Wheeling Hall of Fame: Richard V. Whelan
Education and Religion
The Most Rev. Richard Vincent Whelan, first bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, was the prime energizer, founder, and frontier developer of the Catholic Church in the state of West Virginia.
Bishop Whelan's residency in Wheeling from 1850 until his death in 1874 was intrinsically woven into the history of the city and the area. He guided the growth of the Catholic Church through the Civil War years and the creation of a new state.
His resources, when named bishop of the diocese, included four churches, six priests, two schools, for girls and one for boys in an area of 29,172 square miles. He began an extensive building program and in 24 years the energy, zeal, and vision of this man was reflected in a diocese that had 48 churches, 29 priests, three religious congregations of women, one hospital occupying the land he purchased for Wheeling Hospital, six schools for girls, a school for boys, an orphanage and a Catholic population of 18,000.
Born in Baltimore on January 28, 1809, he entered Mount Saint Mary's College when just 10 years of age. Graduating with highest honors in 1826, he studied two years of theology, then went to St. Sulpice, Paris, for four years and was ordained to the priesthood at Versailles in 1831.
His work as pastor at Harper's Ferry was of the most apostolic order. He administered Winchester, Martinsburg, Bath, Shepherdstown, Waterford, and Romney and covered his mission on horseback.
In 1841, when the Diocese of Richmond was founded, Richard Whelan, then 31, was chosen to head it. From '41 to '49, he ministered to people on both sides of the mountains. He shared their privation and peril. He worshipped with them in log cabins, barns, simple homes, and outdoors.
However, the geographical distance in the diocese was so large that in 1848 Virginia was split into two dioceses — one in the East and one in the West. Wheeling was the important population (13,161) and industrial center in Western Virginia and was chosen as the Cathedral City, with the Diocese of Wheeling officially established on July 19, 1850. Four days later, Bishop Whelan was named as its head.
Work was a challenge to this prelate of indomitable will, wonderful courage, and endless endurance. The story is told that once when a candidate for governor was visiting in Berkeley Springs and admiring the new chapel, he asked Father Whelan, "Who did the stone work?"
The answer was "I did." He also did the woodwork and served as the pastor.
When the new church in Wheeling was built and none of the workmen would risk putting the cross on the steeple, it was Bishop Whelan who climbed the scaffolding and attached the cross.
Bishop Whelan was, of course, an inspiring spiritual leader but also was possessed of outstanding executive and business talents. His abilities and influence were recognized not only in the Catholic community but by those of other denominations who found his compassion and concern extended to all peoples.
Text and pictures provided by Wheeling Hall of Fame. Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with the Wheeling Hall of Fame Committee.