Most Rev. Winand M.Wigger, D.D. was consecrated as the third Bishop of Newark on Oct. 18, 1881, the Feast of St. Luke. He served the Diocese in this role for two decades, which saw incredible growth and challenge in the Church of New Jersey. During his tenure the state was divided into two dioceses.
Wigger was born in New York City on Dec. 9, 1841, the second of four sons of immigrant parents who had come from Westphalia. The family was prosperous and fit in with the German community of New York. Though not in the best of health as a youth, Winand was an accomplished student and a skilled musician. He was rejected at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Fordham due to poor health, but the Seminary at Seton Hall accepted him. He went on to earn his degree at Brignole Sale Seminary in Genoa, where he was ordained on June 10, 1865. It was in Italy that he learned Italian, (he already spoke German and French) and that his health improved. The languages would be invaluable to him when he became Bishop to the culturally diverse See of Newark.
On the return trip to the U.S. the steamship on which he was traveling suffered an outbreak of cholera among the passengers in steerage. For two weeks the young priest remained on board ministering to the sick and dying. When he finally reached Newark, Bishop Bayley assigned him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Newark, where his first pastor was the redoubtable Msgr. George Hobart Doane. He spent only two years there before he was asked to return to Rome to complete a doctorate. And when he came back to the U.S. for good, in 1869, he was made pastor of St. Vincent’s Church in Madison. Wigger was delighted with his new parish where he showed himself as a conscientious pastor, watching over the people, the parish finances, school and temperance society with great attention. He did so well that Bishop Corrigan asked him to undertake another arduous task.
St. John’s Parish, Orange, was more than a quarter million dollars in debt, an enormous sum in that or any day. The choice of one so gentle and scholarly as Father Wigger speaks volumes of his administrative abilities. He was able to raise about $2000 every month above and beyond expenses, but the strain on his health was too much. For two years, from 1874 to 1876, Father Wigger worked in Summit as the founding pastor of St. Teresa’s. Once the parish was well established he was called to return to St. Vincent’s, Madison. Again he took to the road to minister to the faithful from Whippany to Springfield, to labor quietly and zealously for his old friends who warmly welcomed his return.
In 1880, Cardinal McCloskey of New York was given a coadjutor—Newark’s Michael Corrigan—and on the same day of the appointment of Bishop Corrigan’s successor in Newark, Rome divided the state of New Jersey into two dioceses, Newark and Trenton, on Aug.11, 1881.
By all accounts, Wigger’s appointment as Bishop of Newark, though unexpected, was well received by the clergy, Religious communities and laity. When Wigger arrived in Newark he made his thoughts on diversity clear when he said to the people of his new flock, “In the Church of God there is no distinction of race, color or tongue.” Conflict arose among the German-speaking immigrant population who were attracted to non- Catholic societies and religions, and Bishop Wigger was committed to preserve the faith of the German immigrants. He insisted on German parishes, with their own schools, and the preservation of German culture.
During this period, the Church in America was influenced by a movement, called “Americanism,” which sought to assert the independence of the Church in the U.S. from its European fathers, while preserving the doctrines of the ancient faith.
Bishop Wigger became known for his conservatism and non-compromising attitude. In the field of Catholic education, especially, his zeal for the Catholic faith was evident. He even exercised the threat of excommunication of those parents who sent their children to non-Catholic schools. At the same time he attempted to introduce state legislation to secure the state’s support for Catholic schools. He was roundly defeated.
Amid all the trials of this intense period, Wigger held fast to the dream of a new cathedral for his see, to be called the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. At the time, the estimated cost of the building was $1 million. In January 1898 he broke ground for the majestic building, which exists today.
After celebrating the pontifical Mass of Christmas in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1900, he was stricken with pneumonia. He died in his bedroom at Seton Hall College, Jan. 6, 1901. Archbishop Corrigan came back to Newark to celebrate the solemn requiem Mass, and Bishop James A. McFaul of Trenton delivered the eulogy.
In 1881, at the time of his ordination as bishop, there were 121 priests, 83 churches, 18,396 school children, and 145,000 registered Catholics under his administration. In 1901 at the time of his death, there were 256 priests, 153 churches, 34,817 children and 300,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Newark. Bishop Wigger was buried in the priests’ plot in the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulcher in East Orange.
Reprinted form The Catholic Advocate, Official Commemorative Edition, October 15, 2003.