© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts

Dolan to shepherd New York Catholics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2009 - St. Louis will get a new Cardinal soon. Not the baseball variety. The Vatican variety.

But at 5 a.m. Monday, Feb. 23, the announcement was made that St. Louis native Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan is going to New York.

Pope Benedict XVI announced that Dolan is the new shepherd of the New York City archdiocese’s 2.5 million Catholics. His installation Mass likely will be April 15, the Wednesday after Easter.

And the next time that Benedict names new cardinals, Dolan, a church historian by training, will, no doubt, step into church history to receive his red hat. A cardinal is among the pope’s closest advisers and is an elector of the next pope.

Until this announcement, Dolan had been the archbishop of Milwaukee archdiocese for seven years.

Dolan was home in St. Louis for his 59th birthday Feb. 6. The next morning he stood on the front steps of the St. Louis Cathedral surrounded by friends after the Memorial Mass for Bishop Edward O’Donnell. Dolan told friends that being back in the cathedral made him happy.

“Nothing but happy memories,” he said waving toward at the cathedral. Some St. Louis Catholics teased Dolan that the pope should make him the next St. Louis archbishop. Since last summer when Benedict assigned the last St. Louis Archbishop - Raymond Burke - to head a Vatican law court, St. Louis Catholics have awaited news of its next archbishop.

Dolan flashed a grin and his eyes twinkled at the comment. It’s a gig he’d clearly love. However, his pals knew better that he has more important roles in the church. Sources in the Vatican and in St. Louis have said for months that the pope would not announce a new St. Louis archbishop until after New York got its new shepherd.

Dolan replaces Cardinal Edward Egan, who will turn 77 in early April. Under Catholic Church canon law, bishops must submit their resignation to the pope by their 75th birthday. Egan has been New York Catholics’ shepherd since May 2000.

A Grand Communicator

While the joyful, witty Dolan is a champion hugger, he is no lightweight. Brilliant theologians including the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit, considered Dolan an intellectual with a special gift for relating realistically to modern life. Two years ago, the late Dulles told this reporter of his appreciation of Dolan’s ability to put crises and challenges into the context of church and American history.

Friends and associates cite Dolan’s qualities that serve his church well: his down-to-earth friendliness, keen intellect, his analytical powers, his joyful presence, his gifts of mediation and what more than a few call “holiness.”

Sending a fine communicator to the media capital of the world seems a natural, for Benedict whose recent appointments seem to show that he is adept at putting pastorally gifted men in dioceses where their talents can be used.

Last May the St. Louis Beacon reported that sources said that Dolan and Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory were the top bishops under consideration for New York. Many have predicted that Dolan would hold a key church role since he was first ordained a bishop in St. Louis in August 2001.

From Dolan’s Kenrick Seminary locker mate Monsignor Dennis Delaney, to St. Louis lawyer Bernard Huger Jr. who helped Dolan tighten the St. Louis Archdiocese sex abuse policy in February 2002, to seminarians from Shrewsbury to Rome who were mentored by Dolan, many have been confident that the Irish-American had gifts that could serve his church’s highest ranks.

“He’s such a genuine person, with a big smile, a big laugh,” his friend Frank Guyol of University City said on Sunday night. Part of Dolan’s strength is his loving supportive family, Guyol and his wife Chris said. She called Dolan, “precious, always good, honest, fair and a wonderful Christian.”

Not an excommunicator

Dolan has publicly said that he “loves Ray Burke,” then, in the next sentences, added that refusing communion to public officials whose votes vary from church beliefs is not his way. Until last June, Burke was the St. Louis archbishop who famously said in January of 2005 that he’d not give presidential candidate John Kerry, an abortion rights advocate, communion when Kerry was campaigning in St. Louis before the Missouri presidential primary. Burke’s statement was like a cannon shot heard round the world. Dolan says that US Bishops Conference voted that each bishop handle those Catholics who live within his diocese in his own way.

This was Dolan’s way. Twice most years Dolan called Catholic Wisconsin public officials to a spiritual and intellectual discussion. He explained the theology behind church policy statements on capital punishment, immigration, poverty, abortion, war and embryonic stem cell research. Then, he took questions about the theological underpinnings. No fire and brimstone, just thoughtful give and take, elected officials have said.

Dolan is held in high regard by other U.S. bishops. At his very first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, just three months after he was installed as St. Louis Archdiocese’s auxiliary bishop, the bishops elected him to head the committee on priestly life. Such a committee chairmanship is unheard of for a new bishop. However, in the midst of the sex abuse crisis American bishops expected that Dolan could be a spokesman for good priests, for the joy of the priesthood and could work on policies to improve discernment, even testing of men seeking to become priests. Even then, Dolan was a popular retreat master for priests.

