New St. Louis archbishop dealt with difficult diocese

Thursday, April 23, 2009 | 5:10 p.m. CDT; updated 5:45 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 23, 2009

ST. LOUIS — The man named this week as St. Louis' new archbishop was sent to Saginaw, Mich., four years ago to reel in a renegade diocese, according to its priests and parishioners.

The Saginaw Diocese had become over four decades what some considered among the most liberal in the country.

Bishop Robert Carlson, named Tuesday to the St. Louis archdiocese, replaced a bishop in Saginaw who spoke of the church's need to re-examine its stance on abortion, birth control and the ordination of women.

Those views often put Bishop Ken Untener, who served in Saginaw for 24 years, at odds with the Vatican.

"It was considered a progressive, forward-looking diocese, in some ways, a model," the Rev. James E. Falsey, a parish priest who served under Untener, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Of course, if you were conservative, it was considered a suspicious district."

Some parishioners felt the diocese and its leader at times strayed too far.

Carlson — who previously served the diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D. — was known as a conservative who embraced moves by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to return the church to its traditional doctrine.

When Carlson accepted the Saginaw post, church insiders knew change was in store for the diocese of about 130,000 people bordering Lake Huron.

"He was sent here with a particular charge from higher-ups and that was to shake this diocese up ... to make sure the practices of the diocese were in conformity with the expectations of Rome," said the Rev. Tom Sutton, who was administrator of the diocese before Carlson arrived.

By that time, many of the parishes in the diocese had loosened some traditional practices and had given lay ministers, including women, a prominent role. Seventeen parishes had lay administrators, including women.

Carlson followed Vatican orders and ended those practices, a move that pleased some but not others.

"He works for the pope not the people," said Virginia Phelps, 87, a retired lay minister at a diocesan parish. "I don't think he was a shepherd of our flock. I don't think he listened to what people had to say."

The Rev. John Sarge, another parish priest, said Carlson emphasized that a church is bigger than a parish or diocese. Still, Sarge said it was difficult to see so many changes dismantled.

Many priests say Carlson simply conformed with the wishes of church leaders.

"What's going on there is a bishop implemented what the church has asked us to do ... nothing more, nothing less," said the Rev. Denis Heames, 36, a former seminarian who followed Carlson to Saginaw from Sioux Falls.

Some parishioners, including Leonard and Gerry LeFevre, both 76, thought the changes Carlson helped enact were long overdue.

Both said they had grown unhappy with the direction of the diocese.

While some described Carlson as warm and caring, others said he had a hard time connecting with people, including priests. Some say he had a tough act to follow.

Untener often shed his clerical collar and mixed easily with priests and parishioners, playing hockey, drinking beer and playing piano at gatherings. He died from cancer in 2004.

Carlson, on the other hand, often came across as reserved in dress and manner, some said.

The Rev. Jim Heller, 67, who was Carlson's vicar general, said he was disappointed to see the church reverse changes made over the past 40 years that he said created excitement and encouraged experimentation in the Saginaw Diocese.

"I feel like Moses. I've seen the promised land, but I probably won't get to enter it," Heller said.

In St. Louis, Carlson follows conservative Archbishop Raymond Burke, who left to head the Vatican's supreme court. Carlson, who, like Burke, is a canon lawyer, will be installed as leader of the Archdiocese of St. Louis in the coming weeks.

"He's being promoted upward for being a good, faithful servant," Sutton said.

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