|The Cathedral of St. Andrew, Little Rock|
In 1844, Bishop Andrew Byrne arrived in Arkansas via horseback. Waiting for him, he found one Catholic church, one Catholic school, a few Sisters of Loretto, and maybe 700 Catholics. Most of those families were remnants of the days when France and Spain governed the Arkansas territory and Catholics dominated the region. Not until after the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, did Protestants from the American North come to Arkansas. But by November 28, 1843, when Little Rock became a diocese, the number of Arkansas’ Protestants dwarfed the number of Catholics. Little Rock’s first bishop wanted to change that. As Byrne saw it, Arkansas started off as Catholic country, and, with a little work, it could become Catholic once more. After deciding that immigration offered him the best prospects for increasing his flock, Byrne purchased 640 acres near Fort Smith, Arkansas. He then persuaded 300 men and women to leave Ireland and build a Catholic colony on the newly acquired land.
Before the Irish sailed, Byrne built the diocese’s first cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Andrew, completing it in 1845, and established St. Andrew’s College at Fort Smith in 1849. Later that same year, the colonists arrived. Unfortunately, their numbers didn’t approach 300. Some had died aboard ship and others decided to settle in St. Louis instead. Byrne recognized it as a setback, but he didn’t despair. His prospects even seemed to brighten in 1851, when the Sisters of Mercy arrived to start a school.
Then, the Know-Nothings got to work. In 1854, they burned down the parish Byrne built in Helena, Arkansas. Later, they tried to invalidate his land purchases in Fort Smith. After that, Byrne couldn’t convince any more Irish immigrants to join him, even though he traveled to Ireland twice to personally make the case. As the American Civil War approached and troops took over St. Andrew’s College, Byrne recognized he wouldn’t live to see his dream realized. Byrne died in 1862, leaving the work of building the Church in Arkansas to future generations.