What’s the new bishop like?

Categories: Around the Diocese

Those who worked side by side with Bishop Kettler in both Fairbanks and Sioux Falls attest to his commitment, compassion and collaborative style

Sept. 27, 2013, edition
By Nikki Rajala

“Bishop Don was able to sustain people’s faith and parish life in the face of daunting pressures,” Robert Hannon, chancellor for the Diocese of Fairbanks, said of Bishop Donald Kettler.

“What is remarkable is his ability to sit with people who are suffering. He has a real gift to listen and respond compassionately.

“He wasn’t here during the time that much of the abuse was happening,” Hannon noted. “He walked into a difficult situation. Bishop Kettler’s leadership led us through it with grace, with God’s help.”

When Bishop Donald Kettler arrived in Alaska in 2002, Hannon said he began dealing with growing numbers of cases of sexual abuse by priests, religious employees and volunteers.

“He established a listening process which brought him to each village where someone was harmed, conducted a service, met with people and engaged in talking circles,” Hannon said. “For the Alaskan peoples, this was very important. The healing process will take years, but he’s laid the foundation.

Hannon pointed to Pope Francis’ recent interview calling for compassion and meeting people one-on-one. “Much of what the pope spoke about are skills Bishop Kettler brings in great quantity.”

In 2007 or 2008, Hannon said, Bishop Kettler recognized the only way to fairly deal with the growing number of people who were abused and address their harm was to file for Chapter 11 reorganization. The diocese emerged from bankruptcy in January 2010.

Energized diocesan councils

As a vehicle to connect to all regions and solicit valuable information, Hannon said, Bishop Kettler revived diocesan pastoral councils.

“He breathed new life and energy into the councils. It’s challenging in a diocese of 400,000 square miles where only eight or 10 parishes are linked by road system, and you can only get there by river, plane or snow machine.”

The Diocese of Fairbanks has 46 parishes but only 20 priests, Hannon said. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region, where half the parishes lie, some villages won’t see their priest for six to eight weeks. He described their challenges of being self-reliant, of being a sacramental people without a sacramental minister. With diocesan pastoral councils, he said, Bishop Kettler encouraged working collaboratively to find local solutions to issues.

“In the mid-1980s,” Hannon said, “there were nearly 50 Jesuits serving as the primary ministers. But as times changed, that dwindled to four or five priests. Bishop Don was our first diocesan bishop.”

To meet that need, Hannon said, a special brochure was made up and Bishop Kettler traveled to Poland to establish personal relationships with dioceses and seminaries. As a result, four or five Polish priests have come to Alaska.

For 32 years, Bishop Kettler was a priest in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., serving as rector of St. Joseph Cathedral and pastor of St. Lambert and Christ the King parishes.

Priorities: schools, TV Mass

Father Charles Cimpl, vicar general of the Sioux Falls Diocese, worked as a pastor with Bishop Kettler for several years.

Father Cimpl said, “In the early 1990s, we decided to consolidate the Catholic school system in Sioux Falls. . . . It was a monumental task to get eight pastors and their pastoral councils to agree on a common formulae for funding from all the parishes.

“The result is that we have one of the finest consolidated Catholic school systems in the country. I don’t believe this would have happened if not for then-Msgr. Kettler and his work in drawing us together and his knowledge of canon law.”

Celebrating the TV Mass was a high priority for him, said Donna Cannon, director of the Office of Communications for the Sioux Falls Diocese.

“He was the major celebrant from 1986 until he left for Fairbanks [in 2002],” recalled Cannon, who was producer of the TV Mass for the last few years he was in Sioux Falls. “The people who viewed it always enjoyed his message. They just loved it. [When they were transferring priests to other parishes] he would ask to be relocated within the community of Sioux Falls so he could continue celebrating the TV Mass.”

The Sioux Falls Diocese, Father Cimpl noted, is still noticing the effects of Bishop Kettler’s efforts in assisting the diocese.

“Msgr. Kettler was a great source of positive energy for the priests and the diocese,” Father Cimpl said. “He has the ability to look for common threads among people and in his gentle manner can help create unity amidst the diversity that often exists in human relationships.”