Most Reverend John L. Paschang

[Reprinted from The West Nebraska Register April 2, 1999, Vol. 69. No. 13.]

Those who didn't know Bishop John L. Paschang were likely impressed with his longevity and distinction as the world's oldest bishop.

But those who knew him remember a kind, loving and generous man who had an unending devotion to his vocation, the people he served and, most importantly, his creator.

Bishop Paschang, 103, died Sunday, March 21, 1999, at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in West Point, a town of 3,250 people in northeastern Nebraska.

The fourth bishop of the Grand Island diocese served from 1951 to 1972.

"What a wonderful man, priest and bishop he was," said Bishop Lawrence McNamara, who had headed the Grand Island diocese since 1978.

"I have vivid memories of his kindness, his compassion, his gentle concern for his priests and people," he said.

Bishop Paschang had held the honor of being the world's oldest bishop since June 1995-a fact verified in the Vatican yearbook, the Annuario.

 

Still his age-which eventually resulted in a significant hearing loss, vision problems and physical difficulties-didn't keep him from living a full life up until his final days.

Before his hospitalization in late January, Bishop Paschang said Mass each day in his room at St. Joseph's Retirement Home in West Point. He moved to an apartment there about six years ago.

A niece, Rita Goeden, cared for her uncle by reading him his daily mail, fixing meals and helping him serve Mass.

"His mind was so clear until the very end," said Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of the Omaha archdiocese, who often visited Bishop Paschang. "He remembered so many people. He knew so much about the history of the church."

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln said Bishop Paschang's death is a loss for the not only the Grand Island diocese and state but "also for the hierarchy of the world."

"I had the joy of visiting him several times. I found Bishop Paschang to be a man of insight and intelligence," Bishop Bruskewitz said. "He was always kind and willing to share his experiences."

Father Walter Phelan, a retired priest in the Grand Island diocese, saw Bishop Paschang about six weeks ago. Although he was in the hospital and had difficulty speaking, the bishop sent his love to everyone.

"He gave me his blessing and he asked for mine. He was a tremendous man of faith and courage-a true leader, interested in everybody.

"I feel that I've lost a read close personal friend," Father Phelan added. "(But) rejoice that we have a new saint in heaven praying for us."

Bishop Paschang was known for his even temper, Father Phelan said. A priest know he was in hot water when Bishop Paschang would say, "Oh, my my, Father, dear."

"If he had any fault, that was it-he was too kind," Father Phelan said. "You could never say no to him if he asked you to do something."

Three years ago on Bishop Paschang's 100th birthday, he was flooded with cards and well-wishes from across the world. He was able to make it to a special diocesan Mass in Grand Island, and hundreds of clergy, family members and friends attended the event.

It was the largest outpouring of letters from U.S. bishops anyone could ever remember, Bishop McNamara said.

"The bishop treasured that. He read and re-read those letters."

Bishop Paschang was born on Oct. 5, 1895, on a farm near Hemingford in Western Nebraska to Casper and Gertrude Paschang.

He was educated at St. Anthony's Parochial School in St. Charles and had his classical training at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo.

He entered St. John's Seminary at Collegeville, Minn., and was ordained to the priesthood on June 12, 1921.

Bishop Paschang was first a pastor at St. Rose's parish in Hooper until 1923 when he enrolled in the Catholic University of America at Washington, D.C.

He earned a doctorate's degree in canon law and philosophy. Then he became pastor of Omaha's Holy Cross Church in 1927, and served there until he was named bishop of the Grand Island Diocese in 1951.

In an October 1998 interview with The Register, Bishop Paschang said he was in high school when he heard the call to join the religious life.

As bishop of the diocese, he ordained 55 native men to the priesthood, approved construction of 33 churches, 15 parish houses, 13 schools, 11 parish centers, six convents, several rectories as well as four hospital additions.

He began the Damian Leper Relief Society in 1976, and also has a $125,000 scholarship fund in his name that assists seminarians at Conception Seminary College.

Bishop Paschang, who earned a stock broker's license in his earlier years to save the church money, was also known for his keen knowledge of monetary investments.

"He left the diocese in good shape, both spiritually and financially," Bishop McNamara said.

"His good stewardship has made it possible to move into the years after his administration with a very easy transition."

In addition, he left an excellent morale among priests and "a solid and family-centered spirituality throughout Central and Western Nebraska," the bishop maintained.

Father Bernard Berger of Burwell said he and seven others were ordained by Bishop Paschang in May 1964. Father Berger called him "a good bishop for priests."

He let them work to the best of their needs," Father Berger said.

Although he did not always agree with some teachings Vatican II brought about, Bishop Paschang remained firmly obedient to the Catholic Church, Father Berger contended. Bishop Paschang attended all four sessions of Vatican II, from 1965 to 1969.

"He wasn't going to let his own feelings about them stand in the way of them being implemented," Father Berger said.

Father Tom Down, a retired priests from Denver, said Vatican II was an emotionally difficult challenge for the bishop.

Still, Father Dowd echoed Father Berger's words.

"I think he was able to say yes to Vatican II because of his fidelity to the church and his solidarity to the bishops," he said.

Many remember Bishop Paschang's uncanny wit and sense of humor.

On his 100th birthday, the bishop attributed his longevity to family genetics, God's blessings, and the fact that he never had to be an assistant pastor.

"Never make them assistants," he told Bishop McNamara.

"His interest did not grow any less as the years went by. He always kept in touch," the bishop said. "He was always ready to let me share with him anything and everything that was going on in the diocese."

Survivors include one sister, Ann Peter of Columbia, Mo., and several nieces and nephews.

Three brothers and four sisters preceded Bishop Paschang in death: Frank, Joe and Father Anthony, and Wilhelmina, Dorothy, Elizabeth and Justine.

"He seemed to be quietly in the presence of God his whole life," Bishop McNamara said. "There was something about the bishop that made you feel God was in the room."

"He was a great man, great priest, great bishop," he said.