[Editor’s Note: This is the third article of a three-part Crux series chronicling the two-year tenure of Bishop Martin Holley in Memphis, Tennessee. Part one may be found here. Part two may be found here.]
MEMPHIS, Tennessee — When newly appointed Bishop Martin Holley arrived in Memphis in 2016, one of the first questions he would ask was, “Who are the local dignitaries I should meet?”
“I explained that we don’t really have dignitaries in Memphis, just very generous people,” said one former diocesan official. “He never seemed to quite get that we were in one of the poorest parts of the country where only 3-4 percent of the population is Catholic.”
Holley had previously served as an auxiliary in the nation’s capital for over a decade, and many priests and diocesan officials in Memphis now recall his two-year stint as navigating tensions between a bishop who resented being in a smaller, poorer diocese, while all the while seeking to leave his own indelible mark.
Accusations of Revenge
Upon his departure in October 2018 — when Pope Francis forcibly removed Holley from office — the Holy See Press Office emphasized that mismanagement of the diocese was the cause.
Holley, however, offered a different account.
In interviews with the Catholic News Agency and EWTN’s “The World Over,” Holley pointed the finger at his former boss, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, whom he accused of seeking “revenge.”
Holley said that in 2012, Wuerl was under consideration by Pope Benedict XVI as a candidate for the Vatican’s Secretary of State and Holley was asked to provide feedback on his suitability. When Wuerl didn’t get the job, Holley maintained that he harbored “disdain” toward him.
Despite multiple requests, Holley declined to speak with Crux for this series.
A senior staff member for pastoral administration of the Archdiocese of Washington disputed Holley’s account, saying the idea that Wuerl was under consideration for Secretary of State is “mystifying” and, further, Holley’s interactions with Wuerl upon his arrival in Memphis are hard to reconcile with a narrative of disdain.
In addition to inviting Wuerl to be lead consecrator at his installation Mass, Holley would invite Wuerl back to Memphis to deliver a keynote address at his priest convocation and to meet donors, both in private and group settings. He would also invite him to serve as the homilist at his Red Mass, though Wuerl was not able to accept due to a scheduling conflict.
Moreover, he said during his time in Memphis, Holley would travel back to Washington at least once a month — often complaining about his staff and asking members of the Washington chancery for support. Eventually, Holley was told by a senior official in Washington, “We’re happy to help, but you’re going to have to form your own team.”
In Memphis, despite Holley’s supposedly strained relationship with Wuerl, multiple diocesan officials said Wuerl’s influence loomed large, recounting staff meetings when Holley would consider a proposal and say, “I think the cardinal would do it this way, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
“It was almost as if he was envisioning himself as the cardinal,” a former staffer recalled. “Until the day he was removed, I never heard a disparaging word against Wuerl.”
Resisting the Smell of the Sheep
In the two-month period between the announcement of Holley’s appointment and his official installation, priests and diocesan officials recall an eager diocese ready to welcome their new shepherd.
Yet Holley, they maintained, seemed less than interested in either the people or the programs he would soon oversee.
“I recall driving him around town during one of his visits before the installation,” recalled now-retired Monsignor Peter Buchignani. “I took him by Memphis Catholic [Middle and High School], and he told me that if a Catholic school has a majority of non-Catholic students, then it’s not Catholic and we shouldn’t worry about it.”
Memphis Catholic is part of the Jubilee Schools system, a diocesan-run program started in the late 1990s to provide education in the inner city. The program, once dubbed “the miracle of Memphis,” would soon grow to 9 schools, providing first-rate, often free, education to thousands of students, thanks to local donors.
Holley made it one of his first acts to announce he was shutting it down.
Although the stated reasons were financial, several priests, chancery officials and prominent lay individuals told Crux that Holley could easily have raised the money to keep the schools open if he’d been willing to meet with its notable backers, yet he expressed no interest in doing so.
Monsignor John McArthur recalls Holley stating on multiple occasions, “I have no interest in educating non-Catholics,” who formed the majority of the student population at the Jubilee Schools.
“I thought they were the most sacramental places, in a way,” said McArthur. “We were literally introducing people to Jesus.”
Mike Allen, who served as director of Catholic Charities in Memphis for six years, and briefly under Holley, told Crux that this seeming disinterest in community engagement extended to other areas.
