J. Peter Sartain (1952– )

James Peter Sartain was the sixth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, which encompasses all of the state of Arkansas. Although he was only briefly in Arkansas, Sartain’s reign coincided with great growth: under his watch, the Diocese of Little Rock increased from 90,600 members to 107,000, Hispanic ministry became more focused, and the numbers of seminarians and ordinations rose dramatically.

J. Peter Sartain was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 6, 1952, to Joseph and Catherine Sartain; he was the youngest of five and the only boy. Faith was very important to the Sartains, who passed on this influence to their children: one of Sartain’s sisters became a Dominican sister, and three of his sisters have worked for Catholic organizations. Sartain graduated from Bishop Byrne High School eighth in a class of 128 and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” The school has since named Sartain the first inductee of the Bishop Byrne Alumni Circle of Distinction and has established a scholarship in his name.

Sartain attended Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) for one year before transferring to St. Meinrad in Indiana in 1971, earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1974. Sartain earned his next two degrees in Rome: a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in 1977 and a licentiate in sacred theology with a specialization in sacramental theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum San Anselmo in 1979. In between receiving those degrees, he returned to Memphis and was ordained on July 15, 1978. He subsequently held a variety of curial positions in Memphis (including vocations director, chancellor, vicar general, and a brief stint as diocesan administrator) that were bookended by diocesan assignments at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church (1979–1981) and St. Louis Catholic Church (1992–2000).

Sartain was consecrated as Arkansas’s bishop before about 2,600 people on March 6, 2000. Noting the rise in Arkansas’s Latino population, Sartain took an immersion course in Spanish in San Antonio, Texas, in 2001. He established Hispanic ministries throughout the state and ordained Arkansas’s first Mexican-born diocesan priest, Salvador Márquez-Muñoz, and deacon, Marcelino Luna. Sartain also traveled to Mexican dioceses to encourage priests to come to Arkansas. In 2005, which John Paul II had declared the “Year of the Eucharist,” Sartain led more than 5,000 Catholics in a bilingual Eucharistic Congress.

Sartain worked to reverse a downward trend in vocations: in 2000, the diocese had ten seminarians and no ordinations; in 2005, there were fifteen seminarians and two ordinations. By 2010, there were more than thirty aspirants, with five men who had entered the seminary under Sartain ordained to the priesthood—the most in an ordination class since 1966.

Finally, Sartain found a way to reach out to Catholics across Arkansas: a weekly column in the diocese’s newspaper, the Arkansas Catholic, two collections of which he published. Everything I Have Is Yours (2004) collected writings on marriage, love, and natural family planning, while Of You My Heart Has Spoken (2005)—the title being Sartain’s episcopal motto—collected ninety columns on various topics.

On May 16, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Sartain to the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, where he was installed on June 27, 2006. Sartain thus became the first of the Diocese of Little Rock’s bishops not to retire or die as Little Rock’s ordinary. He led Joliet’s approximately 600,000 Catholics until his appointment as the ninth bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle on September 16, 2010, with his installment following on December 1, 2010. In April 2019, he published a letter to the people of the archdiocese announcing his intention to retire early due to ongoing health issues that had necessitated three back surgeries, and a coadjutor archbishop was appointed to facilitate the process of transition. Sartain’s resignation was formally announced on September 3, 2019.

For additional information:
“Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.” Diocese of Little Rock. https://dolr.org/former-bishops-sartain (accessed February 2, 2022).

Arkansas Catholic special issue, June 24, 2006. Portions online at http://www.arkansas-catholic.org/article.php?id=2379 (accessed February 2, 2022).

Edward C. Dodge
Catholic High School for Boys


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