GAYLORD — Four bishops were expected for the Diocese of Gaylord’s celebration of its 40th anniversary on Wednesday, July 20, but a fifth showed up.
Along with the four bishops who have led the diocese in the past four decades — Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka (1971-1981), Bishop Robert J. Rose (1981-1989), Bishop Patrick R. Cooney (1989-2009) and Bishop Bernard A. Hebda (2009-present) — also on hand was Bishop Robert N. Lynch from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., Bishop Lynch vacations in the northern Lower Peninsula and refers to the Diocese of Gaylord as “my diocese away from my diocese.”
He joined the founding four bishops and 48 priests, mostly from the Gaylord Diocese, to concelebrate the Mass at St. Mary Cathedral.
The service, which drew more than 1,100 people, including deacons, seminarians, religious sisters and brothers and laity representing all 80 parishes of the diocese, was followed by a picnic on the cathedral grounds.
A committee led by Fr. Dennis Stilwell, the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Gaylord, spent months preparing for the liturgy and the picnic. Despite temperatures in triple digits, the results were received positively.
“For me the heat of the day was a small price to pay for an intensely joyful experience of our diocesan community around the table of the Lord,” said Fr. Norm Dickson, S.J., pastor of St. Mary of the Woods in Kalkaska and St. Aloysius in Fife Lake.
“The Mass was beautiful — a true celebration! It was an honor to have Cardinal Szoka, Bishop Rose and Bishop Cooney back home,” said Amy Peters from St. Mary Parish in Alpena.
“There was just a great family feel about it. We prayed together and ate an excellent meal with much joy and laughter being shared.”
“Awesome — inspiring — uplifting!” said Bernice Zolnierek, of St. Mary Parish in Alpena. “Praying together as one and thanking God for all accomplishments granted over the past 40 years made for a memorable day.”
“It was a monumental and unforgettable celebration, said Deacon Peter Wigton, “and what a blessing to have all three of our past bishops present to celebrate with us. I felt so honored to serve as a deacon.”
“Even though it was very hot,” said Sr. Katherine Murphy of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Traverse City, “I was pleased to be part of this grand celebration. I was also glad that the religious were recognized and happy I had the opportunity to meet the bishops at the picnic.”
The procession of priests, bishops and deacons was led into the cathedral by 28 members of the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus Color Guard from across the diocese. The Diocesan Celebrations Choir and instrumentalists, composed by musicians from parishes throughout northern Lower Michigan, was directed by Wayne Wyrembelski and led the assembly during the musical portions of the liturgy.
“Wayne’s (Wyrembelski) music selection made for a triumphant liturgical celebration,” said Seth Peters of St. Mary Parish in Alpena, “followed by delightful polka music during the picnic outside. It was a day of song and sunshine.”
Reflecting on the history of the diocese, Bishop Hebda began his homily by taking special note of the work of the earliest priests, such as Bishop Frederic Baraga, and the religious sisters who worked tirelessly to bring the Catholic faith to the earliest residents in this region and to build the Church. He recognized those priests who were part of the Dioceses of Saginaw and Grand Rapids and were automatically incardinated becoming the first priests of the Diocese of Gaylord when it began in 1971 with territory formerly part of the two dioceses. He also recognized “the incredibly faithful laity who supported our priests and sisters in their efforts and were the backbone of our parishes that existed before 1971.”
“The natural resources were great,” he said, “but the Lord had to make sure the fledgling diocese would grow and thrive and He wisely called forth the talents of my three predecessors — exceptional shepherds. How blessed we are today that each brought his gifts to benefit this local Church at just the right time.
“We will be forever indebted to Cardinal Szoka for his organizational skills. The structures that he set up are largely the same structures we use today. He managed to bring order out of chaos, and for that we will always be grateful.
“Bishop Rose brought the diocese out of its adolescence and into its maturity. His experience as a professor, comfortable in the world of ideas, brought to our diocese a great depth as well as growth — growth in the number of Catholics, the number of priests and the number of parishes.
“Then there’s Bishop Cooney, who left his mark on this diocese as a man who loved the Church’s liturgy and understood the connection between how we pray and how we live out our faith. Everywhere I go I find he’s left behind not only friends who tell stories about his kindness, but men and women with a great love for the Church’s liturgy.”
Looking to the future, Bishop Hebda said, “In the secular world, we often hear at life begins at 40. The task for us as Church is to embrace the challenge to continue to discern where and how the Lord is asking us to serve.
“I’m confident that is going to mean a deepening in our spiritual lives. That’s going to require us to renew our commitment to total Catholic education from childhood to adulthood. That’s going to require us to make sure we continue to celebrate the liturgy with care in a way that shows that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives and to make available to the faithful the authentic devotions that might assist them in growing closer to Christ. That’s going to require us to continue to make vocations ministry a priority and youth and young adult ministry as well.”
Bishop Hebda also said the next 40 years will require the faithful to learn more about imitating Mary and to learn not only to leaders, but to be open ourselves to be led.
“It wasn’t accidental that our diocese was placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” he said. “We need to imitate her humility, her obedience and her willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Bishop Hebda invited Cardinal Szoka to address the assembly.
“On my own behalf, and on behalf of Bishop Rose and Bishop Cooney, I want to thank Bishop Hebda for inviting us to share in this joyous occasion,” he said. “I remember as though it were yesterday the inauguration of the Diocese of Gaylord 40 years ago this day.”
Because the old St. Mary Church was so small, he said, the celebration had to be held in the gymnasium of St. Mary High School and yet it was a “beautiful liturgy … an awesome celebration.
“Forty years seems like a long time and in our lifespan it is. But in the perspective of history and eternity, it’s just a little blip on a radar screen — yet for us, it’s an important moment.
“It’s an unusual opportunity to be the first bishop of a new diocese and I am very grateful to God for the experience. The 10 years I spent here as the bishop are among the happiest I spent in my life and I will never forget them. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this wonderful celebration today. I want to assure you all of my prayers. God bless you.”
Bishop Hebda said the occasion also commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Episcopal Ordination of Cardinal Szoka. He noted Cardinal Szoka’s interest in technology and his efforts to computerize the Vatican while he was there. To honor the cardinal’s commitment to Catholic education, Bishop Hebda said 40 laptop computers would be donated by the diocese to students in diocesan schools in the next year. The recipients would receive the distinction of being “Cardinal Szoka Jubilee Scholars.”
Following the liturgy, people gathered under two massive tents for a picnic dinner, socializing and dancing to the polka music. Mini banners created by parishioners throughout the diocese also were on display.
“I was really happy with how everything turned out,” said Fr. Stilwell. “It takes a lot of hands to carry out a celebration of this magnitude and we are so grateful to everyone who helped in any way.”
“The celebration was fabulous,” wrote Sr. Rita Epple, pastoral administrator at St. Dominic in Metz. “I thought Bishop Hebda’s homily was so well done. He touched on the history of the diocese and the personalities with his wonderful humor and sacredness. And it was great to see Cardinal Szoka, Bishop Rose and Bishop Cooney. Thanks to the committee, choir and and everyone who brought the event together.”
The celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the will continue with special devotions, conferences, concerts and activities for the remainder of the year. For details on upcoming events, visit www.dioceseofgaylord.org.†