Most Rev. Joseph B. Cotter

Bishop of Winona, Minnesota (1889-1909)

Joseph Bernard Cotter (November 19, 1844 – June 27, 1909) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Winona in Minnesota from 1889 to 1909.

Joseph Cotter was born on November 19, 1844, in Liverpool, England, the son of Lawrence Cotter and Ann (Perrin) Cotter. His father was a native of Ross Castle, County Kerry, Ireland. His mother was born in Liverpool, England. In 1849, the Cotter family immigrated to the United States, settling for a short time in New York. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Ann Cotter died during their residence in Cleveland. In 1855, Lawrence Cotter moved the family to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Cotter received his elementary education at private academies in Cleveland and Fremont, Ohio. Bishop Thomas Grace of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul decided to sponsor Cotter’s preparation for the priesthood, sending him to St. Francis de Sales Seminary near Milwaukee in September 1864. The following year, Cotter was sent to Saint Vincent in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, for three years of study.

In 1868, Cotter was recalled to Minnesota and became a student of theology in St. John’s, Collegeville. In the Cathedral, on May 3, 1871, Bishop Grace conferred on him the minor orders. On Sunday, May 7, he received sub-deaconship.

On May 21, 1871, Cotter was ordained to the priesthood. Cotter celebrated his first Mass on the feast of Pentecost at St. Mary Parish, Minneapolis.

On November 15, 1889, Pope Leo XIII appointed Cotter the first bishop of the Diocese of Winona. On December 27, 1889, he was consecrated. In his sermon, Archbishop John Ireland, drawing upon the meaning of the Dakota word Winona, “eldest daughter”, referred to the city as the first-born daughter of the Diocese of St. Paul.

His appearances, however, often turned into public celebrations honoring his elevation to bishop. When he traveled to Wabasha, Minnesota, for a confirmation class, he was greeted by a crowd at the station and a parade of over 800 people accompanied him to the church for the service.

In the next few months, Cotter traveled throughout southern Minnesota, greeting the people in his new diocese. His travels took him across the state from the Mississippi River to the South Dakota border. When Cotter became bishop, the new diocese included 45 priests, eight churches, 15 parochial schools, and two hospitals. Approximately 38,000 Catholics resided in the diocese.

Cotter was a strong supporter of the national Temperance Movement. He traveled throughout the country delivering sermons and lectures of on the evils of alcohol consumption. He was said to have received 69,000 pledges from people promising to give up alcohol. He was elected president of the National Union of Father Matthew Societies, a national umbrella temperance group.

By the turn of the century, the Diocese of Winona was securely established and its bishop was recognized as a civic, as well as religious, leader. Both the church and the community had celebrated Bishop Cotter’s silver jubilee as a priest in 1896 with addresses and receptions. Cotter said that credit for the expansion of the church was due to the priests and lay people who had worked with him.

Before long, Cotter’s health, which had been frail since surgery several years earlier, began to fail. Physicians diagnosed a heart condition, but the bishop maintained his heavy schedule of confirmations, dedications, and other official ceremonies. In early 1909, following his physicians’ advice, he traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to rest in a milder climate. As his condition worsened, Cotter returned home to Winona, lingering for a few months.

On Sunday, June 27, 1909, Cotter died at his home in Winona at the age of 64. A newspaper editorial mourning Bishop Cotter’s death pointed out that “he left behind him a monument…the Diocese of Winona.”[attribution needed] By the time of his death, the diocese consisted of 90 priests; 135 parishes, missions, or chapels; 30 parochial schools; three hospitals; and an orphanage. In 1909, there were approximately 49,000 Catholics in the diocese.

Cotter was known for his genuine interest in people, which he sometimes expressed in simple letters of concern. Almost 30 years after Bishop Cotter’s death, Father John Sherman of Winona wrote, “His memory lives in the respect and affection of a devoted people… He was a genuine ambassador of Christ and the good he did lives after him.”

Cotter High School in Winona was named in his memory.