February 8, 2023 at 5:57 p.m.
Kettler retires as bishop of St. Cloud Diocese
It was fitting for the Sunday Gospel, taken from the Book of Matthew, to contain Jesus’ call for His disciples to be the light of the world, for throughout his life, Bishop Donald Kettler of the Diocese of St. Cloud has worked to let that light shine in his ministry, even as he goes into retirement. During his farewell Mass held Feb. 5 in the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud, Kettler gave thanks to God for being allowed to be His instrument of service.
“The light of God has shone brightly on the diocese and the people of the Diocese of St. Cloud,” Kettler said in his homily. “I have been blessed by God to see and know that light. I’ve tried not to let me dim that light nor to get too much in the way of the Light of God shining out to others.”
At the end of Mass, Jane Marrin, chancellor of the Diocese of St. Cloud, and the Rev. Scott Pogatchnik, rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary, thanked the bishop for his diocesan leadership.
“This man has been a man of great healing in so many ways,” Pogatchnik said. “For the sins and often crimes of the past, Bishop Kettler has stood in the breach to bring healing and reconciliation.”
Kettler has served as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud for nine years, and having passed the retirement age of 75, Pope Francis has accepted his resignation. His successor, Bishop-elect Patrick Neary, will be ordained at a 1 p.m. Mass on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud; admittance is by invitation only.
A life of service
Born in Minneapolis and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his three siblings, Kettler had many family members who were priests and religious; the priests in the Cathedral Parish in Sioux Falls also were a positive example to the young Kettler, part of the reason why he chose to enter the seminary.
“God calls you to this,” Kettler said. “You don’t hear voices; you’ve just got a sense of what you should be doing.”
Kettler received his undergraduate and divinity degrees at Saint John’s University in Collegeville and was ordained a priest by Bishop Lambert Hoch of the Diocese of Sioux Falls on May 29, 1970.
For his first nine years as a priest, Kettler served as an associate pastor in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen, South Dakota, before he began coordinating work for Sioux Falls’ diocesan offices. After obtaining his licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America, he was named judicial vicar of Sioux Falls in 1983, resuming his work coordinating its diocesan offices from 1984-87 and beginning to celebrate a weekly televised Mass during that time.
Kettler’s work as a priest included serving as the rector for the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls from 1987-95 and pastoring St. Lambert Parish from 1995-2000 and Christ the King Parish from 2000-02; he was also a member of the Sioux Falls Diocesan Finance Council Stewardship Committee, Catholic Family Services’ board of directors, the Association of Christian Churches of South Dakota’s board of directors and the Sioux Falls Catholic School system board.
“Priesthood allows you to do so many things, the diocesan priesthood particularly,” Kettler said. “Mostly what I’ve done all my life is be a parish priest.”
Kettler was appointed as the eighth bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska, by Pope John Paul II; he was installed 2002 and was the first diocesan priest and non-Jesuit to lead the diocese. Fortunately, Kettler was already familiar with the area.
“I had been up there, being a tourist, and when I was up there, I got interested in Fairbanks,” Kettler said. “I signed up for their monthly newspaper, ‘The Alaskan Shepherd,’ and so, after getting and reading all this stuff for 10 years, I get this call all of a sudden from the nuncio, saying, ‘The Holy Father would like you to go to Fairbanks.’”
Pope Francis later named Kettler as the ninth bishop of the St. Cloud Diocese in 2013, bringing him closer to his home and alma mater.
In his 20 years as a bishop, Kettler has had to navigate a difficult time in the Catholic Church, particularly the clerical sexual abuse scandals that affected both the Fairbanks and St. Cloud dioceses. He has also faced issues with secularization within the congregations, leading people away from the church.
Kettler believes Pope Francis has had a good influence on the church, increasing its dialogue and care for both its members and for people on the edges of society.
“I like the collaboration that goes on that probably didn’t happen as much before,” Kettler said. “We’re not just here to take care of the people who are already saved. We’re here to reach out to everybody who lives in this diocese. I’m not into proselytizing, trying to get them to join the Catholic Church; I’m talking about helping people get a relationship with God in faith, in religion, because it’s an important part of human existence.”
With Parishes on the Prairie, Kettler is glad there is a well-supported Catholic school with Holy Family School in Sauk Centre, and with the organization into an area Catholic Community, Kettler has noted Sauk Centre’s role in providing service to its neighboring parishes.
“I’m grateful for that support,” Kettler said. “It’s a significant part of our diocese.”
In retirement, Kettler will be returning to Sioux Falls. While he is not sure what exactly his ministry will look like up there, he is sure the diocese will need his assistance every so often. Kettler is also working to turn the back porch of his Sioux Falls home into a chapel.
“One of the main things we do is pray,” Kettler said. “I do it many times every day, and so I’ll keep doing that part for the church going forward as well.”
As he goes into retirement, Kettler will miss the area colleges – particularly the colleges of St. Benedict and Saint John’s – and participating in diocesan celebrations, but it is the people he will miss most of all. He hopes the parishioners will welcome Neary as their new bishop.
“I hope the people will invite him to be a part of parish and area activities, but even think about inviting him into their homes to get to know him,” Kettler said. “Being a leader in the church is pretty important, and I want to invite people to think about all of that.”