Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Winona Bishop Loras Watters mourned, remembered as humble servant

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Loras Watters, 93, the fifth bishop of Winona, died peacefully in the predawn hours Monday.

“He was a wonderful, simple bishop who went about doing his work quietly every day, unassumingly, and for this, the Lord will reward him well,” Winona Bishop Bernard Harrington said Monday afternoon. “After so many years as a great bishop and now gone home to his eternal rest ... I’m sure he is delighted.”
Bishop Watters, left, waits for the dedication mass to begin at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Winona on June 5, 2007. (photo by Katie Derus/Winona Daily News)

A life that ended peacefully didn’t have such a serene start.

“He would tell us that when he was born, he and his mother had to stay in the hospital because they were very sick.” Harrington said, “That was 93 years ago, and until a month ago, he had never been back in the hospital since.”

Mother and baby were so sick, in fact, that Watters was christened “Loras” by a nun who attended the birth � a Sister Loras � much to his mother’s chagrin. Fortunately for young Watters, Loras was a popular name among Catholics in the Dubuque area � thanks to the popularity of Mathias Loras, first bishop of Dubuque, according to William Crozier in his 1989 history of the Diocese of Winona.

Watters attended Loras Academy, a boys prep school, and Loras College in Dubuque.

Answering a call to the priesthood, he was ordained in 1941. Coincidently, Crozier relates, as a prep school student, Watters had to deal with the school registrar, the Rev. Edward Fitzgerald who “terrified him,” and who would go on to be his predecessor as bishop of Winona.

Then, as a priest while serving as the spiritual director at the North American College in Rome, he advised a young seminarian, John Vlazny, who would, in 1987, succeed him as bishop in Winona.

He was ordained auxiliary bishop of Dubuque in 1965, and four years later, in 1969, named by Pope Paul VI to lead the Winona diocese.

Crookston bishop and Winona native Michael Hoeppner remembered serving Mass for the bishop and, as a high school student, listening to him preach.

“He was a student of the classics, and you listened to those sentences he’d put together � clause after clause and the verb at the end � it could be challenging,” Hoeppner said. “He was our bishop after Vatican II. He helped us get with what the council taught and, as an educator, he relished that role.”

Watters spelled out his goal for the diocese in his installation homily, Hoeppner said, quoting him as wanting to “gather and mold the entire diocesan family so that everyone, conscious of his own duties and responsibilities, may live and work in a community of love.”

“Vatican II defined the Church as the people of God � and he got that,” Hoeppner said, and his accomplishments as bishop reflected that understanding and emphasis.

Perhaps most visibly, he led the church through the introduction of the new order of the Mass � orienting the people to a new ritual in English rather than Latin.

He instituted the Diocesan Pastoral Council, for the first time bringing the laity into the leadership of the Church. The RENEW program, began in 1984, further encouraged the participation of lay people in the life of their local parish. This expansion of the role of lay people would prove its value as the number of priests continued to decline after Watters’ retirement, Hoeppner said.

“But he was a man of prayer first and foremost,” Hoeppner said. “He was a kind churchman who loved God’s people and loved being a priest.”

That love and kindness was recognized by those he worked with from day-to-day.

“He was a sweet guy. He truly was,” said Ivan Kubista, communications director for the diocese from 1983 to 2005.

“He was the last person in the world who wanted power or authority,” Kubista reflected, but accepted his role as what God intended.

The sexual abuse scandals, particularly the case of Thomas Adamson in the Winona diocese, wounded him deeply.

“It was so foreign to him,” Kubista said, “It really destroyed Watters to think that could happen.”

Even so, he was unfailingly kind and gracious even to those who were abusive and confrontational.

“The most outrageous crank could confront him and through it all he wouldn’t lose his temper, he was always respectful,” Kubista said. “He was one of the dearest people I’ve known in my whole life.”

The Rev. Paul Nelson remembered the years he served Watters as rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

“One of the kindest men I’ve worked with in my 48 years as a priest,” he said.

Initially, he said, he was unsure just how it would work, taking day-to-day charge of what is the bishop’s church, but Watters quickly made the relationship clear.

“I want you to run this place. If you want help, come to me,” Nelson said. “He was very pastoral ... there was no pretense in him.”

Don Justin, a friend for more than three decades, agreed.

“The first time I met him it was All Saints Day. He was shoveling the sidewalk at the Pastoral Center. The bishop of Winona was shoveling snow. I was impressed with that.”

As bishop, he lived very simply � in a three-room apartment in the Pastoral Center, eventually retiring to a small apartment at Callista Court.

“At the end, all he had was his ring and his watch,” Justin said.

Sunday night, Justin came to see his old friend.

“I offered to say the rosary with him,” Justin remembered. As the prayer began, Watters blessed himself with the sign of the cross, then drifted into a peaceful sleep.

“He wanted to go home,” Justin said, “and if the gates of Heaven weren’t wide open when he got there, we’re all in trouble.”
Winona Daily News

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