JACKSON, Miss. (CNS) — Retired Bishop William R. Houck of Jackson, who led the diocese from 1984 to 2003 and in recent years had served as president of Catholic Extension, died March 9 at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson. He was 89.
“It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that I announce the death of our beloved former bishop,” Jackson Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz said in a statement.
He said Bishop Houck had been recovering from a recent single bypass surgery for blockage in a main artery before taking “a turn for the worse.”
“We rejoice in the confident knowledge that he is at peace,” the bishop added.
In 2001, when he was 75, Bishop Houck turned in his resignation to St. John Paul II as required by canon law, but as he told Catholic News Service in an interview some years ago, he mentioned in the resignation letter he would like to be considered for the presidency of Catholic Extension because he was so impressed with it. He was appointed its president, a post he held until retiring in 2007.
“We will greatly miss his joyful spirit, his guidance and wisdom and his dedication to spreading the good news,” said Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, chancellor of Chicago-based Catholic Extension. The organization helps pay for church construction, religious education, outreach ministries, salaries and operating expenses in mission areas in the U.S.
In a March 10 statement, the archbishop added that Catholic Extension “mourns the loss of a true servant leader who dedicated much of his life and ministry to helping build the Catholic faith in America’s under-resourced dioceses.”
In a 2003 interview with Catholic News Service, the bishop said he always thought he would work in mission territory after he was ordained.
Even though he was primarily involved in education, he said, his life had been “kind of lived in mission territory in this country. I’m aware personally and vividly of what Catholic Extension has done to reach the Catholic Church in mission territory.”
During Bishop Houck’s presidency, Catholic Extension sent more than $84 million to more than 4,000 communities. The bishop also dedicated about $5 million of Catholic Extension’s resources to help rebuild the church’s infrastructure in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
Father Jack Wall, who succeeded Bishop Houck as Catholic Extension president, said the group received the news of the bishop’s death “with great sadness and, at the same time, a deep and heartfelt gratitude” for his work.
He said the bishop brought wisdom to his position “grounded in his lifelong experience of serving in the missions of the deep South and a passion for helping the poor. He really had a pastor’s heart.”
He also noted that Bishop Houck had “a deep spiritual joy about him” and keen insight about the needs and concerns of mission dioceses.
When he was named president of Catholic Extension, he moved to Chicago, but he moved back to Jackson in 2007. He still played an active role as president emeritus of the national organization.
Bishop Houck, a native of Mobile, Alabama, was born June 6, 1926, to William and Mildred Houck.
After his ordination in 1951, he served as parish priest and also spent time in education, including 18 years as a high school principal and a few years as superintendent of Catholic Schools in what was then the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham, Alabama. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Jackson Diocese in 1979 and was installed as its bishop in 1984.
During his tenure as head of the diocese, he focused on many issues involving education and evangelization. He was chairman of the U.S. bishops’ evangelization committee and helped develop and publish the document: “Go and Make Disciples: A National Strategy for Catholic Evangelization,” which is still in use. He also was actively involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.
Bishop Houck also was a member of several national Catholic boards and the Mississippi Governor’s Task Force on Infant Mortality. He was also president of Ecumenical Health Care Organization for Whispering Pines, a hospice ministry for AIDS patients whose families had abandoned them.
The bishop is survived by a sister, Millie Houck Reilly (Warren) of Mobile; his brother-in-law, Richard Hebert of Jennings, Louisiana; several nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews. He was preceded in death by his sister Elizabeth Houck Hebert and a brother, Ray.