RALEIGH — Bishop emeritus F. Joseph Gossman, who served 31 years at the helm of the Raleigh Diocese of the Catholic Church during a period of vast growth, died Monday after a long illness.
He was 83 years old.
Gossman became the fourth bishop of the Raleigh Diocese at age 45, succeeding Bishop Vincent S. Waters, and served from May 19, 1975 until his retirement June 8, 2006.
He was a strong proponent of the sanctity of human life and spoke out on issues involving human dignity – from the plight of the poor, to care and concern of immigrants, to strong opposition to capital punishment.
“He was a very holy man, a straight shooter, a clear communicator,” said Ron Doggett, who knew Gossman from the time the bishop came to Raleigh. “I used to tease him about his sermons being too long. But he always wanted to make sure he got his message across about being good Catholics and good Christians, and good servants of all those in need in our community: those who are hungry, those who don’t have a home or shelter, those who are ill.
“People heard him talk about it enough times. They rallied around him to work with him on those things,” Doggett said.
In the 1980s, North Carolina was seeing explosive growth in its Catholic population as believers moved from Northern and Midwestern states and from Latin American countries. Gossman was both excited and challenged by the growth in the Raleigh Diocese, which includes the state’s 54 easternmost counties. He was excited, because Catholic schools and churches in other parts of the country were closing for lack of support, and challenged, because there weren’t enough buildings to accommodate all the new members and not enough priests to lead them.
Gossman rallied existing parishes to contribute money for the creation of new churches and, as they were built, he led the diocese to staff them with lay administrators or nuns during the week. Priests traveled to as many as three or four parishes on weekends to hold Mass.
“We struggled sometimes, but he was absolutely convinced about where we were going and how we were going to get there,” said Doggett, one of many parishioners who helped launch St. Francis of Assisi on Leesville Road in 1982 so North Raleigh Catholics wouldn’t have to drive so far to attend services.
Yvonne Foglia and her husband, Hank, were also involved in starting St. Francis of Assisi.
When they invited Gossman to their home to tell him they wanted to start a new church, Gossman was at a loss as to how he would staff a new parish, Yvonne Foglia said.
Gossman asked them: “What do think I have, Dial-A-Priest?”
They did build the church, and Gossman visited it many times, Foglia said. Each time he saw her or her husband there, he would joke with them about the parish’s beginnings.
“Have you had any more vigilante meetings?” he would ask.
In 1997, Gossman joined with Bishop Emeritus William Curlin of Charlotte in issuing a Pastoral Letter titled “Of One Heart and One Mind.” The document called for everyone – including public and business officials – to work for common good. The theme of that letter matched Gossman’s episcopal motto: “To serve, not be served.”
In 1998, when affordable housing advocates were fighting to add housing bonds to Raleigh’s upcoming referendum, Gossman took a stand. He wrote to local priests, asking them to preach for the bonds and circulate the petitions.
He noted that the joint pastoral letter the previous fall from him and Curlin committed North Carolina’s Catholics to get involved in matters affecting the poor.
“I realize that what I am requesting represents an obvious intrusion into the public affairs of our capital city, “ he wrote. “I believe the present effort involves my practicing what I’ve been preaching.”
Gossman played a leading role in the creation of the North Carolina Lutheran-Roman Catholic Covenant that was signed in 1991 by the Dioceses of Raleigh and Charlotte and the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
During his tenure, Gossman blessed and dedicated more than 60 parishes, schools and all-purpose buildings, most of them in his last 12 years. He retired in 2006 and Micheal F. Burbidge was named bishop.
Gossman suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010 and had been living in a care facility in Moore County since.
Born in Baltimore, Md., April 1, 1930, he was the son of Frank M. and Genevieve Steadman Gossman. He attended St. Charles College and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1952. He continued studies at the North American College in Rome, obtaining his Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian University, Rome, in 1956.
Bishop Gossman was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in Rome, December 17, 1955. In 1956, he began graduate studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., earning a doctorate in canon law in June 1959.
He served as an assistant pastor at Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption until July 1968, at which time he was appointed administrator of the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in Baltimore. He also served as vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese from 1959-1968. He was made Honorary Prelate to His Holiness Pope Paul VI with the title of Monsignor June 27, 1965.
In July 1968, he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore and was ordained a Bishop on September 11, 1968, by Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. In mid-1970, Bishop Gossman was named urban vicar, with the inner city of Baltimore and its people his special area of ministry.
“I ask the faithful in the Diocese to join me in praying for the eternal happiness of Bishop Gossman and to thank God for the gifts of his priestly example and faithful ministry as Bishop,” Burbidge stated in a diocese news release.
Burbidge will celebrate a Mass for Gossman at 12:10 p.m. today at Sacred Heart Cathedral
Funeral arrangements, including Reception of the Body, visitation, vigil, funeral mass and Rite of Committal, will be announced as they are finalized.