By Deacon Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
“My brother loved the Lord. Jesus Christ was the center of his life.”
Father Joseph Sirba, pastor of St. Patrick in Hinckley and St. Luke in Sandstone, said in his funeral homily Dec. 6 that everyone was stunned to learn that his brother, Bishop Paul Sirba, ninth bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, had died Dec. 1.
|Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit|
“In fact, many of you have told me that when you learned of his death, you said there must be some mistake,” he said. “It must be someone else who had died. Others have told me that they heard the words being said to them, but the words didn’t register.”
The bishop, who had been residing at the rectory at St. Rose parish in Proctor, was making his way from the rectory to the parish to celebrate the 8 a.m. Mass. He collapsed in the parking lot, having suffered cardiac arrest. Despite a major snow storm hampering travel, an ambulance arrived within about 10 minutes, and he was rushed to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, where he received the last rites from Father John Petrich, but life-saving efforts were unsuccessful. He passed away shortly after 9 a.m.
He was 59 years old and was less than two weeks from the tenth anniversary of his ordination as bishop.
Father James Bissonette, who served as judicial vicar under Bishop Sirba, announced the news that morning, saying, “Words do not adequately express our sorrow at this sudden loss of our Shepherd. We have great hope and faith in Bishop Sirba’s resurrection to new life, and have confident assurance that he will hear the words of our Lord: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter in the joy of your Master.’”
In his homily, Father Sirba noted that while it was not widely known, Bishop Sirba did have a heart problem — a third degree heart block — and had a pacemaker for the past several years.
The outpouring of grief in response to the news was rapid, across the Diocese of Duluth, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis where Bishop Sirba had served as a priest, and beyond.
The initial notice on the diocesan Facebook page was shared hundreds of times and drew more than 200 comments, often relating personal stories and noting the bishop’s kindness and holiness, expressing shock and sorrow and hope for his entry into heaven.
“Heaven is celebrating the arrival of Bishop Sirba’s kind, gentle and holy soul,” wrote one. “Our diocese was blessed by his ministry, and he will be missed.”
“He was such a kind and holy man and good shepherd for all of us,” wrote another. “He helped my husband and I through some very tough times in our life.”
Another said, “In every encounter, it was evident that he loved and served Jesus Christ first and foremost. He proclaimed the Gospel steadfastly and with love. Jesus Christ fl owed from this man. His witness, ministry, and personal warmth will be greatly missed.”
A message from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was sent to Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and conveyed to the Duluth Diocese. “The Holy Father was saddened to learn of the untimely death of Bishop Paul D. Sirba, and he sends heartfelt condolences to the clergy, religious, and lay faithful of the Diocese of Duluth,” it read. “In commending the late Bishop’s soul to the merciful love of God our Father, His Holiness joins in your prayer of thanksgiving for his years of devoted pastoral service to the Church in Duluth. To all who mourn the late Bishop in the sure hope of the resurrection, the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace and consolation in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Sirba’s predecessor as bishop of Duluth, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, now serving the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, sent a letter of condolence to assure the faithful of the diocese of his “heartfelt sympathy and prayers following the sudden death of your beloved shepherd, Bishop Paul Sirba.”
“Like myself, all of you know Bishop Sirba as a faithful servant, a clear teacher of the faith, and a courageous leader during a difficult period in the history of the diocese,” he said. “On a personal level, I will always remember Bishop Sirba’s warmth and graciousness whenever we had the chance to interact.”
Other bishops around the country also reacted quickly. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, on his Facebook page, called Bishop Sirba “one of my closest bishop friends” and said he had just spent time with him in November at the USCCB meeting. “He was a great consolation to me personally,” the archbishop said. “I had known Bishop Sirba for 34 years, and was present at his priestly and episcopal ordinations. He was a great inspiration to me as a young man discerning my own priestly vocation at the time. The Diocese of Duluth has lost a very holy and loving shepherd.”
ELCA Bishop Thomas Aitken shared the news with area Lutherans and wrote on Twitter: “Bishop Sirba’s sudden death is a great sorrow to me. We were more than colleagues, we were friends! Soft spoken, thoughtful and thoroughly kind person! I am appreciative of the work we were able to do together in our Ecumenical world. I thank God for his life and witness!”
Public visitation for the bishop began the afternoon of Dec. 5, as hundreds of mourners came through the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary to pay their respects and to pray for the repose of his soul.
The vigil included the praying of the Office of the Dead, which began with the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus processing to kneel before the casket with candles, singing a song based on the Twenty-Third Psalm that was written for the bishop.
The homilist for evening prayer was Bishop Sirba’s close friend Bishop Peter Christensen, now of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, who previously served in Superior, Wis.
“Now they say it’s wrong to canonize a person at the time of their death,” Bishop Christensen said. “But my brothers and sisters, I just can’t possibly refrain from affirming what is so apparent in our brother Bishop Paul, and that is he is a saintly man, tried and true.”
