Sioux Falls church recalls Bishop Kettler as ‘real deal’

Categories: Around the Diocese

Nov. 15, 2013, edition
By Bill Vossler
For The Visitor

“There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how good Bishop [Donald] Kettler is,” said Donna Cannon of the Communications Office of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D.

As producer for their TV Mass, she worked with him from 1990 until he was named bishop in 2002. Those adjectives all point to a man of many and immense talents.

One talent is joyfulness, said Clare Willrodt, who worked with him in the Rite of Christian Initiation at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls and now is director of pastoral care at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, S.D.

“He has a great capacity for joy,” Willrodt said. “Once we had a gathering at our house on a windy South Dakota day. We flew kites, and I remember him tackling the experience with the joy and freedom of a 5-year-old.”

Another of Bishop Kettler’s talents is organization.

TV Mass expanded

Under his direction, the local Sunday TV Mass was expanded statewide, said Cannon. “He’d been the weekly celebrant for our Sunday TV Mass since 1986, and always had an easygoing temperament. One time a bulb burst in the studio during the taping and another time a member of the children’s choir fainted; he just kept going knowing we had a limited amount of time to record.

“The televised Mass gave the homebound great peace and comfort,” she said, “and Bishop Kettler witnessed such humility, gentleness and kindness that listeners were drawn to him. His homily was only five minutes, but packed with inspiration. He’d always close those homilies with ‘God bless you.’ He so enjoyed praying with the hospitalized and homebound.”

Cannon said “viewers treated the TV Mass as ‘their parish’ each Sunday morning as they gathered in community rooms in nursing homes or just sat in the quiet of their homes.”

She described letters which told Father Kettler how much they appreciated his TV Mass: “We have been wanting to write you for a long time to thank you for the very inspiring Mass. We have especially enjoyed and appreciated the homilies.” Another wrote, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your inspiration at Sunday TV Mass. I’m nearly 90 years old, confined to a wheelchair, in assisted living, so this is how I ‘go to Mass.’ ”

Bishop Kettler was committed to celebrating the TV Mass, because “throughout the years,” Cannon said, “whenever a parish move was imminent, he would request of the bishop that he remain in Sioux Falls so he could continue to celebrate the TV Mass. Viewers were blessed by him and our diocese is blessed to call him our native son.”

Reorganizing Catholic schools 

Bishop Kettler also used his organizational skills on Sioux Falls’ Catholic schools.

Father Gregory Tschakert, judicial victor of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, said, “He had the foresight to help reorganize the Sioux Falls Catholic school system, to strengthen it and assure its future. He has a very deep commitment to Catholic schools.

“Bishop Kettler was pastor at St. Joseph’s Cathedral and a member of the O’Gorman High School board,” Tschakert said, “when the decision was conceived to combine all the Catholic schools in the city of Sioux Falls into a unified system to help assure stability of the schools and accessibility for members of all parishes. Combining the schools under a centralized board and administration helped free local pastors from many day-to-day decisions that are part of school life.”

For more than 30 years, Tom Lorang worked with Bishop Kettler as principal of O’Gorman Catholic High School and superintendent of the Sioux Falls Catholic school system.

“My first impression of him,” Lorang said, “was a man with a kind demeanor and much wisdom. He was one of the primary advocates for creating our Sioux Falls Catholic school system when there were few, if any, in the country. The trust other priests and Catholics had in him assisted in the formation of the system much more quickly than it would have without him.

“He had an uncanny ability to look beyond human hesitation to what was possible with God.”

But Bishop Kettler ran into his share of trials.

“As pastor of an aging cathedral facility,” Lorang said, “he was challenged to maintain and improve the facilities while attempting to offer meaningful programs for divergent parishioners. Because of his ability to build consensus and trust, he was able to meet these challenges.”

Role model

Lorang said, “In Sioux Falls, he was a priest’s priest. His legacy and modeling included how to support other priests and those who served on committees. He approached situations and people positively, while having the wisdom and fortitude to right wrongs. People seldom spoke negatively or unkindly of others when in his presence, as he would redirect the conversation to an issue or what could be done to assist those with whom others might have differences.”

“Bishop Kettler was widely perceived as a very fine pastor,” said Jerry Klein, formerly chancellor of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and now delegate for communications and social ministries.

“Pastoral is a word that automatically comes to mind when I think of his years as a priest in the Diocese of Sioux Falls. His gentle way made him approachable. Because of his years as a presider for the TV Mass, many who were not at his parish thought of him as their pastor too.”

