, we all profess the same one God. We all have faith in Abraham, our father. The idea of one God came from Abraham. We are all Abraham believers. So, there are major differences, of course, but basically, I believe the teachings that we profess as Christians and Jews and as Muslims are very compatible and we have to continue to form that type of dialog to help the larger community to see that because the Muslim presence is going to continue to grow and unless we are able to dialog with them and see them as fellow citizens, then we are not going to have any type of true brotherhood among people here in this country. I think we are making good strides towards that while, at the same time, we are aware that there are still fringe groups in the Muslim community that are bent on terrorism and destruction and annihilation of Israel and doing harm to this country. Still, I think the vast body of Muslims in this country and in other countries are good people and are people who I think know that it is only through dialog and peace that we are going to be able to live together in harmony.
DG: Your work in promoting interfaith dialog is admirable and well documented and well recognized. What programs/organizations serve this city well in that arena, from your experience?
JFA: Well, a lot of these things going on which we don't hear about too often, a lot of little private gatherings between Christians and Jews and Muslims but certainly, the ADL is a leader, a great leader in that regard, and it has shown an enormous amount of energy and leadership and willingness to bring people together to overcome any forms of hate and discrimination. And I don't think we can say enough about the great work that the ADL has done in the past and is doing presently. But then, there are other monitors - some Islamic groups which are reaching out to Christians and bringing them in. We hope that all the different Christian communities will begin to take this on far more seriously and be willing to engage their own people in understanding that things like what the ADL is doing, that is something that has to be done far more broadly throughout the whole community. We hope that the University of St. Thomas will be able to establish the center for faith and culture which will be a meeting point for the different faiths and come together to continue this dialog. You know, when we don't understand or know someone, we fear them. And once we come to know and understand and see what they truly believe, then that fear is dissipated. And then, true friendship can develop. And that is what I think is the path that we must follow now. So, I don't think the future of our community or the future of our country can avoid this type of dialog among the major faiths.
DG: Among your many duties, you have been on the board of trustees of University of St. Thomas here in Houston - a smaller university compared to some of the others and it doesn't get the attention of some but what do you think that University's contributions to our city have been?
JAF: Well, at the very beginning, the University was set up to serve all people but primarily it is a Catholic school. Many of the graduates of the University are now taking their place in corporations and law firms and medical people that serve our community. They have the graduates all over. Some of them have gone into politics. So, it is a small university but it offers a liberal arts education. The liberal arts education broadens their minds to be able to understand and see the beauty and the value and many aspects of life and culture. So, I think that the basis of liberal arts education is so helpful even when you go into medicine or law or engineering. It is certainly a good foundation for that and I think in that way, the University, for now it has been in existence for over 50 years, I think it has made a great contribution to the city. It is a university that has excelled in education. Many teachers in this public school system come from the University of St. Thomas. So, I think its contribution will even grow in the years to come.
DG: December 2004, you were named Archbishop and then in 2006, February 28, you became Archbishop Emeritus. How have your duties changed? I have a sense you are as busy as ever even as an archbishop emeritus. How are you spending your days now?
JAF: Well, the big difference is that you are not responsible for everything. In the Catholic Church, the bishop of a diocese is responsible for just about everything. Nothing really of importance happens that he has to be involved in. So, that is good and that is bad. And you take an archdiocese like this that is so large and you are responsible for every parish, every school, every type of organization and every unhappiness of a little parish or a school eventually finds its way up to the archbishop's desk somehow or another. That is a tremendous undertaking. So, to be relieved of all of that is a great relief and that is the big thing -- to not be responsible, not to have to worry about how things are going in a parish or school, but I stay busy and I have been busy before trying to complete the project on the cathedral. That has occupied a great deal of my time. I still assist the archbishop, Cardinal Maldonado, with confirmation at different parishes, going out and helping the parishes with its confirmation services, and on Sundays, the different parishes to relieve priests who are away or sick. So, I stay fairly busy. People still want to see you for consultations for one thing or another. So, I stay busier than I thought I was going to be but I am not overly busy.
DG: Houston has undergone tremendous change since you first came here and change always brings with it certain difficulties. Are there any things that you look back on your 54 years here and say, that was something that I take particular satisfaction from? Any particular challenge that you were able to meet and to help find a solution for that is worthy of mention?
JFA: Well, I would go back to the Civil Rights. I think what the religious community did, together with business leaders helped keep this city from exploding. There were a lot of very angry people here, too, because of the injustice in segregation and the slowness of trying to integrate. The very fact that we kept things relatively calm - there were a few outbursts - relatively calm -- was due to the leadership that was given mainly by the black community, the black pastors. Pastor Bill Lawson is a great example of that, together with the other religious groups in the city, were able, I think, to talk to the business leaders to help them to know that they had to quickly be flexible and get in. I think that helped save this city from the terrible riots and destruction. I think that was one of the . . . the other thing I was very proud of is the great response that was made to the Katrina tragedy and Rita tragedy. We had enormous leadership from Mayor Bill White then. That was outstanding. And the county judge also was very, very good. But the way the city came together under the leadership of the mayor and the county judge to take in over 200,000 people who were desperate and to be able to adequately meet their immediate needs as well as some of their long-term needs was a remarkable feat for our city, a remarkable feat for our city, and it was done, I think, with the collaboration of all the churches and synagogues and mosques in the city. They all came together, worked together to help meet an enormous human tragedy right here next to us. That is something I think this city should be proud of for many, many years to come. So, those are two things that stand out in my mind, and the very fact that we have, I think, a good relationship among the churches and synagogues and other religious groups is a great blessing that the city should rightly rejoice in.
DG: The contributions of the Catholic Church and of the Catholics to this city, the church that you have led this past 50 years or so, is far reaching and undeniable but how do you think the city has impacted you? How do you think you would be different if you had stayed in San Angelo or gone up east or gone anyplace else? What has been unique about your experience that you can attribute to the fact that it happened in Houston?
JAF: Well, I think that there is a great spirit in the city of Houston, a great spirit of that we are able to meet challenges, that we can get things done that need to be done, that we can bring people together at different types and meet serious problems and needs, is something that I think is a trait of the city of Houston, and I think that has impressed me greatly. It greatly impressed me, that the city has a social conscience which I think some cities do not have. We have terrible poverty here in Houston even though we have done a lot. We still have terrible poverty here. But I think the city knows that and is conscious of it and wants to continue to do something to eliminate the terrible degradation which some of our citizens are forced to live. There are still pockets of discrimination. Segregation has not died totally but I think that we know that, we see that as a problem – something that we need to keep working on. So, that is something I think is a great virtue of the City of Houston, to realize that we have been able to accomplish wonderful things, made tremendous progress in many ways, but there are still areas in our city which need great attention and that we cannot afford to ignore it and not take the steps to continue to address it.
DG: Bishop, I very much appreciate your time today.
JAF: O.K., David.
DG: Thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to add?
JAF: I don’t think so. I haven’t talked so much in a long time!
DG: Thank you again.
JAF: Thank you for coming. I hope this is helpful to you.