Bishop-elect DeGrood reflects on priesthood, preparing to lead Sioux Falls Diocese

| February 11, 2020 | 0 Comments

Bishop Donald DeGrood smiles Jan. 22 at his former parish, St. John the Baptist in Savage, where he was pastor from 2017 until his appointment as the ninth bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was to be ordained Feb. 13 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls. He will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving 2 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Bishop-elect Donald DeGrood traced his earliest inklings of being called to the priesthood to around age 10, when he was in fourth grade and beginning to serve at Mass. His inspiration was Father Francis Pouliot, his pastor at St. Lawrence in Faribault.

He’s “just a humble, humble parish priest, and I kind of looked up to him and said, you know, I’d like to be like him someday when I grow up,” said Bishop-elect DeGrood, 54, who was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1997.

He called that priest, now in his 90s, on Dec. 12, the day it was announced that Pope Francis had named him bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I wanted him to be aware of what a beautiful impact he’s had on my life,” said Bishop-elect DeGrood, most recently the pastor of St. John the Baptist in Savage.

Bishop-elect DeGrood was ordained a bishop at a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls Feb. 13. Archbishop Bernard Hebda presided and consecrated him a bishop.

JOIN THE CELEBRATION

  • Watch the 2 p.m. Feb. 13 installation via the Diocese of Sioux Falls’ YouTube channel, where it was streamed live and is archived.
  • Attend Bishop DeGrood’s Mass of Thanksgiving 2 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Cathedral of St. Paul, 239 Selby Ave., St. Paul. Following the Mass will be a social hour in Hayden Hall, where the faithful will be able to congratulate the new bishop and receive a blessing.

After the 5 a.m. announcement, Bishop-elect DeGrood spent the early hours of Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the phone with family and friends, sharing the news and receiving their reaction. Besides Father Francis, however, there was another who had a profound impact on his priesthood, but whom he couldn’t call: his uncle and namesake, Donnie Noy, who died in 1985, when Bishop-elect DeGrood was a sophomore in college.

His uncle had been paralyzed from the neck down since birth, and he needed help to preform daily tasks. Bishop-elect DeGrood was the fourth of five brothers growing up on a farm, and the older ones were needed to help their dad. It was often Bishop-elect DeGrood’s job to assist his uncle. He witnessed his Uncle Donnie’s love of prayer, especially the rosary, which he prayed throughout the day, accompanying a recording of the mysteries on the record player. When family members needed prayers for a special intention — like rain for their crops — they asked Donnie to intercede. And “amazing fruits” came from his prayer, Bishop-elect DeGrood said.

“He was a tremendous prayer warrior, and one of the reasons he has had such an impact on my life was he was one of the happiest people I knew as a kid,” he said in a Dec. 31 interview with The Catholic Spirit. “In a sense, he had nothing, but he had everything. And what he had was the greatest good: He had the friendship with God, and particularly through our blessed mother, Mary.”

One memory of his uncle stands out: When Bishop-elect DeGrood was around 13, he took his uncle to the creek that ran through the property. There, his uncle told him in his limited language, “‘I want to be a priest. I can’t be a priest. You be a priest. I pray you be a priest.’”

“And it was this profound look in his eyes that I realized this was something more than, certainly, his own passion, his own desire, but this was like one of those moments when you just stop, and you realize, ‘I need to listen.’  So it was something that certainly penetrated to my heart.”

But he also thought, “Uh-oh,” because he knew when Donnie prayed, his prayers were answered.

At that age, Bishop-elect DeGrood was still thinking of the priesthood, but he had a lot of apprehensions. He feared inadequacy — that studies weren’t easy for him, that he couldn’t speak in front of people, that he wouldn’t know what to say in the confessional. And he wanted to have a family and be a farmer, like his dad.

He credits his eventual priesthood to Donnie’s prayers — on earth and in heaven — and when there are serious intentions, he still asks for his uncle’s prayers. He asked for them the day the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, called to inform him know Pope Francis had asked him to become a bishop.

BISHOP DEGROOD’S PRIESTLY SERVICEParochial vicar, All Saints, Lakeville (1997-2000)

Spiritual director,
St. John Vianney College Seminary, St. Paul (2000-2004)

Pastor, St. Peter, Forest Lake (2004-2013)

Pastor, Blessed Sacrament, St. Paul (2013-2015)

Vicar for Clergy,
Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (2013-2017)

Pastor, St. John the Baptist, Savage (2017-2020)

Bishop-elect DeGrood was born in Faribault on Valentine’s Day, 1965, to Robert and Joanne DeGrood. They were parishioners of St. Lawrence in Faribault, which has since merged with other area parishes to create Divine Mercy. He attended kindergarten at a one-room country schoolhouse 2 miles away, “a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ kind of thing,” he said, with a hill, woods, train tracks, a teeter totter and a swing. His father had attended the school through eighth grade. He remembers his grandpa bringing a lamb for show-and-tell. 

