Joseph A. Durick

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Bishop Joseph Aloysius Durick (born October 13, 1914 in Dayton, Tennessee; died June 26, 1994 in Bessemer) was the 8th Catholic Bishop of Nashville from 1969 to 1975, earning a reputation as a defender of social justice and ecumenicism. While serving in Birmingham as an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop of Mobile-Birmingham Thomas J. Toolen in 1963 he co-authored calls for African American demonstrators to be patient with white city authorities. The open letter "A Call For Unity," engendered a direct response from Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been jailed for parading without a permit. The "Letter from Birmingham Jail", addressed to Durick and 7 other clergymen, is celebrated as a foundational document for the Civil rights movement.

Early life

Durick was born in Dayton, Tennessee, the seventh of 12 children. During his early childhood, the family relocated to Bessemer during a period when the Ku Klux Klan was active in terrorizing Birmingham's Catholic community. At Bessemer High School, Durick played saxophone in a jazz band.

He entered the seminary at St. Bernard College in Cullman, graduating in 1933. He went on to study at St Mary's Seminary in Baltimore and at the "Propaganda" (the seminary for missionary priests) at the Vatican in Rome. On his return to Alabama he started his ministry as a street preacher. He was ordained a priest on March 23, 1940 and served initially as assistant director of the North Alabama Mission Band, the Catholic missionary organization for North Alabama, rising to the directorship three years later.


In 1955, Durick was appointed auxiliary bishop (the youngest bishop in the United States) under Archbishop Toolen of the Mobile-Birmingham Diocese, and kept offices in Birmingham.

In January 1963, Durick co-authored "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense" which called on Birmingham's African Americans to cease breaking laws and to seek justice in the courts, which were showing signs of dismantling Jim Crow laws in the wake Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In April of that year, as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights were launching the Birmingham campaign, the authors of the Appeal issued a follow-up letter, "A Call For Unity," critical of the methods and timing of the demonstrations, which was published in The Birmingham News on Good Friday, April 12, 1963.

Dr. King, who read the "Call For Unity" in his cell at the Birmingham City Jail responded with a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal which outlined the moral and tactical reasoning for the campaign of non-violent direct action "to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." King's letter concluded with a hope that he would be able to meet his correspondents as fellow clergymen and Christian brothers after the "dark clouds of racial prejudice...pass away".

King's letter was not delivered individually to its addressees, but was published months later, most prominently in the Atlantic Monthly and in King's 1964 book Why We Can't Wait. It is apparent, though, that Durick took King's criticisms of "white moderates" to heart as he stepped to the forefront of religious leaders in the established church calling for integration. He led a group of clergymen who were the only representatives of Birmingham's white leadership at the memorial services for the girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.


In December 1963, Durick was promoted to cadjutor bishop of Nashville by Pope Paul VI. In Tennessee he led his diocese through the period of reforms stemming from the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII between 1962-65. In consultation with prominent progressive journalists such as John Popham, John Seigenthaler, Joe Sweat, and Father Owen Champion, Durick became a leading voice for social issues in Tennessee. He pursued ecumenical programs with Jews and Protestants, such as a controversial initiative called "Project Equality" that campaigned for equal employment and non-discrimination on behalf of black workers.

Durick was active in supporting a strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, donating $1,000 of his discretionary funds from the parish to help feed the striking workers' families. He held a memorial service and procession through Memphis following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

In 1969 when Bishop William Adrian resigned, Durick was promoted to become the eighth Bishop of Nashville, the first Tennessee-born priest to hold the post. Following the directives of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Joseph A. Durick led Tennessee's Catholic Church into the modern era during the 1960s and 1970s by helping to reform the church's liturgy, reaching across denominational lines, and fostering greater lay participation.

Durick also embraced the cause of racial justice and actively participated in the civil rights struggle. He launched a highly-visible effort for equality of all people and spoke out against the Vietnam War and the death penalty. At the same time he was being dogged by persistent rumors of sexual impropriety dating back to his days as a young priest in Birmingham, and of episodes where drinking had gotten the better of him at public events.

Durick resigned his cathedral in 1975 under secret pressure from the Vatican. The official explanation was that he was stepping down "for health reasons." He was succeeded by James D. Niedergeses. Following his retirement, Durick focussed on ministering to prisoners as a chaplain for the Federal prison system. He was forced to cut back on his activities in 1981 following heart surgery and moved back to Bessemer. At the end of his life he was confined to his home and was undergoing dialysis for kidney failure. He died in 1994 and is interred at Nashville's Calvary Cemetery.