Orange County Catholic Bishop Johnson Dies

Times Staff Writer

The Most Rev. William R. Johnson, who became the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 1976, died Monday night of a bacterial infection at St. Joseph Hospital in the City of Orange. He was 67 and had been suffering from kidney problems and related illnesses for the past year.

Johnson, a passionate battler for social justice, had been debilitated by his illness for some time, diocese authorities said, and in recent months had been in a wheelchair. In 1984, the Most Rev. John T. Steinbock was named auxiliary bishop of the diocese, which serves Orange County, and since that time he has been filling in for Bishop Johnson at various functions.

"He has enabled the church here to grow so much," said Msgr. Michael P. Driscoll, chancellor of the diocese and former secretary to the bishop. "He has fought the battle, as St. Paul said, and he has merited the crown."

"We mourn the passing of a spiritual giant, one of God's choice leaders in Orange County," said the Rev. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral. "Our profound sympathy to all those to whom Bishop Johnson was shepherd and friend. And we know God will have the last word and it will be good."

Father Mike Heher, who is studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, said Johnson was the perfect choice to be the first bishop of Orange.

Heher, who was a seminarian when he first met Johnson, called him "a real man of vision." He said leading the new diocese "was an incredible undertaking and he entered into it with enthusiasm and a real sense of direction. He wanted the people of Orange to have a warm, welcoming experience with the church."

A native of Tonopah, Nev., Johnson attended elementary school in Los Angeles and graduated from Los Angeles College, the former archdiocesan junior seminary, in 1938. He was ordained in 1944 and later earned a master's degree in social work at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Former Auxiliary Bishop

Before the creation of the Diocese of Orange, the 163rd in the nation, Johnson served for five years as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles under Cardinal Timothy Manning. In that capacity he was active in social justice and charity matters. He was president of the National Conference of Catholic Charities during 1968 after heading the Catholic Welfare Board for 17 years.

As a young priest, Johnson served in an East Los Angeles parish and, for six years encompassing the period of the Watts riots, Johnson served as pastor of Holy Name of Jesus parish in Los Angeles, the first black Catholic parish in the city.

"Of all places," Johnson said at the time of his appointment, "I never expected to be assigned to Orange County."

In 1976, the 42-parish diocese had 333,860 members, making it the fifth largest of the 10 Catholic Dioceses in California. Today it is the second largest diocese in the state, including nearly half a million Catholics in 52 parishes, about one-fourth of the county's population. In addition, there may be as many as a quarter of million Catholics who are not registered at any parish in the county, said Tom Fuentes, a spokesman for the diocese.

'Middle of the Road'

After his appointment, Johnson, a registered Democrat, said he was in the "middle of the road" politically, adding, "I certainly relish the changes that have occurred in the church since the Second Vatican Council."

Before that historic conclave in Rome, called in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, the church was "a fairly rigid, centralized structure from the top down to the parish," Johnson said.

Asked in 1976 what he could contribute to the new diocese, Johnson said, "I think the most important thing I can do is to try to inject a spirit of enthusiasm--but make sure it isn't just enthusiasm, as such, but is directed toward the Christian ideal, which is Christ Himself."

Johnson said that Catholic training should no longer consist exclusively of memorizing formula answers to doctrinal questions.

"Many people think all they have to do is know something to be saved," he said in 1976. "That's not true. You have to do something and be someone."

Led Jail House Mass

Each year, Johnson celebrated Christmas mass with inmates at the Orange County jail. In 1979, he established a department of Hispanic ministries for the diocese that included Spanish-language training courses for religion education teachers and a training seminar for youth ministers. Later, Vicar Tomas Clavel, retired archbishop of Panama, came to Orange County to work with the county's Latino community.

Also in 1979, Johnson called on priests and parishioners to aid in the settlement of refugees from Southeast Asia, calling the situation "a challenge to our belief in human life and dignity."

Johnson was active in the opposition to the arms race. He voted with the majority of the U.S. Bishops' Conference in 1983, supporting a 155-page letter allying the bishops with the peace movement. "Being burned to crisp by an atomic bomb is as much a threat to a Republican as a Democrat," he said.

In March of this year, Johnson traveled to a nuclear test site in Nevada to be present for the arrest of the Rev. Don Kribs, a longtime friend and anti-nuclear activist. Johnson, looking frail, had to be helped out of the car and into his wheelchair to observe Kribs' arrest, which was planned as part of the observation of Kribs' 25th year in the priesthood.

Johnson said at the time that he thought it was "terrible to put people like this in jail." Diocese officials said that funeral arrangements are pending.

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