The St. Louis native has given thought-provoking papers at several prestigious Catholic intellectual societies. No matter how deep the academic topic, he always paces them with a bit of his Irish wit. Now he is board chairman of Catholic Relief Services, which serves people of all faiths overseas. He has been a gifted fund-raiser in Milwaukee. He currently serves on the bishops’ conference budget and finance committee.

His personal story

Dolan was born in St. Louis. He is the eldest of Shirley Radcliffe Dolan and the late Robert Dolan’s five children - three boys and two girls. In 1954, when he was 4, the family moved from Maplewood to the growing suburb of Ballwin. One day as he was leaving Mass with his maternal grandmother, he asked her what the man in black was called. As soon as he repeated the word priest, he said that wanted to be a priest.

“I can never remember a time I didn’t want to be a priest,” he said. His parents enrolled him in Holy Infant Grade School. His parents did not pressure him to go to seminary but when he said he wanted to they provided encouragement, he said. His teachers and parish members also encouraged his dream.

After 8th grade, he went to the old archdiocesan St. Louis Prep Seminary, then got a college degree from Kenrick- Glennon College. Both are in Shrewsbury. He was chosen as the one among his entire class to go to live at the North American College in Rome while studying theology in Italian at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. Later, he got a Ph.D. in church history from Catholic University in Washington D.C

Dolan was ordained a priest for the St. Louis Archdiocese in 1976.

As a priest Dolan served first as an associate pastor at Immacolata Parish in Richmond Heights from 1976 to 1979, an associate pastor at Cure of Ars Parish in Shrewsbury from 1983 to 1985, at Little Flower Parish in Richmond Heights from 1985 to 1987.

Those who expected him to be on a star track were not surprised when he was appointed as one of the secretaries at the Vatican’s Apostolic Nunciature in Washington in 1987. In his five years at that post, Dolan served as a liaison between American dioceses and the Vatican’s American diplomat. He taught them plenty of American history.

After a five-year stint in Washington, he returned to St. Louis, as vice-rector and spiritual director at Kenrick- Glennon College. He also taught theology at St. Louis University. For seven years beginning in 1994, he was rector, the top post, at his alma mater, the Pontifical North American College, Rome. He was a mentor, spiritual and academic adviser and chief tour guide at the residential college for American and Canadian seminarians studying at universities across Rome. When in Rome, Dolan also taught church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University and taught ecumenical theology at St. Thomas University.

On a visit to the NAC residential college in November 1997, this reporter observed Dolan multi-tasking one noon in the college’s student refectory. While overseeing the serving of bowls of spaghetti Bolognese to students and visiting priests, he organized two football teams to play the college’s annual Thanksgiving Day’s Spaghetti Bowl.

Just then, a frazzled freshman confused about a theological point in the Summa Theologica that an Italian-speaking professor had made in a class across town peppered Dolan with questions. Dolan cited various points that Thomas Aquinas had made in the text and was full of encouragement while making light of the American freshman’s painful insecurities in Italian. Then, it was back to the bowl game plans, while also giving two visiting U.S. bishops some Rome transportation advice.

A couple NAC students said that Dolan’s main advice to them was not academic but always to be “kind, kind, kind” priests.

During his Rome tenure St. Louisans kept up with him, visiting him even holding one large family’s wedding there so “Monsignor Timmy” could be the celebrant.

Dealing with scandal

Dolan returned to St. Louis and in June 2001 was named an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis. In February 2002, weeks after the clerical sex abuse scandal cracked open in Boston, Archbishop Justin F. Rigali, then of St. Louis, assigned Dolan to deal with the survivors of sexual abuse here, yank abusive priests from parishes and work up preventative measures so the St. Louis Archdiocese could better protect children.

Dolan was public about the matter. He often said he was making himself hoarse asking for victims to phone him. He went on television and radio asking St. Louisans to come forward with tragic stories of clerical abuse no matter how old the abuse incidents.

He met with victims. In Rigali’s name, the just-minted bishop dismissed abusive priests. Then, also in Rigali’s name, he visited with lay parishioners to talk about the removal of their often well liked priest at Masses just before the removal news was made public. Many shocked and disbelieving parishioners hotly questioned evidence, accused Dolan of being on a “witch hunt” and stood by the priests - at least, in the early weeks.

