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Year in Review: Stories from 2021 in the Diocese of Duluth 

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

The Year of Grace 2021 was another eventful one in the Diocese of Duluth, as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, presenting many challenges for the church and her members. However, as we review the year, it’s clear that at least one joyful story in our local church certainly deserves top billing over the pandemic. 

Here are the top five stories from 2021 as compiled by the staff of The Northern Cross. 

No. 1: A new bishop for Duluth 

More than a year after the sudden death of Bishop Paul Sirba in late 2019 left the Diocese of Duluth waiting for a new bishop, our prayers were answered April 7 with the announcement that Pope Francis had named Father Daniel Felton of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., to the post. Bishop Felton became the tenth bishop of the diocese with an ordination and installation May 20.

Bishop Daniel Felton shows the decree from Pope Francis appointing him bishop of Duluth to Archbishop Bernard Hebda and his other co-consecrating bishops at his ordination and installation Mass May 20. (Photo courtesy of Mary Rasch.)

In a homily for Vespers the evening before his ordination, he made this plea: “In this moment, tonight, I’m going to ask you to do something. In this moment tonight, I’m asking you to join me. And I’m asking you to join me, let’s reach out and grab on to the wings of the Holy Spirit. Let’s grab on to the wings of the Holy Spirit as we shout in this moment and in this time, ‘I am all yours. I am all in.’ And as we grab on to the wings of the Holy Spirit, the wings of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is going to lift us up, and we are going to take flight. I have no idea where we’re going. I have no idea where we’re going to land.” 

In the ensuing months, the new bishop has energetically embraced his new ministry, including ordaining Father Trevor Peterson and Deacon Scott Padrnos shortly after his arrival (he was also present for Deacon Daniel Hammer’s ordination in Rome) and driving thousands of miles on both scheduled and impromptu visits to parishes and schools and also frequently reaching out to the faithful through video messages. 

One fruit of his meeting the faithful of the diocese is his discernment of what he describes as a hopeful “dawning moment” in the local church, as the faithful of the diocese begin to step out of the darkness of the diocesan bankruptcy and the death of Bishop Sirba and again prepare to step forward in mission by listening to the Holy Spirit and to each other. For more on the “Let’s Listen” initiative, see his column on page 2. 

No. 2: Pandemic still hangs on 

Along with the whole world, the Diocese of Duluth continued experiencing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The year began hopefully, with the first vaccines becoming available in late 2020 and the number of cases beginning to drop, to the point that in the spring and early summer things began to feel almost normal. 

Although the annual men’s and women’s conferences were again canceled, the diocese was able to hold some of its camps, including Camp Survive and its first ever family camp. The Sunday Mass obligation that had been dispensed since March 2020 was reinstated July 1. 

However, there quickly followed subsequent waves, with the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19 sending cases soaring again. As a result, many in-person events have again been canceled or postponed. Schools have largely remained in-person, and public Masses and the other sacraments have remained available, with suggested guidelines in place to help keep attendance as safe as possible. 

Amid the debate over vaccines, Bishop Felton urged the faithful to receive the vaccine while also noting that receiving the vaccine should be voluntary and not mandatory. 

No. 3: Catholic high school moves forward in a big way 

Plans for Stella Maris Academy — the diocesan Catholic school spread across three campuses in Duluth and offering elementary and middle school education — included a high school from the beginning, but it took longer than expected. Early in the year, the school announced that it would be finally opening its high school in the fall of 2022, with plans to make room at one of the existing campuses. 

However, over the summer, a sudden opportunity made a big improvement to those plans, when The Hills Youth and Family Services property, a former Catholic orphange adjacent to the school’s St. John’s campus, unexpectedly became available. 

The hefty $4 million price tag was raised entirely through private donors in the space of about a week, a purchase offer was accepted in August, and the sale was finally completed and announced in October. The site comes with ample space, 140 acres, an equipped gymnasium, a cafeteria, a chapel, and other things a Catholic school would need. 

“Many people have been working hard and praying for a long-term, viable place to welcome students to high school in the Fall of 2022,” the school’s new president, Andrew Hilliker, said in a news release. “This property is bringing our efforts and goals to a very real and meaningful place. Our students will feel the benefits of this for years to come and we are forever grateful for the opportunity.” 

No. 4: First consecrated virgin from the Diocese of Duluth 

In October, Suzanne Lott became the first consecrated virgin consecrated for the Diocese of Duluth in the church’s history, in a Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary — one of less than 300 in the United States. 

Consecrated virgins live a life of virginity, but unlike women religious, they live in the world and are financially responsible for themselves. Their virginity is permanent but comes in the form of a resolve that is formally consecrated. They live a life of prayer and penance and service to the church. 

Lott had a big moment of conversion in 2009 at the Ash Wednesday Mass where she “heard God say that he loves me.” She made a private vow of virginity in March 2015 and had been in formation with Bishop Paul Sirba until his death. Bishop Felton met with Lott and concluded the consecration, telling Lott in his homily, “And so Bishop Sirba is here today, and I truly do believe that I have a co-consecrator of you this very day as we call you forth in prayer as a consecrated virgin.” 

No. 5: Bible in a Year 

The year 2021 began with a joyful surprise (see editorial, page 10) when a new podcast led by the Diocese of Duluth’s Father Mike Schmitz shot to the top of the Apple podcast charts and stayed there for 17 days, remaining in the top 5 even into February. The Bible in a Year podcast from Ascension Press won a gold award from the w3 awards and a People’s Choice Podcast Award in the religion and spirituality category. 

The unexpected hit drew regional, national, and international media attention and was promoted in the big, bright lights of New York City’s Times Square from Dec. 19 to Jan. 6. 

The podcast is available for free from Ascension, and on YouTube, Spotify, and many other places where podcasts are found. For the new year, Ascension is also offering a Spanish language version.