National Vocation Awareness Week is almost a month away, but now is a good time to get an early start and pray for vocations. Not just here, but in the mission dioceses of our country.
I was reminded of the severe need for vocations (particularly priestly) last week while attending the funeral Mass for Bishop Raphael M. Fliss, bishop emeritus of the Superior Diocese. I spent 14 years as editor of the Superior Catholic Herald and Bishop Fliss was my publisher.
Superior is considered a mission diocese by Catholic Extension, one of 94 U.S. dioceses given this designation. According to Catholic Extension, mission dioceses are “limited in terms of infrastructure, Catholic education institutions, professional opportunities and philanthropic opportunities.” Superior fits the “mission diocese” definition because Catholics “are spread throughout great geographic distances (and) are located in areas facing economic hardships.”
Throughout most of its 110-year history, the Superior Diocese has struggled to bring the sacraments to Catholics in the far-flung communities of northwest Wisconsin. Its history of missionary activity is much the same as the history in our own diocese. However, the economic and industrial stability found along the Fox River never really materialized in our neighboring Superior Diocese. The see city of Superior once rivaled its neighbor across the St. Louis River, Duluth, in the shipping business, but construction of a ship canal in Duluth in 1871 helped to change the fortunes of the shipping industry.
Today, most of the economic growth rests along the St. Croix River around Hudson, a suburb of the Twin Cities.
Just as growth and strong industry have eluded many of the communities in the 16-county Diocese of Superior, so have vocations. Since the diocese’s establishment in 1905, recruitment of seminarians to fill the ranks of parish priests has been a struggle.
Bishop George Hammes, who served in Superior from 1960 to 1985, ordained 78 men to the priesthood.
Bishop Fliss, who was named coadjutor bishop in 1979 and succeeded Bishop Hammes in 1985, ordained 21 men. Since Bishop Fliss’ retirement in 2007, 11 men have been ordained. One of those, a second-career vocation, has already retired.
While entering the Cathedral of Christ the King for the funeral Mass of Bishop Fliss on Oct. 1, I ran into a priest who remembered me from my years at the Catholic Herald. He spoke about the challenges facing the diocese and the low morale among priests due to lack of vocations.
Superior is currently a vacant see, with the previous bishop, Peter Christensen, now bishop of Boise, Idaho.
The priest, Fr. John Drummy, said the loss of Bishop Christensen, who was loved and respected by priests and laity alike, also added to the low morale. He said that the diocese has just two seminarians to replenish an aging presbyterate. One-third of Superior’s diocesan priests are at or beyond retirement age and are still actively serving the 103 parishes and two missions.
Knowing some of the history of Wisconsin’s second-youngest diocese, including the challenges faced and conquered by early missionaries and bishops, my guess is that the Diocese of Superior will somehow overcome its current trials — but not without an assortment of prayers.
I ask you to join me in praying for vocations for our neighbors to the northwest. Superior is a mission diocese and we are asked to support the missions, both foreign and domestic.
Editor’s note: This column originally stated that Superior was the youngest diocese. That distinction actually goes to the Diocese of Madison.