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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published June 19 2013

‘Gentle leader’ gets new flock as Folda ordained as Fargo bishop

FARGO - At two minutes past 3 p.m., Monsignor John Thomas Folda became the newest bishop of the Roman Catholic Church as St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt laid his hands on Folda’s bowed head in St. Mary’s Cathedral.

That simple gesture passed on 2,000 years of church tradition and apostolic authority from Peter being told by Jesus to “feed my sheep,” said Monsignor Robert Laliberte, one of more than 100 Fargo diocese priests at the Mass. According to Catholic teaching, at that moment Folda became, in truth and in the flesh, a bishop for life.

Folda’s first words during the two-hour ordination Mass were “I do,” as Nienstedt asked him, “And so, dear brother, do you resolve by the grace of the Holy Spirit to discharge until death the office entrusted to us by the apostles, which we are about to pass on to you by the laying on of our hands?”

Folda’s motto as new bishop, “The Word became flesh,” from the Gospel of John, speaks of Christ and the incarnational nature of the faith, as spiritual reality plays out in bodily form, Laliberte said.

His ordination as a bishop puts an “indelible mark” on Folda’s nature that is there for life, according to church teaching.

The Mass included five archbishops, 23 bishops and 185 priests – including about 60 from the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., where Folda, 51, has been a priest since he was ordained one in 1989.

More than 800 people filled St. Mary’s in downtown Fargo, with the sanctuary filled – half of it with white-robed priests, deacons and seminarians – and about 220 in the basement.

New neighbors

A TV hookup for an overflow attendance in First Lutheran Church across Broadway wasn’t needed, but space in First Lutheran was used for about 240 bishops, priests, deacons and seminarians to put on their vestments before the Mass.

First Lutheran put out coffee and cookies and greeted its Catholic brothers, said the Rev. Corey Bjertness, its pastor.

“We were glad to help,” he said. “I call it our ‘Bridge Across Broadway.’ ” The Mass was broadcast live on Catholic radio and by Fargo television. Patrons of the Bismarck Tavern just down Broadway from St. Mary’s had it up on a big screen Wednesday, although most were watching an outdoors show on another screen.

On April 8, only three weeks after he was chosen to lead the church, Pope Francis appointed Folda to be bishop in Fargo, the first new bishop he named in the United States.

Folda succeeds Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who left Fargo on July 18, 2012.

After the Mass, Bishop Folda spent more than an hour greeting his new flock, including Destin and Stacey Coles and their children, Alexis, 12, Drew, 10, Evan 8, Abigail, 6, and Jacob, 2.

“I feel totally blessed by God that he sent us a shepherd,” Destin Coles said after Folda blessed the couple on what happens to be their 15th wedding anniversary. “He’s such a gentle leader.”

Judy Petermann, of Fargo and formerly of Grand Forks, met Folda on the lawn in front of the bishop’s residence.

“I wished him well and he said, ‘Continue to pray for me,’ ” she said. “He just seems so warm and has a smile that doesn’t stop.”

Similar to Lincoln

The Fargo diocese is similar to the Lincoln diocese: largely rural and agricultural, with 72,000 parish members in about 132 parishes across eastern North Dakota.

Of about 400,000 people in the diocese, nearly 90,000 identify themselves as Catholics, according to U.S. census data.

The Lincoln diocese has a general population of nearly 600,000, with about 96,000 identifying themselves as Catholics.

“He understands farm issues and rural issues, as well as life issues,” said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference and lobbyist for the Fargo and Bismarck dioceses.

Folda has emphasized “a spirit of continuity,” with the work of his predecessor, Archbishop Aquila, who was bishop in Fargo for 11 years, said Chancellor Luke Meyer.

That includes Folda asking Meyer, informally, if he would consider staying on as chancellor and personal secretary to the bishop, a role that involves Meyer living in the bishop’s residence.

Folda studied architecture at the University of Nebraska, switched to engineering and then, after answering a call to the priesthood, ended up taking a degree in philosophy. He was ordained a priest in Lincoln in 1989.

He said Tuesday night that his father, James, who died three years ago, set an example of quiet faith, not speaking so much about it, but praying daily with his family and reading Scripture during Mass. His mother, Mabel – who, with his two sisters and their families, was at Wednesday’s Mass – long has been a member of the Legion of Mary, visiting the sick in her parish.

Folda’s family has Czech and German roots and as a boy he aspired to be “a dad with a big family,” rather than a priest as his grandmother urged him, according to a profile of Folda in the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald.

But he served as an altar boy and always has been serious about his Catholic faith.

An ardent member of “Husker Nation,” who wears his red sweatshirt when watching games of Nebraska’s national football powerhouse, Folda won’t necessarily face a conflict of interest in Bison Land, said the Rev. Jeffrey Eickhoff, who succeeds Folda as rector of St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb. “I looked at their schedules and I don’t think Nebraska and NDSU play each other in any sport.”

Monsignor Brian Donahue, now on assignment from Fargo as a chaplain, pastor and Army major at West Point in New York, got to know Folda years ago because both were seminary rectors.

“In my experience he is very humble and deeply spiritual,” Donahue said Wednesday. “His motto, about the incarnation and the Word becoming flesh, is very accurate because his feet are on the ground.”


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