‘Random Catholics’ behind site documenting Catholic hierarchy – Catholic World Report

David M. Cheney, creator and curator of Catholic-Hierarchy.org / Photo credit: David M. Cheney

Rome Newsroom, 27 Nov 2022 / 07:00 AM (CNA).

In some respects, David Cheney is just a “casual Catholic,” as he describes himself on his now-dormant Twitter account.

He works full-time computer support, loves to travel, opens his emails and says “hello,” and belongs to the Church of the Holy Cross in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.

Cheney is also the man behind the longest-running online database that provides information on bishops and dioceses of the Catholic Church around the world.

When asked why he started Catholic-Hierarchy.org more than 20 years ago, the 56-year-old Kansas native said, “Part of it is just because there isn’t one anywhere else.”

The website, which includes current and historical data for Church Hierarchies, had 612,000 visits and 1.3 million page views in the last 30 days. During one month this year, the site received visitors from almost every country in the world.

Screenshot of the Catholic-Hierarchy.org homepage.
Screenshot of the Catholic-Hierarchy.org homepage.

Cheney told CNA via video call from his home last week that the site started out as a simple project to teach himself web design.

“I was working at Texas A&M University, running computers for the economics department, and I needed a program to start learning networking skills. It was the late 90s,” he said.

“At the time I counted six dioceses around the world that had websites,” Cheney said. “That’s it. So basically I started, you know, just playing around with it.”

humble beginnings

In 1997, Cheney created an experimental Paradox database for America’s current bishops, consisting of three web pages: “Who’s New,” “Open Sees,” and “Age Limit.” At the time, he maintained everything manually.

Things go from there.

Cheney had a relative — a former abbot living in Guatemala — who visited him. This fact prompted him to expand the site beyond the United States.

“So I went ahead and added Canada, Mexico and Central America,” he said.

Cheney explained that the next member was from Lima, Peru. Someone at ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner founded in 1980, “was kind enough to give me an Excel spreadsheet containing all the current bishops in South America.”

At that point, “Why not go all the way?” he thought.

“It always leaves holes and if I don’t include everything, then I just keep expanding it to the world.”

On May 10, 2002, the Catholic-Hierarchy.org domain was born.

how does this work

Cheney said he reads the Vatican’s newsletter every day to find out which new bishops the Pope has nominated, or to hear about bishops’ retirements or reassignments.

He then enters any new data into the website. Other information, such as the bishop’s age, is updated automatically.

Screenshot of the form of Pope Francis, former Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio.Credit: David Cheney
Screenshot of the form of Pope Francis, former Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio.Credit: David Cheney

In addition to the Vatican Bulletin, Cheney obtained a great deal of historical information about bishops from his collection of the Annuario Pontificio, or Pontifical Register. He said he has acquired copies from 1914 to 2022, though he has lost a handful.

Historical researchers also share information with webmasters. He also shared his database with other researchers. Google Books is also a useful resource, he said.

Cheney described how the site works, acknowledging that it uses Paradox, an “extremely old and outdated” management system.

“It’s what’s called a true relational database,” he said, “and basically it means there’s no need to copy information between tables…. All you do is link them.”

These forms, he explained, are like spreadsheets. “There’s a main table of bishops, and there’s an entry for basically everyone I find on the site.”

There are also tables related to events such as the bishop’s birth and death, when he was ordained bishop, who ordained him, and so on.

“So these are separate tables, and then using a database you can access all of them at once, basically correlating them to each other,” Cheney said.

With a minimal amount of advertising, the site generates a small amount of revenue, which he says he uses to pay for the site’s hosting, domain name and other basic expenses. “The goal was never to make money,” he said.

what’s next

The web designer said he hopes to be able to retire from his day job — providing computer support for the IRS — in five to seven years. At that point, he’ll be able to give the site the overhaul it deserves.

“What a website really requires — and that’s true of most software projects — you need to start over, from scratch,” he said.

“I think it could be a year-long project in itself.”

Cheney said that when he started the job in 1997, he had no idea how complex the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was.

“Of course I’m interested in the church and, you know, I’m involved with my local parish and other things, but I don’t realize the complexity of that,” he said.

Now, 25 years later, he says it’s interesting to learn “how the church is interconnected” and to see the development of parishes and church territories over time.

The project also gave Cheney a global perspective on the structure of the Catholic Church.

“In some areas, we are still missionaries,” he noted.

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