As a bishop, Dolan worked at the chancery office on Lindell Boulevard but lived and celebrated Mass at the flourishing South City parish of Our Lady of Sorrows. Two of the men he relieved of their priestly ministry over sex abuse allegations were the two priests that shared the “Sorrows” rectory with him that winter of 2002.

He has said he used to pray that when a survivor named his clerical abuser that priest would be buried “in Calvary Cemetery” not active in ministry. In those first six months of 2002, Dolan worked to midnight, ate at his desk, got scant exercise, gained weight and deep bags under his eyes. The secretarial staff worried.

Some legal advocates for victims of sex abuse have criticized all bishops including Dolan. When David Clohessy, national spokesman for SNAP (Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests) heard that Dolan was under consideration for the New York post, Clohessy issued a press release saying that Dolan was a poor choice. SNAP made similar comments about other bishops mentioned for New York and other cities. However, several victims called Dolan kind and encouraging and eager to provide free psychiatric care.

"He called me back and he listened," said Michael Powel, of St. Petersburg, Fla., an alleged 1970s victim of sexual abuse by a religious order brother living in St. Louis. Powel phoned Dolan in the winter of 2002. When the pope sent Dolan to Milwaukee, Powel expressed disappointment. Dolan had not only returned Powel’s several phone calls but listened to him an half hour or more at a time, Powel told this reporter.

Three to seven years is a typical stint for auxiliary bishop before he gets his own diocese. Dolan became Archbishop of Milwaukee less than a year after becoming an auxiliary here. It was a tough assignment. In Eastern Wisconsin, too, he had to clean up sexual scandal that occurred under previous bishops. Even messier, he had to console Wisconsin archdiocese following scandal around its previous Archbishop Rembert Weakland, then 75. For most of his 25 years as the leader of that archdiocese, Weakland was a respected shepherd and author. Then in the summer of 2002, Weakland resigned after acknowledging that he had paid $450,000 to an adult man who had accused him of sexual assault. Weeks later, Dolan was installed as the new archbishop.

In Milwaukee, the summer of 2002, Dolan was among the first bishops to meet not just with survivors of sexual abuse individually but also with their advocacy groups. Over the following years in Milwaukee, millions of dollars in clerical sex abuse settlement ran the archdiocese into debt. Several churches were closed. Last year, sinking finances led Dolan to dismiss more than 30 percent of the diocesan employees. Church property was put up for sale. In recent months, Dolan has been successfully rallying Milwaukee Catholics to contribute to the bishop’s annual fund appeal with 40 percent of parishioners’ gifts going to the archdiocese at large with his unusual proviso that 60 percent of funds collected remain in each parish.

In a few weeks he’ll be packing his books, bags and a crucifix that Holy Infant parishioner gave him that had been used in the parish’s temporary chapel before it built a church.

Is St. Patrick’s Cathedral big enough?

The Fifth Avenue landmark with its St. Louis-made Kilgen Organ holds 2,300 worshipers shoulder to shoulder. About that many worshipers – many flashing cameras - attended Dolan’s installation as an auxiliary bishop Aug. 15, 2001, at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica on Lindell Boulevard and Newstead Avenue.

The St. Louis Cathedral Concerts Series can sell 1,800 tickets with a bit of hip wiggle room in the pews, but for Dolan’s installation there was no wiggle room, folding chairs added in the curves of transepts, standees in the narthex, and perhaps 500 more worshipers in the wide stone balcony. That afternoon more than 50 young priests from across the US and Canada - Dolan’s former Pontifical North American College seminarians - showed up. Many bounded up the cathedral’s wide stone stairs and onto the stone balcony for good views of their mentor’s ordination as a bishop.

“The choir, the children’s choir, the bell choir and the orchestra were at least 300 in the balcony,” Archdiocesan music director John Romeri said recently. On the altar that day to honor the nation’s newest Catholic “baby bish” - as auxiliary bishops sometimes are called - were seven Catholic cardinals and 57 bishops. Dolan’s turnout was larger than the installation Masses for either of the two recent St. Louis archbishops – the top job in the archdiocese - Justin F. Rigali in 1994 and Raymond Burke in 2005. The assembly, many wreathed in smiles, gave Dolan 11 rounds of applause during the three hour love fest.

In the eight and a half years since he became a bishop, Dolan added more friends, as shepherd of 674,736 Milwaukee Catholics, as a bishop’s bishop and a popular national academic speaker. Hundred of them might want to squeeze into St. Pat’s pews in April.

Patricia Rice is a free lance writer who has covered religion for many years.

Our priority is you. Support coverage that’s reliable, trustworthy and more essential than ever. Donate today.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.