His parents wanted him to have a Catholic education, so in first grade he moved to St. Lawrence’s parish school; third through sixth grades were at nearby Sacred Heart, and seventh and eighth grades were at Immaculate Conception, all in Faribault, and now merged into Divine Mercy Catholic School. High school was at Bethlehem Academy, also in Faribault, the Dominican-founded, oldest Catholic high school in the archdiocese. He graduated in 1983.

The feeling of being called to the priesthood had persisted, so that fall, Bishop-elect DeGrood entered St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul. He spent his first two years of college there, but left “to sort out the marriage question.” He graduated in 1987 with a philosophy degree. He worked for six years, first at Tradehome Shoes and then Land O’Lakes. He dated, had a company car and owned a home in New Ulm.

One evening, on “one of those can’t-wait-for-spring kind-of days,” he was watching the sunset from a rocking chair when “a very clear grace came to me,” he said. “It was just very clear: ‘I want you to be a priest.’”

“I knew this was from God. This was different from any other sort of thing we experience that are just human things, and my response was, ‘Yes. Mary, as long as you help me.’”

He was around 28 at the time, and he remembers for the first time in his life feeling like he had found interior joy and peace — even though responding to the call meant big changes.

He returned the company car and moved his stuff to the seminary in St. Paul with his brother’s 1976 Dodge Brougham that “smelled like the farm,” Bishop-elect DeGrood said, smiling.

But, “I’ve never questioned, because that’s how strong the grace was — the grace of the call to be a priest. And so I’ve really been living off that grace,” he said.

In terms of grace, the call to be a bishop was similar to the call to priesthood, he said. He was in a meeting at the parish Dec. 2 when the literal call came from Archbishop Pierre. He recognized the 202 area code as Washington, D.C., but ignored the call. His phone rang again. Same number. He excused himself and took the call. Archbishop Pierre shared the news. Bishop-elect DeGrood asked for time to think and pray.

“I knew that I had to go right to the adoration chapel and pray, because I knew there was one question that needed to be answered: ‘God, what do you want?’”

He spent less than 15 minutes in the chapel at St. John the Baptist, but he experienced the grace of God saying, “‘I want you to say yes, and I will give you everything you need.’”

“When I was given that grace … there was this clear sense of wow, … but how about my flock that I love here?” at St. John the Baptist. “My experience of grace was, ‘I will take care of them, and you can carry them in your heart.’”

He experienced “an expansion of the heart,” he said, to carry in it both his former parish and the people of Sioux Falls.

His second apprehension was leaving his family and his brother priests, he said, but he felt God saying, “‘But you can take your best friend’ — that’s God. And I’m like, OK, I can do this.” Again, he asked for Mary’s help.

“And there was this incredible joy, incredible peace, and when I focus on the grace of the moment, that still remains,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind this is what God wants.”

It’s still been difficult to say goodbye to parishioners at St. John the Baptist. He choked up during Mass the Sunday after the announcement. As he collected himself, someone from the congregation called out, “We’re with you, Father!”

As he looks back, he recognizes that God has been preparing his heart for this next role and the transition it entails. “A lot of the more recent graces have been around detachment — to be detached from everything in some very practical ways,” such as from his cabin in northern Minnesota, he said.

“I just thought it was a spiritual growth, which it was, but I also see how that opened the doors for me to be able to say yes,” he said. “So there was a freedom in my heart that I didn’t have before on the same level, that unreserved readiness to say yes to the Lord, whatever he asks.”


Difficult trials

Helpful to Bishop-elect DeGrood as a bishop will be the experience he gained while the Vicar for Clergy, an advisory role, in the archdiocese during some of the local Church’s darkest days, as Catholics grappled with revelations of clergy sexual abuse and accusations of cover-up.

He was at the emotional epicenter of the crisis in 2013, as he was appointed pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, one year after the removal of then-Father Curtis Wehmeyer, who was arrested in 2012 and later convicted and imprisoned for sexually abusing three boys in the Hoffman family, who were parishioners. Their mother, Joy, worked on the parish staff. The case became the basis for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office filing civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese in 2015 for failing to protect the brothers.

Bishop DeGrood became both Vicar for Clergy and pastor of Blessed Sacrament in July 2013, just as media began reporting on cases of clergy misconduct and questioning the archdiocese’s handling of the Wehmeyer case.

“There was so much purification that had to happen in my life through that time,” he said. “Trying to tend to both of these needs (being pastor and Vicar for Clergy) on both ends, and the family and the victim-survivors. … And having to sell one of the two (parish) sites for financial reasons for the parish and working through that with the community, and all the complexities and all the stuff’s blowing up all over the place — it just brought me all to a greater level of poverty that I realized my inadequacy.”

He felt he had to choose between two things: discouragement and despair, or surrendering it all to God and accepting what comes. He chose to surrender.

