Archbishop Wilton Gregory was installed as the seventh bishop of Belleville, Illinois on February 10, 1994, at a time when the diocese had recently undergone a lot of physical and spiritual losses.

The small, rural diocese in southern Illinois is bordered on one side by the Mississippi River, and in 1993, many people in the diocese had been hit hard by one of the costliest floods in U.S. history. According to a New York Times article from August 1993, “the great Midwest flood of 1993” took 50 lives, left almost 70,000 people homeless, inundated an area twice the size of New Jersey, and caused an estimated $12 billion in property and agricultural damage.

One of the oldest churches in the diocese had flooded so badly that they were not sure if they would be able to restore it (although they ultimately did), and another parish in Valmeyer, Illinois had to move the entire parish to a new location on higher ground. Msgr. Jim Margason, who served as vicar general with then-Bishop Gregory, recalled going to Valmeyer after the flood and seeing it completely barren, with no sound because all of the birds had left.

In addition to the destruction of churches, homes, and crops, the effects of clergy sexual abuse had devastated the diocese. Nine priests and one deacon in the diocese had been removed from ministry between March 1993 and February 1994.

“It was just torn apart. It was just beaten up,” recalled David Spotanski, who served as the vice chancellor for Archbishop Gregory in Belleville, and now serves as the Chief Operating Officer for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “Virtually every parish was affected somehow because it was a small little mission diocese. Everyone knew at least one of these guys.”

As a result of the widespread effects of the abuse in the diocese, “people had lost confidence in the leadership; lost confidence in the local priests,” said Spotanski.

“There was so much that had been concealed for so long – no priest was above reproach,” he explained.

Recalling the beginning of his time as bishop of that diocese in a 2005 interview with The Messenger newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Archbishop Gregory said he remembered that people kept thanking him for becoming their bishop.

“It was almost as if given what was going on, people wouldn’t say yes. People were still very much bruised,” he said. “It was a whole mixture of feelings: anger, betrayal, confusion, denial, frustration.”

Upon arriving in the diocese, then-Bishop Gregory made the same promise to the people there that he made to the Archdiocese of Washington last month during his press conference on the day his appointment as archbishop of Washington was announced.

“He said, ‘I’ll always tell you the truth,’ and that is what he did,” recalled Spotanski. “He did remarkable work there.”

Archbishop Gregory first made sure all priests who had credible allegations against them were removed from ministry, and then “set about healing one parish at a time,” said Spotanski, who remembered how the bishop would drive himself all around the diocese to parishes and schools, which could involve a three-hour long drive to get to the southern tip.

“Dealing with victims (of clerical sexual abuse) humbled me. I’ve met dozens of people who have been harmed,” said Archbishop Gregory in the 2005 interview with The Messenger. “While I’ve said — and have meant from the bottom of my heart — how sorry I am, I know I still, because of the office I have and the hurt they bear, I know that the healing I long for them will take time.”

Years later, in a farewell address he gave at St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville after being appointed as the archbishop of Atlanta in 2005, Archbishop Gregory told the people of the diocese, “it is the lesson of the constancy of your faith and love that I will take with me as conceivably my greatest treasure and memory of my time as your bishop.”

Archbishop Gregory, who grew up on the south side of Chicago and served as an auxiliary bishop in that diocese prior to his appointment in Belleville, was new to the rural farm life that surrounded him there. But through his time at the diocese, he said, “I have come to appreciate the wisdom of farm families.”

“To be a good farmer you have to be a jack of all trades. You have to understand chemistry, nature, weather. You have to be a mechanic, a business person. Farmers have to know all of those things in addition to being people of faith,” he said in the 2005 interview. “They bring all of those skills to bear with their faith because they know it is at God’s pleasure that they do the work that they do.”

Msgr. Margason, who is now the pastor of two parishes in the diocese of Belleville, recalled how Bishop Gregory also reached out to the black community in East St. Louis, which had experienced a lot of poverty because of white flight from the area in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“As a black bishop, many people looked to him to do a lot for that community,” said Msgr. Margason. “He did reach out to that community, but he really emphasized that he was a bishop for the whole diocese, and he was accepted as that.”

During his 11-year tenure as bishop of Belleville, Archbishop Gregory started a pastoral council, mostly made up of lay people, which helped him learn about the diocese and the situation it was in. Spotanski said when Archbishop Gregory’s appointment to the Archdiocese of Washington was announced, he got many e-mails from people who had been on that council asking him to pass on their well-wishes.

“One of the greatest things about Archbishop Gregory is he invites candor,” said Spotanski. “…People could say what was on [his or her] mind. The diocese was better for it. He was a better bishop for it.”

Then-Bishop Gregory also ran a successful capital campaign to pay for various services in the diocese, including ministry to the significant Hispanic population that had begun to settle in the diocese after first arriving as migrant farmworkers.

“He grew to be really loved by all the people and when he left, people were really sorry to see him go,” said Msgr. Margason.

The feeling was mutual, and Archbishop Gregory reflected on his love for the people of Belleville in that same 2005 interview with The Messenger.

“I will miss the people. The office of the bishop, with all of its ceremonial, administrative, organizational responsibilities, centers around your relationship with the people,” he said. “That’s what brings you happiness. That’s what gives you grey hairs. That’s what you think about when you go to sleep at night. That’s what you think about at the altar in the morning. It’s the people – it’s caring for them, it’s trying to respond to them.”

Just a few years after becoming bishop of Belleville, Archbishop Gregory was elected as vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a position that he held for three years before being elected as the USCCB’s president in 2001. Under his leadership, the conference implemented the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. He continued in the role of bishop of Belleville as well, until being appointed the Archbishop of Atlanta in 2005.

“We always looked at Belleville as his on-the-job training for his presidency, and we look it training for this [his appointment to Washington] as well,” said Spotanski. “He has never disappointed. He has always risen to the challenge.”