Cannon echoed those thoughts. “He takes special interest in people,” she said, “and is a devout friend to several priests in our diocese. He cherishes genuine friendships. Many priests still communicate with him.”

“Over the many years that I’ve known Bishop Kettler,” said Father Tschakert, “I’ve admired his pastoral approach in all circumstances. I was in college and he was associate pastor of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, where I often attended Mass. Even then his commitment to the renewal of the church was obvious, and his openness apparent.”

Willrodt said, “I recall how he drew strength from time with his brother priests. I appreciated the way they supported each other and enjoyed one another’s company.”

“Bishop Kettler will always be a remembered here as an extraordinary pastor with a heart for the people he served,” Father Tschakert said. “He genuinely enjoys pastoral ministry, and it’s obvious. His manner of dealing with people, even in difficult circumstances, witnesses to the life of the Gospel.”

Lorang said not much brought Bishop Kettler down, except maybe mean-spirited, dishonest people.

“They slowed him down,” Lorang said, “but did not keep him down. He was never down long. He trusted in God and ministered fully to others at all times. He was always cheered by good friends, conversation and situations in which he saw others growing closer to Christ.”

Inspiring trust

Lorang saw Bishop Kettler in action during several times of impasses and growing divisiveness on issues.

“He is a good listener, excellent spiritual advisor, calm decision maker and advocate for the poor,” he said. “Perhaps his strongest asset is his ability to bring people together. I observed other priests on both sides of the issue going to him for advice. It seemed that, after these meetings, a perspective was gained and the issues became less divisive.

“People trusted him,” Lorang added. “He listened intently to what others had to say and worked toward solutions in a very positive manner. Others can quickly observe his sense of faith, integrity, openness and desire to serve. Over time, they came to observe his tenacious resolve to pursue that which is virtuous.”

Kindness and compassion

Klein saw Bishop Kettler’s compassion firsthand.

“He was unfailingly kind and helpful to me when I first became chancellor for the diocese in 1993. He was rector at the cathedral of St. Joseph and judicial vicar for the diocese at the time. I frequently sought his good counsel. I also very much admired his openness and willingness when he was appointed bishop of Fairbanks. He knew that it would be a huge change, but he clearly was ready to accept God’s will.”

“For many years,” Father Tschakert said, “Bishop Kettler was the head of our local diocesan [marriage] tribunal where I also served as defender of the bond and judge. Bishop Kettler was unfailingly kind to those who came to the tribunal seeking healing and justice. He always used the law of the church to help people participate fully in the life of the church.”

Presentation Sister Lynn Marie Welbig remembered Bishop Kettler fondly: “For several years I served as director of the diocesan tribunal with Bishop (then Msgr.) Kettler. As judicial vicar, Msgr. Kettler manifested an admirable integration of charity and justice. He was welcoming and sensitive to those pursuing the annulment process, while he never lost sight of the pursuit of truth and justice. He personified the healing and reconciling mission of the church.

“As director of the tribunal,” Sister Lynn Marie continued, “I experienced professional respect and brotherly support from him. It was a privilege to learn from him and to serve with him.”

“I worked with Bishop Kettler,” Willrodt said, “from around 1980 until he left the cathedral. Bishop Kettler took a chance on me as a young lay woman in the church. I had only recently moved to South Dakota from the West Coast, but I had experience with the Rite of Christian Initiation. He was willing to see what I could do with my background to move the implementation of the RCIA forward at the cathedral and in the city and diocese.

“His trust in me gave me the courage to seek further education in order to be more credible and capable in my role. I became responsible for the RCIA for St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Under his leadership, my role grew to encompass sacramental preparation for second graders (family components and home visits). I also assisted with annulments.”

Becoming a bishop 

Bishop Kettler cut a wide swath of competence during his years in Sioux Falls. Cannon said, “I was not surprised at Msgr. Donald Kettler being named a bishop — as he always exemplified shepherd qualities; a very kind and gentle spirit.”

“To me,” Willrodt said, “what stands out the most about my experience of then-Father Kettler was his integrity. I knew that I could count on him for that, no matter what the situation. And I will remember fondly how my young daughter referred to him as her ‘big grown-up friend.’ ”

“Bishop Kettler is consistent in his faith life,” Lorang said, “and in his desire to find good in people. He lives what he says. He approaches his spirituality with confidence and humbleness. Bishop Don Kettler is the real deal.”