“And it’s in that surrender to essentially suffer through those years that the Lord brought greater freedom and detachment in my life, which I needed,” he said. “It’s easy for any of us to think, ‘God, there’s a better way to do this,’ and yet he allows horrible and tremendous things to happen because of the free will of human beings. But out of that he’ll bring great things.”

That’s true for people and the Church, he said.

“I see that for the archdiocese in the years ahead. I see it hopefully for all of us — that through the suffering, trials and loss for so many dear, dear souls that God can bring new fruit through healing and his grace. And really a real inspiration for me and example has been Ben Hoffman.”

Hoffman, 26, was one of the brothers abused by Wehmeyer, and after several years living away from the Church, he’s returned with a convert’s fervor for evangelization and healing in the Church. In an interview with The Catholic Spirit in March 2019, Hoffman credited then-Father DeGrood with reaching out to him during a retreat and saying, “I’m sorry.” That encounter was pivotal in his own healing, he said.

“As I look back on those years and reflect back on this experience, for me it was you pray for them, you love them and you suffer with them,” Bishop-elect DeGrood said. “So it’s been a privilege to journey with these souls like Joy and Ben … who have suffered so much. That they would actually allow me in their lives is a great tribute to them.”


EXTRAORDINARY IN THE ORDINARY

The Diocese of Sioux Falls covers the area of South Dakota east of the Missouri River. Sioux Falls, with its population around 180,000, is by far the largest city in the state. Many of the diocese’s 119 parishes are in small rural towns. For Bishop-elect DeGrood, the time he anticipates spending in the country seems like a homecoming.

“So much of my deep roots come from the farm,” he said. “And to be called to Sioux Falls, I’m so honored, because it brings me back to that place, like Nazareth, where there’s a lot of common ordinary things. But in the midst of that, extraordinary things. … For me, it speaks to my heart.”

Although he’ll be farther than a three-hour drive from the family farm, he’ll have a tangible reminder with him often: His crosier was carved from an oak tree from the farm. At the center is a crucifix.

“It captures for me the nature of love, of God’s love for us,” he said, “the extent of love that God has, the nature of love, that sacrificial, seeking what’s the good of the other. Christ, laying down his life in love for us.”

He now sees the meandering road that led to his priestly ordination as a sign of that love and God’s patience with him, because it allowed him to gain management experience, business acumen and people skills, “all those kinds of things which became a really big help to me in being a pastor,” he said, “and now, God willing, as a bishop, too.”

He’s pastored an urban parish and suburban parishes, sat on numerous boards and served as a spiritual director. In each role, he’s learned more about himself, leadership, human nature and new facets of ministry. He’s been grateful for “group work” and collaborating with others.

“I’ve learned so much from the various members of various boards, and I see the great wisdom and insight of having a group of people processing various sorts of things, like ‘how do we help this priest?’ or ‘how do we deal with this particular issue?’” he said. “Because I don’ t have all the answers, and that actually brings me a lot of consolation even as I look to Sioux Falls. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t need to know all the answers right now. I need to pray. I need to get the right people in the right spots, meaning that I have to have people with the gifts and knowledge, (so) that I can listen well, that I can get a healthy, full perspective … before making a decision on something.”

Bishop-elect DeGrood chose “God is love” as the motto that will guide his episcopal ministry. It will be on his coat of arms.

“We’re made for love,” he said. “That’s what the heart longs for, and that’s why we search for it. We’re trying to find happiness, and happiness is divine love.”

By “divine love” he means sacrificial love, he explained, “where you seek the good of the other.”

He looks back with gratitude on his childhood and the examples of sacrificial love that surrounded him: his parents; his family’s care for his uncle and later, his grandma, who had a stroke; three of his aunts who were religious sisters; another aunt with 10 kids who also cared for his Uncle Donnie and grandparents.

“It’s not what I can get out of this relationship,” he said about divine love. “It’s about how can I lose myself in love — love of God, love of others. So receive God’s love, share that with him, and then that sends me out to want to love others in the same way. So it’s a love of God flowing through me, and that’s what I’ve experienced in my priesthood in a very beautiful and profound way of being able to be a vessel of love. I find that the more I focus outside of myself — meaning, focus on God and my relationship with him and others — the happier I am. So that tells me about how I am made, and how we as human beings are made.”

The day he was announced as Sioux Falls’ next bishop, he stood alongside the diocese’s retiring Bishop Paul Swain at a press conference and said his goal for his new flock is for everyone to go to heaven. For him, that means to love, to teach and to preach from the heart in his diocese.

“I’m a firm believer that God gives everybody gifts, and part of my role as pastor and now as bishop is really to discern those gifts and to listen to the spirit of God working through them, so that it’s really of God, whatever he does that he works out here. So that’s why I’m not going in with a specific plan.”

The spiritual life is one of his passions, he said.

“The whole purpose of that is to get people to heaven, and that’s the purpose of the Church,” he added.

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