Father Michael Tegeder embraced the community of Gichitwaa Kateri and its blending of American Indian culture with the Catholic faith. He even took classes to learn the Ojibwe language, spoken by many of the American Indians to whom he ministered.
And as pastor of both the American Indian chaplaincy and St. Frances Cabrini, both in Minneapolis, he was the first priest to help establish a relationship between the two churches, located about 6 miles apart, said Chris Kosowski, a longtime parishioner and liturgist at St. Frances Cabrini.
Now, the church communities are coming together to mourn Father Tegeder’s death. He died July 9 in hospice care.
“I’m just so grateful for that wisdom from him in the midst of it [cancer],” Kosowski said. While parishioners were praying for a miracle, Father Tegeder eventually told her there are many kinds of miracles, sensing that a cure wouldn’t be one of his.
Father Tegeder, 67, had been in hospice since June after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in February. He celebrated his last public Mass Easter Sunday at St. Frances Cabrini.
After he entered hospice, his sister, Katharyn Dawson, posted on his CaringBridge site June 29 that he no longer could receive visitors.
A funeral Mass was scheduled for July 20 at St. Edward in Bloomington, with a vigil service July 19 at St. Frances Cabrini with the Gichitwaa Kateri community.
Parishioners of St. Frances Cabrini and Gichitwaa Kateri, where Father Tegeder had been pastor since 2011, hosted a prayer gathering July 6. There they distributed prayer cards with an image of Black Elk, a medicine and holy man of the Oglala Lakota tribe and Catholic convert who died in 1950. On the cards was a prayer written by Larry Martin, 73, a longtime parishioner and musician at Gichitwaa Kateri.
Martin said Father Tegeder dedicated much of his time to the “small, active” American Indian chaplaincy. Martin and his wife, Claire, said it was common for him to receive a call from someone in need and drop everything to respond personally.
“He wouldn’t say, ‘I’ll put it on my calendar and get to it,’” said Martin, a member of Wisconsin’s Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe and professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It immediately became his focus no matter what.”
“In a very effective way,” Claire added. “He didn’t delegate it to somebody.”
Responding to people’s needs included tragic situations, Larry said, noting how many young people have been dying of drug overdoses and suicide, both in the Twin Cities and on reservations.
“Father Mike was just very, very good at relating to those tragic stories in people’s lives,” Larry said.
Part of Father Tegeder’s ministry involved the Going Home Project, taking the bodies of people who had died to a reservation for burial. He often would stay to conduct the services, but always made it a point to offer his condolences to family members, Larry said.
The Martins believed Father Tegeder was well suited for Indian ministry because he listened well and wanted to learn people’s needs from them. He also saw the connections between the traditional and Catholic components of how American Indians practice their faith.
Working to advance Black Elk’s sainthood cause, just as he’d done with St. Kateri Tekakwitha, was one of the ways Father Tegeder delved into the unique position of pastoring Catholics who remain deeply attached to their cultural traditions.
Father Tegeder never passed up an opportunity to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, said Richard Wright, a longtime member of Gichitwaa Kateri and member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. In the two-hour ceremony, he explained, everyone silently prays to “share a special moment with God,” while water is poured over heated rocks to make steam. Afterward, they perform a pipe ceremony.
“He just took to the customs and ceremonies with such zeal,” Wright said.
In the broader Catholic community, Father Tegeder was known for his public opposition to some local Church leaders and aspects of Church teaching. But Gichitwaa Kateri members say he never spoke openly about criticisms there.
“In some sense, I think he wanted to shield the Gichitwaa Kateri parish from issues of controversy,” Wright said.
Larry Martin agreed.
“We asked him one time about that, and he said, ‘You know, Indian people have problems of their own. They don’t need to hear about this.’ He just never said a word about it,” Martin recalled. “He wasn’t going to let that mix with his role at Kateri. . . . I think he wanted to be thinking about our needs and our issues.”
Father Tegeder also served as chaplain for the Office of Indian Ministry for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Born July 11, 1948, in Minneapolis, Father Tegeder went to St. Margaret Mary in Golden Valley. He attended Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis and graduated from DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis in 1966.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1970, he entered the St. Paul Seminary. In 1978, he was ordained by Archbishop John Roach. His first priestly assignment was associate pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul, a role he held until 1981, when he pursued graduate degrees in moral theology until 1983.
Father Tegeder also served at St. Andrew in Elysian, St. Stephen in Minneapolis, St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, Our Lady of the Lake in Mound and St. Edward in Bloomington.
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