Allen said that in his capacity as head of Catholic Charities, he had helped plan a series of events to introduce Holley to the community during his first 90 days. Events included food distributions and clothing drives, which Allen hoped would be a “win-win” both for Catholic Charities to garner press and for Holley to gain local exposure.
Yet Allen recalled that “while he would show up as promised, his appearances would be brief,” and that Holley “seemed very uneasy.”
On another occasion, Allen said Holley sought to end Catholic participation in “Room in the Inn,” an ecumenical outreach program for the homeless. Despite its popularity, Holley decided he no longer wanted Catholic parishes and organizations to participate — a decision which Allen was able to reverse after repeated pleas.
In a letter shared by Allen with Crux — sent to Holley in July 2017 — he outlined concerns about management of the diocese, while also striking a conciliatory tone.
“It must also be said that your deliberate effort to get out into the parishes (repeatedly) has been noticed and appreciated, as was your decision to hold most Confirmation services at the local parish (as opposed to the Cathedral).”
Yet Allen warned that due to his management style, personnel decisions, and lack of respect for the local culture, “you have a very short window in which to salvage your Episcopacy in Memphis. This is not hyperbole. Absent some change in both style and substance, I think you will have squandered — likely for the rest of your time in Memphis — the goodwill established upon your arrival.”
Due Process and a Dramatic Departure
By the time Archbishops Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis and Wilton Gregory of Atlanta arrived in June 2018 to lead a Vatican visitation, by some estimates more than 250 letters had been sent to the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, seeking an intervention.
Hebda and Gregory spent three days holed away at the Holiday Inn at the University of Memphis, interviewing an estimated 40 individuals. Less than two weeks later, Holley’s all-powerful vicar general, Monsignor Clement Machado, would announce his resignation, and priests began receiving letters of apology from Holley with a pledge to work together.
In one, sent to Buchignani just ten days after the visitation, Holley writes, “I am not perfect and have made some major mistakes that I truly regret. I need your help and advice and I ask for your forgiveness…I want to move forward in the right way and I need your wisdom and counsel. Please forgive me and help me.”
While priests and diocesan officials told Crux they had hoped the situation was salvageable, after a vacation away from the diocese Holley was back to his usual style, with mandates that all communication intended for him be directed via e-mail to Machado. Two months later, Machado was back for a visit.
Meanwhile, the diocese continued to suffer from what some diocesan employees referred to as a “brain drain,” with high turnover during Holley’s two years in office — including the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, two communication directors, and the director of facilities and risk management.
On October 24, the Holy See Press Office announced that Pope Francis had forcibly demanded Holley’s resignation — though news of his departure had actually come a day earlier when Church Militant announced it.
The following day, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, named by Francis as apostolic administrator, arrived on the scene. Priests and diocesan officials say they’ve heard more from Kurtz in his short time than Holley during his two years, and that level of engagement has been a breath of fresh air.
Holley, meanwhile, has maintained that he was not given due process. However, a letter obtained by Crux dated May 9, 2017, sent by Pierre — just seven months after Holley’s arrival — alerts him to the fact that the nunciature had already received numerous letters alleging “arbitrary reassignment of pastors, the repurposing of a priests’ retirement facility to house ‘troubled’ priests, the lack of consultation before taking these actions, and the failure to appreciate local customs and sensitivities.”
While the nuncio told Holley he trusted him for the local governance of the diocese, multiple priests, including those working directly with Holley at the time, told Crux Holley would later rebuff subsequent suggestions from Pierre, including one that Holley travel to Rome to discuss the situation in Memphis.
While most priests now are predicting a long waiting period until a successor is named, with some anticipating up to a year, these individuals described a range of emotions — from being shell-shocked, to relieved, to grateful for a chance of healing. They’re also eager that their story be told as a case study for others, emphasizing that the tumult was not the result of politics but poor leadership.
“I’d like to see a reconciler, a healer, and a real pastor come in,” said Father Ernie DeBlasio.
“It would be nice to have someone who actually liked Memphis,” Father Keith Stewart told Crux.
“His successor is going to find the diocese — from the finances to the morale of priests — in ruins,” one priest warned. But then, he added: “There’s no doubt, though, that all of us are going to be ready to rally behind him.”
As Holley’s troubled term suggests, such built-in support isn’t unquestioning or infinite. Depending on how things play out, trust can either be augmented or exhausted – and a leader who wants to last might consider how a few tips on winning friends and influencing people might prevent the latter.