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Father Paul Larson — ‘one of our diocesan characters’ — dies unexpectedly

“Father Paul, or ‘Parson Larson,’ as we sometimes called him, was one of our diocesan characters,” said Father William Graham, in Father Paul J. Larson’s funeral homily at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hibbing Jan. 25.

“Often, when Paul would speak or even just appear, one of us priests would turn to another and say, ‘And you thought all the characters were dead.’ You can’t say exactly what a character is, but you know one when you see him. And one of the endearing qualities of characters is that as much as we love them, we often find them exasperating in almost equal measure.”

Father Larson funeral
Bishop Paul Sirba presides at the concelebrated funeral Mass for Father Paul Larson at Blessed Sacrament Church, Hibbing. (Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross)

“Characters have something in common with saints,” he added. “It is easier to recognize their goodness in death, because all of those things that made them characters become endearing in death, when their goodness no longer threatens us, but instead invites us to imitate their charity and goodness. Father Paul touched the hearts, souls and lives of many, many, many people whom others of us failed to see, know, touch or love.”

Father Larson, 64, pastor of Holy Family in McGregor and Our Lady of Fatima in McGrath, died Jan. 19 at Essentia St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. (See “Obituaries,” page 4.) His funeral Mass at Blessed Sacrament — the same parish where he was baptized, received his first Communion, was confirmed and was ordained a priest in 1979 — was celebrated by Bishop Sirba. It filled the large church and drew a huge crowd of clergy, members of the Native American community and people from the many parishes he had served.

Sister Marie Rose Messingschlager, CDP, director of Indian Ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, said Father Larson’s family recognized his connection with the Indians and had requested drum and the smudging ritual for his funeral, as well as Indian-made medallions in the coffin.

Parishioners shocked

Deacon Mike Barta, who serves in the same parishes Father Larson was serving, said parishioners were “shocked and very saddened. Father Larson was with us and saying Mass for us on the weekend, and Tuesday morning he was gone. This was the first time our parishes have ever dealt with the unexpected death of a priest.”

He said the parishes have been fortunate to have had Masses continue as normal but that the weekend after his death felt “somber and sad.”

He was known for his great love of the outdoors, hunting, fishing and harvesting wild rice, and for his connection to the Native American community.

Sister Rose, in a eulogy for Father Larson, said when she began her work for the diocese and visited each reservation, “it seemed everyone knew Father Paul and had some story to share of how he’d been there for their family at a crucial time in their lives.”

She described him as someone who had a hard time saying “no” when someone needed him — whether it was sharing a meal or “his last dollars” or a middle-of-the-night visit to the dying.

Or a letter.

“Father Paul was a letter writer,” she said. “He believed in the power of prayer and the power of a postcard. He never tired of acknowledging a kindness, a visit, whatever with a written note sent via the Postal Service.”

Deacon Barta was the recipient of one of them. He said after he’d given his first homily in Father Larson’s presence, he had received a personal note about it — “a note filled with encouragement, insight and a big two thumbs up at the end. That meant very much to me.”

Sister Rose said he taught her how to harvest wild rice, gather cranberries in a bog and more. “Being the earthy man that he was, he took me out following various animal tracks — identifying the animal who made the tracks,” she said. “Once he even tried teaching me — by feel — to identify the difference between wolf excrement and other piles we found.”

She said that time in nature was where he prayed some of his most simple prayers.

Father Graham described how he and his friend would pray Psalm 1 before going out to harvest wild rice.

That formed the backdrop for the anecdote with which he began the funeral homily. One day Father Larson called him and asked Father Graham if he had written the day’s homily for The Liturgical Press — about Psalm 1 and wild ricing and winnowed chaff.

It turned out that Father Larson had been unprepared to preach daily Mass that day and had begun reading the pre-prepared homily.

“People laughed as I read it to them,” he told Father Graham. “They recognized that it was about me at about the same time as I did.” He added, “I suppose this is one more thing you’ll mention at my funeral.”

“I assured him that our friendship of 40 years had afforded ample time and opportunity to collect, consider, analyze and pray over what might need to be said,” Father Graham said.

— Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross