The Christian history of the Diocese of Baton Rouge (in Latin: Dioecesis Rubribaculensis) began with little-known but heroic efforts of French missionaries among the native American peoples of the area. In particular, French Jesuits and Capuchin Franciscans were responsible for the preaching of the Gospel along the Mississippi River during the first half of the 18th century: it is recorded that Père Pierre Charlevoix, S.J., celebrated the first Eucharist in Baton Rouge on New Year's Day, 1722, on the present site of the State Capitol building. As permanent settlements were established in the Louisiana colony, churches were erected: the first permanent church in the region was St. Francis Chapel of Pointe Coupée, built in 1728 and still standing. Parishes were established at St. James in 1767, at St. Gabriel in 1769, at Donaldsonville in 1772, at Baton Rouge in 1792, and at Plattenville in 1793.
In 1793, the Diocese of New Orleans was established, but an acute shortage of clergy remained a problem for many, many years. The settlement of Baton Rouge was fortunate in that a resident priest was stationed at Our Lady of Sorrows (later St. Joseph) Parish for most of its first century. Many difficulties were encountered during the 1800's, including not only the universal problems of disease, Civil War and Reconstruction, but also sometimes violent ecclesiastical disputes over the legal authority of parochial "trustees." Still, the faith prospered and the institutional Church grew along with it, with Catholic houses of worship and education established during this time throughout the area.
The first half of the 20th century saw unprecedented growth: the rise of the City of Baton Rouge in industrial, political, and social importance meant a large population increase. The Church in the metropolitan area grew from one Parish in 1900 to nine by 1950 and to fifteen by 1960! In the larger, rural areas of the Diocese, Parishes gradually developed from "mission" chapels as resident priests began to be available.
On July 20, 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII established the Diocese of Baton Rouge, comprising the twelve Louisiana civil parishes located in south Central Louisiana. The Holy Father named St. Joseph Church in the See city, built in 1853-1855 and renovated many times since, to be the new diocese's Cathedral. A census conducted in the very first year of the diocese's operation revealed its membership as being 164,476 Catholics (out of the total of 464,904 people reported by the U.S. Census Bureau that year).
The first Bishop of Baton Rouge, Robert E. Tracy, energetically organized the Diocese in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, of which he was a proud participant. The Church of Baton Rouge became a model for other Dioceses in establishing its post-Conciliar administrative structure and consultative process as its pastoral growth continued unabated. A younger-than-average presbyterate proved to be an enormous asset in providing unified pastoral leadership to the local Church in its formative period. Particular emphasis was placed upon liturgical renewal and modern catechetical efforts during this time.
In 1974, Joseph V. Sullivan became Baton Rouge's second bishop. His concern for Catholic education and for fidelity to Church doctrine marked his episcopal ministry in the Diocese. He devoted himself in particular to emphasizing the "Pro-Life Movement," and frequently restated the opposition of the Church to abortion, euthanasia, and related evils.
In 1983 a former priest of the Diocese, Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott, was named the third Bishop of Baton Rouge. Under his leadership, the local Church devoted itself to a widespread effort at evangelization and spiritual renewal. He called for the laity of the Diocese, especially, to take new initiatives to renew their faith and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. A comprehensive program urging financial, ministerial, and spiritual stewardship was begun and for this the Church of Baton Rouge again became a model for other dioceses in North America. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was put in place as a model for evangelization and catechetics. Ecumenical efforts were significant, resulting in notable efforts at interfaith sharing of prayer and some limited ministry. In 1991, however, Bishop Ott was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. Yet over the next 18 months, he gave eloquent witness to Gospel values by his manner of ministry, life, and dying. He became a source and focus of unity and grace to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In November 1993 Bishop Alfred C. Hughes was installed as Baton Rouge's fourth bishop. He continued to emphasize spiritual growth for the Catholic people of the diocese, especially by active social justice programs and deeper doctrinal formation in accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He called courageously for fidelity to the Church and to her teachings in confronting the secularism of the modern world. He re-organized diocesan programs of vocations-recruitment and began a comprehensive process designed to cope with declining numbers of ordained ministers in local parishes. A major capital fundraising campaign, designed to achieve certain specific objectives and focus attention on the need for the Church to face the future with confidence and faith, was overwhelmingly successful. In February of 2001 Bishop Hughes was transferred to New Orleans as Coadjutor Archbishop, eventually becoming the Metropolitan Archbishop there in January of 2002.
On December 15, 2001, the transfer of Bishop Robert W. Muench of Covington to the See of Baton Rouge by Pope John Paul II was announced. Bishop Muench, who grew up in Louisiana and served for 28 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was installed on March 14, 2002, as the fifth bishop of Baton Rouge, taking up the shepherd's staff in our midst.
Since the day he was installed, Bishop Muench has paid special attention to the Church's ministry to young people. In addition to his presiding over the parish celebrations of the sacrament of confirmation whenever possible, he has appointed chaplains at all eight Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He regularly visits each high school, spending the day in conversation - invariably with his infectious laughter! - with the students and faculty on campus. He has insisted that the Diocese of Baton Rouge remain a leader in the effort to end the evil of child abuse and provide a safe environment for all children and young people, especially within the structures of the Church. He has taken special interest in promoting vocations to the diocesan priesthood, and serves on the Board of Trustees of both Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana. He has met monthly with the Presbyteral Council, and visits parishes and schools whenever possible for various functions. He has continued the gradual implementation of the diocesan Strategic Plan for increased evangelization and revitalized Church ministry even as the numbers of priests decline. Bishop Muench completed the "parochial visitation" program established by his predecessor, Archbishop Hughes, and in fact broadened this to include diocesan departments and offices as well. He remains a member of the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At present the Diocese of Baton Rouge is divided into 68 ecclesiastical parishes, two ethnic apostolates, and two additional University chaplaincies. More than 100 active secular and religious priests serve in the Diocese. The Diocese itself comprises an area of 5,513 square miles. The total population of the Diocese is listed as 924,844 persons (according to the 2006 government census numbers), and Catholics make up only about 23 per cent of the total population -- diocesan census figures put their number at just over 212,000. But Catholics have traditionally exercised a wider influence in society and on public policy over the years. Just under half of all Catholic children in the Diocese attend Catholic schools; others are expected to take part in parochial catechetical programs.
Beyond the devastation caused by the Hurricanes of 2005 to all of southern Louisiana, significant local problems remain. These typically include an area economy which typically lags far behind national averages, infamous political corruption and governmental inefficiency, low educational standards, inadequate health care, pervasive racism and class discrimination, and very limited new interest in priestly and religious leadership and life. Other, more typical problems of secular Western society also are present, such as widespread breakdown of marriage and family life, legal abortion, popular approval of capital punishment, and excessive individualistic materialism. These are offset at least in part by committed and collaborative clergy and lay ministers; effective lay involvement and trained lay leadership at the parish level; a largely rural culture which tends to emphasize strong interpersonal relationships, even in the midst of family breakdown; and dialogue among disparate factions as a means of furthering progress.