Most Reverend Leonard J. Olivier SVD dies at age 91

Bishop Leonard Olivier, 1923-2014

Olivier,-Bishop-Leonard_official-portrait_for-webMost Reverend Leonard J. Olivier SVD, retired auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., died Nov. 19 at age 91.

"I first came to know Bishop Olivier year ago through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington in a written statement. "I always found Bishop Olivier to be pastorally sensitive and filled with love for the people he served."

The fifth of Mathilde (nee Rochon) and James L. Olivier’s eight children, Bishop Olivier was born in 1923 in Lake Charles, La. In 1939, he entered the Society of the Divine Word and attended St. Augustine in Bay St. Louis, Miss. After ordination, he remained at St Augustine, the first seminary to educate African-American men for the priesthood.

In 1944, he professed religious vows and was ordained to the priesthood in 1951. In addition to a bachelor’s degree from St. Augustine, Bishop Olivier also held a master’s degree in Education from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

From 1952 to 1967, he was dean of students, followed by terms as rector from 1967 to 1973. During the next nine years, he was secretary for Education and Formation in the United States and served as rector at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

"Bishop Olivier always put people first," said Father Thomas Ascheman SVD, provincial superior of the Chicago Province of which the bishop was a member. "He wanted them to know God’s gift of the Mass, and he believed that if they shared in the Eucharist they would be hungry for an ever closer relationship with Christ. The bishop encouraged people to call him and included his office phone number in an article in the Washington archdiocesan newspaper. He was a bishop of the people.  Personally, what I will most remember about Bishop Len was his wonderful, kind and welcoming smile."

For his first pastorate, then-Father Olivier went to St. Anthony in Lafayette, La., at which time he became vicar for Black Catholics in the Diocese of Lafayette (La.).

In 1988, he became an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the fifth Divine Word Missionary to be ordained a bishop in the United States. As bishop, he oversaw the region of the District of Columbia, Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland. He was a member of several committees including the USCCB/NCCB Committee on Bishops Life and Ministry, the Liturgy Committee, and Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

He also served on the African-American Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Youth and Ad Hoc Steering Committee for the National Strategy on Vocations, as well as a board member of Covenant House and National Black Catholic Congress. He was a member of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, Knights of St. Peter Claver, Knights of Columbus and Knights of St. John and episcopal moderator for the Pan African Roman Catholic Clergy Conference.

Dedicated to prison ministry, every Christmas Bishop Olivier visited the D.C. Jail to celebrate Masses and give gifts. Bishop Olivier retired in 2004 at age 80. He is survived by a brother and sister—Theresa and Edward Olivier—and many nieces and nephews.

A vigil was held on Nov. 23 at the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C., followed by a vigil Mass. On Nov. 24, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington presided at his funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Bishop Olivier will be buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Lake Charles, La., where there will be a visitation and funeral Mass on Nov. 29, 2014.

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