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Diocese marks history; all four diocesan bishops present for 40th Anniversary Mass


“What a wonderful celebration!”

The phrase echoed throughout St. Mary Cathedral and the tents outside as the Diocese of Gaylord celebrated its 40th Anniversary on July 20. The highlight of a year-long slate of activities, the celebration saw more than 1,100 members of this local Church fill the Cathedral for a special Eucharistic Liturgy and family picnic.

The historic occasion was further augmented by the presence of all four of the Diocesan Bishops who have shepherded the Diocese of Gaylord over these past 40 years -- the first time this occurred in our diocese. They included: 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). It’s highly unusual for a Bishop to have three living predecessors. They were joined in the concelebration by Bishop Robert N. Lynch from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, and by 48 priests, mostly from this Diocese. Bishop Lynch, who vacations in our area and refers to the Diocese of Gaylord as “my diocese away from my diocese,” was delighted to partake in the celebration.

Also participating in the celebration were deacons, seminarians, religious sisters and brothers and laity representing all 80 parishes of the Diocese. Despite a summer temperature approaching three digits, the atmosphere was filled with joy and anticipation as the Church of Gaylord paused to pray together, to reflect on its past and to glance forward to the future.

A committee led by Fr. Dennis Stilwell, the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Gaylord, spent months preparing for the liturgy -- as well as the party that followed -- to ensure a truly spirit-filled event. With assistance from the Diocesan and Cathedral Staffs along with a large complement of volunteers, the vision came to fruition.

“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.”

The procession was led into St. Mary 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 Dr. Wayne Wyrembelski and led the assembly during the musical portions of the liturgy.

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 from the very beginning. 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 was erected 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.” Bishop Hebda remarked, turning his attention to each of the previous bishops. “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 that we use today. He managed to bring order out of chaos, and for that we will always be grateful.” Bishop Hebda said.

“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,” Bishop Hebda stated.

Looking toward the future, Bishop Hebda shared some of his thoughts saying, “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 that 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 noted that 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 Mt. Carmel,” he said. “We need to imitate her humility, her obedience and her willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Hebda concluded, as he invited everyone to stand and join him in that commitment.

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. I remember as though it were yesterday the inauguration of the Diocese of Gaylord 40 years ago this day.” He recalled that because the old St. Mary Church was so small, the celebration had to be held in the gymnasium of St. Mary High School and yet it was “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,” Cardinal Szoka added. “The ten years that 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 then explained that 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. Also recognizing His Eminence’s commitment to Catholic education, Bishop Hebda announced that in honor of Cardinal Szoka’s anniversary, 40 laptops would be donated by the diocese to school students in our Catholic Schools in the next year. The recipients would thereby receive the distinction of being “Cardinal Szoka Jubilee Scholars.”

Following the liturgy, everyone was invited to gather under two massive tents for a picnic dinner, time to socialize and dancing to the polka music. Mini banners created by parishioners throughout the diocese offered congratulations and inspiration to the festivities.

“I was really happy with how everything turned out,” noted 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 Diocese of Gaylord isn’t over yet. Special devotions, conferences, concerts and activities will continue through the remainder of the year.  Use this link to learn more about upcoming events.  To view photos from the Anniversary Mass and Picnic and banners that were created, click here

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