The territory was vast and sparsely populated. Portier traveled — with some difficulty — from town to town preaching, an event which attracted both Catholics and Protestants in the towns he visited.
The territory was home to many free blacks, slaves, and mixed-race people. Portier himself had several slaves as housekeepers, but by all accounts treated them well.
Portier’s priesthood was marked with challenges at every turn. At one point he fell ill and nearly died; at another, his church burned down and two other priests abandoned him. Desperate, he went back to France on a begging tour, and brought back some additional help.
Eventually, the Vatican asked him to become the bishop of a new local Church, the Vicariate Apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas. At Bishop DuBorg’s prompting, Portier wrote back to Rome saying he felt inadequate for the role, citing his youth and inexperience. But Pope Leo XII would not hear of it.
Portier was consecrated a bishop, and in 1829 the vicariate was raised to the Diocese of Mobile.
Portier wrote about striving all the greater for his own sanctity, in order to be a “worthy instrument” of God’s will.
As bishop, Portier established Spring Hill College in Mobile, with the goal of giving the Church an institutional presence that would serve students, including women, of all religions, and serve the greater community. The college was the first institution of higher learning in Alabama, and despite some setbacks over the years, continues to provide Catholic education to college students to this day.
Portier ministered to the territory’s extreme poor during the late 1830s. He helped to establish a women’s charity to care for orphans, and the Daughters of Charity later took over the operation, helping with Mobile’s orphanage, hospital, and schools.
During this time, the capital of Alabama moved several times as the territory gained more residents and the balances of power shifted. Portier made sure there was at least one Catholic Church in every capital of Alabama.
After 13 years of work, on Dec. 8, 1850, Mobile’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated. The cathedral is, today, one of the oldest cathedral buildings still in use in the U.S.
On May 14, 1859, Portier died at the hospital he helped to found. His legacy was not only a planting of the Catholic faith in the hearts of many residents of Alabama, but also an establishment of an institutional presence for the Church in the form of a cathedral, parishes, a university, a hospital, and more.
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“Servant of the South- The Life of Bishop Michael Portier” can be viewed on EWTN on May 22 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, or viewed online.