Bishop Leonard Olivier. (CS photo)
Bishop Leonard Olivier. (CS photo)

Bishop Leonard Olivier, a retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington and a priest for more than 60 years, died Nov. 19. He was 91 years old and was residing at the Jeanne Jugan Residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C.

"It was with great sorrow that I learned of the death of Bishop Leonard Olivier, retired auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Washington. I first came to know Bishop Olivier years ago through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said in a statement. "I always found Bishop Olivier to be pastorally sensitive and filled with love for the people he served."

On Nov. 7, 1988, Bishop Olivier was appointed as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II. He was ordained a bishop on Dec. 20, 1988, by Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington. At the time of his appointment, he became the nation’s 13th black bishop. Over the years in Washington, Bishop Olivier served as the regional bishop for the District of Columbia, Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland.

He retired in 2004, several months before his 81st birthday. When his retirement was announced, Bishop Olivier said “serving and living as an auxiliary bishop has been a huge blessing for me and, I hope, for the people of the archdiocese. All kinds of blessings have come my way.”

A Vigil for Bishop Olivier will be held Sunday, Nov. 23, 3-7 p.m. at the Chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington. The Vigil Mass will be offered at 7:30 p.m. Cardinal Wuerl will celebrate the Funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Monday, Nov. 24, at 10:30 a.m. A reception will be provided for family and friends following the Funeral Mass at the cathedral. Interment will take place at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Lake Charles, La., at a later time.

In a 2011 interview with the Catholic Standard as he marked his 60th anniversary as a priest, Bishop Olivier said he never once second-guessed his decision to become a priest.

“I have never thought of anything else,” the bishop said then. “Living my faith and being a priest – I know nothing else. It is like breathing air.”

He said that his desire to become a priest was fostered by “the example of my very Catholic family.”

“My family raised us in a very Catholic atmosphere. They sent me to Catholic school. We went to Mass every week,” he said in that 2011 interview. “It never occurred to us to miss Mass.”

Born in Lake Charles, La., on Oct. 12, 1923, Leonard J. Olivier was the fifth of eight children born to the late Mathilda Rochon Olivier and James L. Olivier. The Oliviers had three sons and five daughters.

As a child, Leonard Olivier attended Sacred Heart Elementary School in Lake Charles and was graduated from high school in 1939 from the Society of the Divine Word’s St. Augustine minor seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss. He had entered the minor seminary when he was 14.

In an interview with the Catholic Standard in 2001, when he was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination, he recalled that his decision to become a priest was one he made as a child.

“I would say that from the time I was 7 or 8 years old I knew that I wanted to became a priest,” he said at the time. He added that he was inspired by “the devotion of my father and mother;” the “service to the people” of the Holy Ghost Fathers who staffed his home parish, and the “positive encouragement” of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters who taught him in high school.

The Holy Ghost Fathers and the Blessed Sacrament Sisters both minister to the African-American Catholic community. Bishop Olivier said he decided to enter the Society of the Divine Word, after learning that the congregation “encourages black men to enter the priesthood and minister to black Catholics.”

The Society of the Divine Word has about 6,000 priests serving in 60 countries.

Bishop Olivier was ordained a Divine Word Missionary in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on June 29, 1951. He was ordained the very same day that Father Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – was ordained a priest in Freising, Germany.

Bishop Olivier not only served as a faithful priest, but also spent much of his priesthood preparing other men to also serve as priests.

From 1952 to 1973, he was assistant dean and then dean of seminarians and rector of his religious community. From 1974 to 1982, he was secretary of studies for all Divine Word Seminaries in the United States and rector of the religious community of Divine Word Seminary in Iowa. Before being named a bishop, he served at St. Anthony’s Parish in Lafayette, La., and later as Vicar for Black Catholics in that diocese.

At the time of his retirement, looking over his ministry as a bishop, Bishop Olivier told the Catholic Standard that each time he visited a parish or was called to make a public presentation, he would labor over the homily or statement he would deliver. “I would never presume to speak off the cuff because it would be an injustice to the people,” he said.

Bishop Olivier had served as a priest under seven popes – Pope Pius XII, St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – and served as an auxiliary bishop under three cardinals in Washington – the late Cardinal James Hickey; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now the archbishop emeritus of Washington; and Cardinal Wuerl, Washington’s current archbishop.

In addition to his archdiocesan duties, Bishop Olivier served with the African-American Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Youth; and the Ad Hoc Steering Committee for the National Strategy on Vocations. He also formerly served on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

Bishop Olivier was a former board member of Covenant House and the National Black Catholic Congress. He was a member of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, and was episcopal moderator of the Pan African Roman Catholic Clergy Conference.

He was also a Knight of Peter Claver, a Knight of St. John and a Knight of Columbus.

In his interview with the Catholic Standard at the time of his retirement, he noted that his favorite part of being a bishop was “just being with the people and sharing with them my relationship with God.”

He said that he enjoyed remaining at church long after a Confirmation Mass was completed so that proud parents could take photographs of their children with the bishop. “I have many, many photos, where the people have sent me copies of the pictures they took,” he noted.

After his retirement, he remained active, making an annual Christmas-time visit to the D.C. Jail where he would celebrate two Masses – one for the male prisoners, the other for the females inmates - and distribute presents.

During his interview with the Catholic Standard at the time of the 60th anniversary of his ordination, Bishop Olivier reflected on his six decades as a priest. “Is it a good life? By all means yes. I am blessed,” he said. “It is a joy working for the Church and working for the people of the Church.”

Bishop Olivier is survived by his sister, Theresa Olivier, his brother Edward and other extended family.

"I offer my prayers and sympathy for Bishop Olivier’s family; his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word; and the many friends and other individuals whose lives were touched by his ministry over the years, and I ask the Lord to grant him eternal rest," Cardinal Wuerl said in his statement.