Seen by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 (Native Americans had “discovered” the area centuries earlier), and settled by St. Junipero Serra with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769, San Diego can rightfully be described as the birthplace of Catholicism in California.
Upon creation of the Diocese of Both Californias in 1840, San Diego began a shared episcopal history with the rest of the Golden State, governed initially by Bishop Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno. Thereafter, several bishops --- Alemany, Amat, Mora, Montgomery, Conaty and Cantwell --- led the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles (1853-1922) and then the Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego (1922-1936).
With the erection of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on July 11, 1936, San Diego became a separate diocese, including the counties of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino. The first bishop of San Diego was Charles Francis Buddy, a 49-year-old native and priest of St. Joseph, Missouri, who was appointed to the episcopacy by Pope Pius XI on Oct. 31, 1936.
Bishop Buddy was in his 30th year leading the San Diego Diocese when he died March 6, 1966 at age 78. He was succeeded by Coadjutor Bishop Francis James Furey, a former priest and auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, who led San Diego until he was appointed archbishop of San Antonio in 1969; he died at age 74 in 1979.
Assuming leadership of San Diego on Aug. 22, 1969 was Santa Rosa Bishop Leo Thomas Maher, originally from Mount Union, Iowa. Bishop Maher, a Vatican II Council father, served 21 years until he retired in 1990 upon reaching the age of 75, and passed away the following February.
During Bishop Maher’s tenure, the San Diego Diocese was divided, resulting in the creation of the Diocese of San Bernardino (San Bernardino and Riverside Counties). The split reduced San Diego’s Catholic population by more than 20 percent, but the area’s steady growth brought the diocesan Catholic population back up to pre-split levels and beyond by the mid-1990s (the current San Diego Catholic population is nearing 1 million).
By then, another native Midwesterner had succeeded Bishop Maher: Robert Henry Brom of Arcadia, Wisconsin, who had been bishop of Duluth, Minnesota, before coming to San Diego as coadjutor in 1989, and bishop in July 1990. Bishop Brom served 23 years in that role, retiring in 2013.
His successor was the first California-born prelate to lead the diocese, Bishop Cirilo B. Flores, a native of Corona and product of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, who was ordained a priest for the Orange Diocese in 1991 and ordained an auxiliary bishop of Orange in 2009. Named coadjutor of San Diego in 2012, he became bishop Septt. 18, 2013, only to die of cancer the following Sept. 6 at age 66.
San Diego’s current bishop is Robert Walter McElroy, a San Francisco native, priest (ordained in 1980) and former auxiliary bishop (in 2010). He was installed as San Diego’s sixth bishop on April 15, 2015.
Throughout its 81-year history, San Diego has welcomed several auxiliary bishops, beginning with Richard Henry Ackerman, a Congregation of the Holy Spirit priest who served four years as a San Diego auxiliary bishop (1956-60), then was bishop of Covington, Kentucky from 1960 to 1978, and died in 1992.
John Raphael Quinn, born in Riverside, was ordained a priest for San Diego in 1953, and was named an auxiliary bishop in 1967. For years later, he was named bishop of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, then archbishop of the new Oklahoma City Archdiocese in 1972, and in 1977 began 18 years as archbishop of San Francisco. He retired in 1995, and turned 88 on March 29.
San Diego’s longest-serving auxiliary was Bishop Gilbert Espinosa Chavez, born in Ontario, Calif., ordained in a priest in 1960 and as auxiliary bishop in 1974. He served 33 years before retiring in 2007, and is one of California’s oldest living bishops at age 85.
Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco is a San Diego native who was ordained for the diocesan priesthood in 1982, then served as an auxiliary bishop from 2002 to 2009, when he was named bishop of Oakland. He has led San Francisco since 2012.
San Diego’s fifth and newest auxiliary bishop is another native son, John Patrick Dolan, ordained to the priesthood in 1989. His June 8 episcopal ordination at St. Therese of Carmel Church in Del Mar occurred on his 55th birthday.
Sources for this article include www.catholic-hierarchy.org.