Born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1845, Maurice Francis Burke grew up in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame and the North American College in Rome, he was ordained for the Diocese of Chicago in 1875. Over the next twelve years he worked in Illinois parishes, proving himself a capable administrator. In 1887, when Pope Leo XIII created the Diocese of Cheyenne, Father Burke was named its first Bishop.
The new diocese covered all of Wyoming, an area equal in size to the United Kingdom. The new bishop inherited five priests, 21 sisters, eight churches, two schools, and a hospital. There were about 7,500 Catholics scattered in a total population of 62,000. This was clearly missionary country.
Within two years of his appointment, Bishop Burke came to the conclusion that the diocese’s founding had been a mistake. In 1891 he wrote:
With no prospects for the future, no increase in the Catholic population, with absolutely no support for a bishop, with a large debt on the little church at Cheyenne, and without any possibility of doing anything whatever in the interests of religion, I find the situation insupportable.
He lobbied unsuccessfully with Rome to have the diocese suppressed. The bishops of the surrounding surrounding dioceses opposed this move, and a Vatican-appointed delegate recommended keeping it in existence. In 1893, Bishop Burke was transferred to the Diocese of St. Joseph in Missouri, where he ministered until his death in 1923.
During Burke’s Wyoming episcopate, anti-Catholicism became a powerful force. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who came to the territory in 1875, were forced to leave the state under threats to their lives. A historian of the Sisters gives one example of the degree of the hostility:
Sister Perfecta Shanahan was a sacristan of the parish church [in Laramie]. One Sunday morning when she walked into the sanctuary to prepare for Mass, she noticed white flakey crumbs strewn all over the rug. She realized that someone had opened the tabernacle, taken out the hosts and chewed them before scattering them on the floor.
Since then, the situation of the Church in Wyoming has improved considerably. Today Catholics compose nearly fifteen percent of the state’s total population, and several vibrant religious communities have made their home in the Diocese of Cheyenne. In 2005, the state’s first Catholic institution of higher education was founded in Lander, Wyoming Catholic College.