Washington Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier celebrates a May 1 Mass for the Knights of Peter Claver. The bishop this years celebrates the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier celebrates a May 1 Mass for the Knights of Peter Claver. The bishop this years celebrates the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Although he has been "retired" for about seven years, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier likes to keep himself busy. The prelate - who next month will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination as a Society of the Divine Word priest - said keeping busy keeps him "sharp."

"By keeping active, I keep my mind active, and I keep my horizon from shrinking," he said.

As he looks back on his six decades of ministry, Bishop Olivier said he never once second-guessed his decision to become a priest.

"I have never thought of anything else," the 87-year-old bishop said. "Living my faith and being a priest, I know nothing else. It is like breathing air."

He said that his desire to become a priest was fostered by "the example of my very Catholic family."

Born in Lake Charles, La., on Oct. 12, 1923, Leonard J. Olivier was the fifth of eight children born to the late Mathilda Rochon Olivier and James L. Olivier. The Oliviers had three sons and five daughters.

"My family raised us in a very Catholic atmosphere. They sent me to Catholic school. We went to Mass every week," he said. "It never occurred to us to miss Mass."

As a child, Leonard Olivier attended Sacred Heart Elementary School in Lake Charles and was graduated from high school in 1939 from the Society of the Divine Word's St. Augustine minor seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss. He had entered the minor seminary when he was 14.

Inspiration to become a priest, he added, also came from the Holy Ghost Fathers who staffed his home parish, and the "positive encouragement" of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters who taught him in high school. Bishop Olivier said he decided to enter the Society of the Divine Word after learning that the congregation "was the only order back then besides the Josephites to accept black men. Even dioceses would not take black men into the seminary."
The order currently has about 6,000 priests serving in 60 countries.

Bishop Olivier was ordained a Divine Word Missionary in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in 1951. He not only has served the faithful as a priest, but he also spent more than half his priesthood preparing other men to also serve as priests.

From 1952 to 1973, he was assistant dean and then dean of seminarians and rector of his religious community. From 1974 to 1982 he was secretary of studies for all Divine Word Seminaries in the United States and rector of the religious community of Divine Word Seminary in Iowa. Before being named to Washington, Bishop Olivier served at St. Anthony's Parish in Lafayette, La., and later as Vicar for Black Catholics in that diocese.

On Nov. 7, 1988, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington by Pope John Paul II, and he was ordained a bishop on Dec. 20, 1988 by Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington. At the time of his appointment, he became the nation's 13th black bishop.

Bishop Olivier said his favorite part of his priestly ministry is celebrating daily Mass.

"It brings a spirit of prayer that pervades my whole life," he said. "It nourishes your faith and gives you the strength to get through whatever God sends your way."

The toughest part of his ministry, he said, is "helping to bear other people's troubles."

"It is saddening to see people troubled and knowing that sometimes there is nothing you can offer except your prayers and listening to them," Bishop Olivier said. "But, God works through you. You can serve God as a channel through which He makes things possible."

Bishop Olivier has served as a priest under six popes, and he has served as an auxiliary bishop under three cardinals in Washington.

"Is it a good life? By all means yes. I am blessed to be able to celebrate my 60th anniversary as a priest," he said. "It is a joy working for the Church and working for the people of the Church."