He described Bishop Sirba as a man of the Beatitudes who “shows us the light of faith.”
He recalled spending time together a couple of weeks before Bishop Sirba’s death at an episcopal ordination in Helena, Montana. There, he had asked Bishop Sirba’s assistance getting up after kneeling on the floor. He said he has reflected on the moment as a cherished memory representing the “tremendous support Paul has been these last 40 years of my life.”
He said Bishop Sirba wanted to continue his friendship with all those he ministered to in this life for eternity in heaven.
The funeral Mass Dec. 6 was celebrated by Archbishop Hebda, with a standing room only crowd including clergy from the Diocese of Duluth and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, religious sisters, and many of the lay faithful spilling over into overflow seating in the social hall. Thousands more watched the livestream provided by WDIO-TV.
Present were Bishop Sirba’s mother Helen of St. Paul, his brothers Father Joseph and John, and a sister Catherine, along with many nieces, nephews, and great-nieces and nephews.
Mourners also included a dozen other bishops, as well as representatives from other dioceses: Bishop Christensen; Bishop John LeVoir, Diocese of New Ulm; Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Bishop John Folda, Diocese of Fargo; Bishop Joseph Hanfeldt, Diocese of Grand Island, NE; Bishop George Rassas, Diocese of Chicago; Bishop Donald Kettler, Diocese of St. Cloud; Bishop John Quinn, Diocese of Winona-Rochester; Archbishop Sample; Bishop Michael Hoeppner, Diocese of Crookston; Bishop Juan Miguel Betancourt, SEVM, Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut; Bishop James Powers, Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, as well as Msgr. Michael Mulloy, administrator of Diocese of Rapid City; Msgr. Mike Stewart, Archdiocese of Kingston, St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and Monsignor Gene Lindeman, vicar general of Diocese of Bismark.
Father Sirba, in his homily, said his brother was a humble man who “certainly never aspired to be a bishop.” But “above all else” he had “a desire to share Christ’s love.”
“He was a Catholic through and through,” he continued. “He was raised in a home by loving parents who shared with him their love for God through their example, encouragement, prayers, guidance and sacrifice. There were no compromises either in belief or practice. There were no deviations from what Christ taught through his Church, and Bishop Paul embraced that faith.”
He said having his brother be his bishop was a unique relationship.
“I know that there are more than a few priests who have brothers who are bishops, but as far as we knew, we were the only two who served in the same diocese,” Father Sirba said. “Of course, I always reminded him that I was here first.”
He said it gave him some insight into the life of a bishop, which he described as being a shepherd and having the fullness of the priesthood.
“To be a bishop is a difficult thing,” he said. “Did you ever stop to think that the task of a bishop is to do his best to see to it that everyone in his diocese gets to heaven? And I mean everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To any bishop who takes his vocation seriously, that is a daunting task and one at which he can only succeed with the help of God. That is also why we all need to pray and sacrifice for our bishops every day.”
He said his brother was a good shepherd and this was apparent in the way he acted as a spiritual father to the priests and the way he cared for the faithful.
“When he met people, they could tell he cared about them,” Father Sirba said. “They were attracted to him because they could see in him the love of Christ. He was a channel for God’s grace. Those who were hurting were consoled because they knew he hurt with them and those who were rejoicing knew he was rejoicing with them. “When people met him, they felt accepted by him. To them he wasn’t just Bishop Paul, but my friend, Bishop Paul, and if they were not necessarily living rightly, they were inspired to make changes and to strive to live like him.”
He said his brother was also a good leader unafraid to teach what the church teaches without compromising with the world’s demands.
“As Father Mike Schmitz said, ’He was so much like Jesus: gentle with people and uncompromising with truth. A true shepherd and father.’”
Father Bissonette, who earlier in the week had been elected diocesan administrator to take care of the diocese until a new bishop is appointed, offered the diocese’s condolences to Bishop Sirba’s mother and three siblings in the congregation, saying, “Like you, he loved us, and we loved him.” His voice cracking, he noted that it was the diocese’s “singular honor” that Bishop Sirba would remain with us, buried in the Duluth Diocese.
Bishop Sirba attended Nativity of Mary Grade School in Bloomington, Academy of the Holy Angels in Richfield, and the College of St. Thomas and St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. He received his master’s degree from St. Paul Seminary as well as a master’s degree from the Notre Dame Apostolic Catechetical Institute in Arlington, Virginia. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1986 and served three parishes in the archdiocese, in addition to St. John Vianney College Seminary and St. Paul Seminary. He briefly served as vicar general and moderator of the curia in the archdiocese before being appointed the ninth Bishop of Duluth.
During his decade as bishop of Duluth, he oversaw a major strategic planning process for maintaining viable parishes across the diocese, led a Eucharistic Procession through the city of Duluth in honor of the diocese’s 125th anniversary, and led the diocese as it reckoned with bankruptcy in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis.
Bishop Sirba is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Duluth.