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. The eighth bishop of Nashville, Durick helped reform the church's liturgy, reached across denominational lines, and fostered greater lay participation. He also embraced the cause of racial justice and actively participated in the civil rights struggle.
Born in Dayton, Tennessee, on October 13, 1914, Durick was the seventh of twelve children. He grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, during the height of anti-Catholic violence in that state. Images of bigotry toward Catholics helped Durick later develop a sense of resolve in confronting racial injustice.
Durick gave up plans for a music career to enter the priesthood. He studied at St. Bernard College in Cullman, Alabama, as a seminarian for the Diocese of Mobile and graduated in 1933. Three years later he completed course work in philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore and later received theological training at the seminary for missionary priests in Rome. Ordained on March 23, 1940, Durick became the assistant director of Catholic missions in North Alabama; by 1943 he was the director.
In 1955 Durick's success in the mission field led to his appointment as the auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Thomas Joseph Toolen of the Mobile-Birmingham Diocese. Toolen assigned his new assistant to Birmingham–placing Durick, the nation's youngest bishop, in the midst of the rising racial upheaval. During the 1963 Birmingham civil rights protests, Durick and seven other Alabama religious leaders criticized the timing and methods of the demonstrations. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to their public statement with his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” personally addressed to Durick and the other clergymen. (Although their names appeared, none of the eight men ever received a personal copy of King's letter).
In December 1963 Pope Paul VI promoted Durick to the post of coadjutor bishop of Nashville (the diocese covered the entire state of Tennessee until 1971), with right of succession to the aged Bishop William Adrian. The sweeping reforms initiated by Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council inspired Durick to lead the Catholic Church in Tennessee into a new era. Durick consulted with the state's most influential Catholic laymen, as well as a number of journalists including John Popham, John Seigenthaler, Joe Sweat, and Father Owen Champion, to help him organize and present his reforms. The journalists especially influenced Durick to move to the forefront as one of the state's leading voices of liberal social activism in Tennessee.
In addition to introducing reforms in church liturgy and encouraging lay participation, Durick also directed efforts at ecumenical cooperation with the state's Protestant and Jewish communities. Durick introduced Project Equality, a highly controversial ecumenical program designed to use the moral suasion of the church to achieve equal employment opportunities for black Tennesseans. During 1968 he played an active role in the strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis. Following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Durick held a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader and participated in a tense march through downtown Memphis.
In September 1969 Bishop Adrian resigned, and Pope Paul VI named Durick bishop of Tennessee, making him the first native-born Catholic bishop of the diocese. Durick launched into an intense effort to seek human dignity for all men regardless of race, political views, or church affiliation. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and opposed the death penalty, stands which led to constant criticism from conservatives both within and outside of the church.
During the 1970s Durick increasingly turned his attention to prison reform. In 1975 he resigned as bishop of Nashville to devote himself to full-time prison ministry. After six years of ministering to prisoners in various locations, Durick was forced into semi-retirement by a severe heart problem and subsequent surgery. He died in 1994.
S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (2001)