St. Francis de Sales parishioners react with joy, sense of loss to pastor’s bishop appointment

| September 19, 2018 | 0 Comments

Twenty people at a Sept. 18 morning daily Mass at St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul received surprising news after Communion.

“I have some extremely joyful news and also sad news,” St. Francis de Sales parish business administrator Steve Carter said before announcing that Pope Francis had named the parish’s pastor, Father Juan Miguel Betancourt Torres, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

Bishop-elect Betancourt, a member of the religious institute Servants of the Holy Eucharist and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was already in Hartford that morning.

“It’s joyful for him, it’s joyful for the Church, but for us, we’re giving up something,” Carter said.

Bishop-elect Betancourt

Parishioners at Mass were both excited and saddened by the news. Carter had received the news at 5:30 a.m. from Bishop-elect Betancourt, asking him to announce it at Mass, which was celebrated by a visiting priest, Jesuit Father Matthew Linn.

“I was shocked,” Carter said about the announcement.

For the past 12 years, Bishop-elect Betancourt had worked to unify to the two parishes of St. Francis de Sales and St. James, which officially merged in 2014. When he arrived in 2006, the two parishes also had been without a pastor for two years.

“It was difficult time for the parish. They had not had a regular priest for years, so it brought some stability,” Carter said. “He brought a lot to the parish in terms of meeting those challenges.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Bishop-elect Betancourt and other members of his order were invited to minister in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis by Archbishop Harry Flynn. In addition to parish work, Bishop-elect Betancourt taught full time at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.

In making the announcement, Carter referred to the parish’s prayer for vocations, which states “choose from our homes those needed for your work.”

“Well, we have a different twist on that today,” he said. “It’s ‘choose from our parishes those needed for your work.’”

Linda Martin, 72, a longtime parishioner of St. Francis de Sales, said Bishop-elect Betancourt knows his parishioners by name and visits with them regularly. She added that he “always seems to find the right words to make you feel good at the end of the day” and gives clarity to Church teaching.

“When we got the announcement in church, my jaw literally dropped,” Martin said. “It’s wonderful to see somebody with his skill and his grace to be appointed to such a wonderful position.”

She added that his pastoral approach makes the difference. She said that he takes time to visit with parishioners after Mass and other activities.

Bishop-elect Betancourt’s qualities of being pastoral and available stood out to Eunice Sobolewski, 79, too. She said that he helped immensely at the time of her husband’s death earlier this year.

“I was depressed,” Sobolewski said about hearing of Bishop-elect Betancourt’s appointment. “Steve Carter said it right when he said it was ‘good news-bad news.’ It’s very good for Father Miguel but sad for us because life is full of changes, and I don’t like change.”

Deacon Steve Maier, who served alongside Bishop-elect Betancourt at St. Francis de Sales, said that the bishop-elect is a man of prayer and is consistent with the liturgy. Deacon Maier added the priest was quick to address pastoral needs — particularly those of the sick and the dying — even amid his teaching schedule at the seminary.

“When he knew someone was sick or dying, he would go if he could, or he would send one of his associates,” Deacon Maier said.

Teaching at the seminary didn’t allow for Bishop-elect Betancourt to celebrate the daily Mass regularly, but Sobolewski, a regular daily Mass goer, said the priest still had a strong presence at the parish. She added that he took pride in his seminary students, and she believes he really benefited them.

“You just knew that he was there,” Sobolewski said. “When he came up, he was always very happy to see everybody. I think when he was sitting up [by] the altar, he kind of glanced around the church to see what was going on and who was there and who he was going to visit with that was in need.”

Sobolewski also appreciated Bishop-elect Betancourt’s homilies. She could tell he had a profound understanding of the Scriptures and could apply them to modern times.

“He brought it to the people,” Sobolewski said.

Martin said that Bishop-elect Betancourt often reminds the people to “keep Christ alive in our hearts and to keep going. That’s such a relevant message right now,” she added.

Bishop-elect Betancourt oversaw associate pastors at the parish as the superior of the religious institute’s local residence, the St. Joseph House, or Casa de San Jose. The other priests from the order who minister in the archdiocese were in Puerto Rico for a priestly ordination at the time of the announcement.

Martin said that Bishop-elect Betancourt’s ability to bring together St. James and St. Francis after a 2011 clustering and 2014 merger was a crowning achievement as pastor.

Many parishioners remember Bishop-elect Betancourt’s spontaneous decision to move the high altar at St. James to St. Francis de Sales before the parish rented out the St. James campus to a Protestant church. He gathered 30 men after a Spanish Mass one Sunday to take apart the high altar and transfer it to St. Francis de Sales in order to save the parish the cost of a professional mover. The men took apart the altar, moved it on a flat bed and reassembled it at St. Francis de Sales the same day.

Deacon Maier, who helped on the project, said it unified the community.

He sees prayerfulness and listening as two assets Bishop-elect Betancourt will bring to the table as a bishop.

Carter said Bishop-elect Betancourt has a “pastoral orientation.”

“The Church needs good pastoral leaders; as our Holy Father says, we’re ‘a field hospital,’” he said. “We need those physicians in the field hospital.”

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