Sunday, June 24, will be declared “Very Rev. Joseph R. Johnson Day” in the City of St. Paul.
Mayor Chris Coleman will make the proclamation at a reception for the departing Cathedral of St. Paul rector in Hayden Hall following the 10 a.m. Mass June 24 at the cathedral.
During Father Johnson’s six years as rector, the cathedral has been designated a national shrine, the parish’s debt has been reduced, and efforts have been made to preserve the historic church through the Cathedral Heritage Foundation.
“[Father Johnson] has been just a wonderful curator of the building,” Coleman said in a June 15 phone interview.
“I’ve had a number of occasions to actually take a tour of the cathedral with other guests with Father Joe in the lead, and he just always amazed me with his depth of knowledge — not just of the building itself, but really of art history and the architectural history and how all the iconography relates to the history of the church,” Coleman said. “He’s very impressive that way.”
Father Johnson announced to Cathedral parishioners in April that he would be leaving in July to serve as the new pastor of Holy Family in St. Louis Park.
“It has been my privilege to serve as your shepherd for the past six years,” he wrote in the Cathedral’s April 29 bulletin.
“We call a priest ‘Father’ because he truly exercises a spiritual fatherhood in this family of faith,” he continued. “I have loved you all imperfectly and can only hope that despite my human failings you have been able to experi-ence some glimmer of God the Father’s unconditional and infinite Love for you. I feel richly blessed to have been part of such a beautiful spiritual family!
“At the direction of Archbishop [John] Nienstedt, I now prayerfully entrust you to a new shepherd.”Father John Ubel, former pastor of St. Agnes in St. Paul, has been assigned the new Cathedral rector.
Leaving a legacy
Cathedral parishioners and staff members contacted by The Catholic Spirit spoke about Father Johnson’s rapport with youth and young adults, his love of art and history, and his efforts to preserve one of the Twin Cities’ most important monuments.
Mary Schaffner, co-chair of the Cathedral Heritage Foundation and a Cathedral parishioner for 30 years, said Father Johnson “focused on raising the profile of the cathedral monument in the community and messaged very clearly and articulately that it’s not just the mother church of the archdiocese but it’s also a civic treasure.”
Father Johnson started the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, which is a secular, charitable organization dedicated to the preservation of the Cathedral of St. Paul and the fostering of its cultural programs. To date, it has raised about $3.5 million, making possible refurbishment of the cathedra, or archbishop’s chair; improvements to the archives and museum; and the restoration of two pipe organs, as well as other projects.
Father Johnson also raised the cathedral’s visibility by hosting public events like the centennial celebration in 2007 and the Red Bull Crashed Ice skating competition in January, Schaffner said. “Both of those events encouraged people to see the cathedral with fresh eyes.”
Lois Berens, a cathedral museum volunteer and parishioner for 12 years, said Father Johnson is the best homilist she’s ever heard. “You almost wonder if he has theater in his background because [his homilies] are always so well-delivered,” she said.
Berens said she’ll never forget the Mass Father Johnson celebrated for her and her family on her 60th birthday in front of a shrine to St. Theresa that Berens and her husband, Jim, helped refurbish through a donation.
“It was so meaningful,” Berens said. “That’s the kind of guy [Father Johnson] is. I think he burns with the passion of both his ministry, his charism, and of course his love of the cathedral.”
Father Johnson also worked closely with the Cathedral’s young adults group.
Noah Beacom, one of the group’s leaders, said Father Johnson was a “fan favorite” at “Theology on Tap,” an ongoing Catholic speaker series held at area pubs.
He recalled a time when Father Johnson gave him spiritual direction and a book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. “That made me feel good, like he was looking out for me,” Beacom said.
Everyone The Catholic Spirit spoke with commented on Father Johnson’s efforts to make the cathedral a welcoming place to parishioners and visitors.
Schaffner said Mass attendance, particularly by young families, appeared to have grown during Father Johnson’s tenure. She credited his strong preaching skills and pastoral care.
“One of the things I always appreciated is how much time he took after Mass . . . to actually greet people as they walked out the door,” she said. “It helped solidify a sense of parish.”
Father Johnson was traveling and unavailable for comment in the weeks before The Catholic Spirit went to press.