May 4, 2019: Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Marquette University President Mike Lovell lead a procession from Pere Marquette Park to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for the 175! Alive event. (File photo)

In looking back on Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s tenure in Milwaukee, the Catholic Herald reached out to almost two dozen people who were involved with decision making, planning and implementation to get their take on some of the most influential, notable and consequential events of the past 14 years.

Bankruptcy: ‘Prayer and Patience’

On the first anniversary of his installation, Jan. 4, 2011, Archbishop Listecki announced the archdiocese was going to enter into Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of lawsuits stemming from the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Bruce Arnold and Frank LoCoco (Arnold was the principal bankruptcy counsel responsible for setting the legal strategy and LoCoco was the senior litigator. They chose to answer questions jointly for this article): His motto throughout was “prayer and patience.” He practiced it. He exhorted our team to practice it, and we tried to do that.

Mark Hogan (Hogan was a member of the archdiocese Finance Council and his responsibility was to represent the council in a non-lawyer role, even attending the mediation hearings in Minneapolis): The archbishop showed great leadership in again acknowledging the victims’ painful past experiences as well as finding the right financial balance for the archdiocese. The archbishop sought advice from many of those around him. But in the end, he fully understood that he was the only one that could make the final decision and I have great respect for the leadership he displayed in ultimately reaching an agreement.

John Marek (Marek was the chief financial officer for the archdiocese during the bankruptcy and had to provide monthly updates to the bankruptcy court): Archbishop Listecki was a calm and steady guide as we went through the bankruptcy. He always assured all of us that there would be an end and we would make it through. There were setbacks along the way, but the archbishop would come up with a particular insight or an example of a life experience that provided the encouragement needed in that moment.

The archbishop’s background as an attorney was especially helpful throughout the process.

Hogan: The bankruptcy had put financial pressure on the archdiocese, and the archbishop understood the importance of arriving at an agreement that would leave the archdiocese the necessary resources to achieve its vital mission.

Arnold and LoCoco: The fact that Archbishop Listecki is both a canon and civil lawyer was immensely helpful throughout the process. Bankruptcy law and canon law frequently overlapped, and Archbishop Listecki’s facility with both meant that we never had to “translate” substantive or procedural issues.

Marek: He immediately understood the legal arguments and positions. His discussions with archdiocesan and other legal counsel were dialogues that didn’t require tutorials to explain legal terms and principles. The archbishop could foresee potential implications that could follow from various filings, so proposals were vetted more robustly and created a greater comfort level with legal strategies that were ultimately pursued by our attorneys with the court.

A September 2014 mediation session in Minneapolis broke down, which actually proved to be the impetus for coming to a settlement.

Hogan: Although we did not reach a settlement during those meetings, I feel it was at that point where the archbishop knew we needed to figure out a way to end the legal disputes and get the archdiocese out of bankruptcy.

Arnold and LoCoco: We saw the archbishop work through multiple mediation sessions in good faith to reach a resolution that would be best for all parties. He never lost his composure, even when one mediator (not jokingly) suggested that the archbishop simply call the Holy Father and ask for a loan from the “Vatican Bank.” He also never lost his focus on continuing to make sure that children remain protected, leading to the important decision to publish all of the documents regarding past abuse that were selected by lawyers for the abuse survivors. His patience throughout the process was amazing, perhaps exceeded only by his courage and vision to convene an Archdiocesan Synod at the height of the bankruptcy proceedings.

The four-year ordeal finally concluded in February 2015.

Marek: It was no surprise to me that when the bankruptcy finally came to an end, the archdiocese emerged with energy and a vision for the future.

Synod: ‘He tended to his flock’

Despite the Archdiocese of Milwaukee being in bankruptcy at the time, Archbishop Listecki took the hopeful and daring step of calling for an Archdiocesan Synod on Pentecost weekend in 2014. That synod arose from Archbishop Listecki’s Pastoral Letter “Who Do You Say That I Am?” and helped set archdiocesan priorities for the next decade-plus.

Fr. Phillip Bogacki (Fr. Bogacki was the pastor of Christ King and St. Bernard parishes in Wauwatosa at the time and has been a part of the Archdiocesan Synod Implementation Committee for 10 years): Archbishop Listecki’s fearlessness in proclaiming the Gospel “in season and out of season” was put into action. He refused to let the Church stray from her evangelical mission, no matter what was occurring financially and legally. It was like he was the captain of the ship and made sure we progressed on our bold journey, no matter the risk of storms.

Cindi Petrie (Petrie has been a part of ASIC since its inception and has been assigned to the pastoral priority team for multigenerational Catholic identity formation): During that time, there were a lot of sad, disgruntled and even angry people in the Church. Many were disillusioned with what they saw happening in their church and stopped attending Mass; some left the Catholic Church. In my opinion, this was the perfect time for the synod. The sheep needed a strong shepherd, and Archbishop Listecki took that role seriously, and amid adversity, he tended to his flock by listening to the people and taking action to address the issues that were on their hearts and minds. It was a very positive step in healing a wounded community and building up the Body of Christ.

The synod event was called “Return to the Upper Room” and was a call to the Holy Spirit to guide the process.

Fr. Bogacki: At the synod event, I think the entire room was nervous when the archbishop, on the spur of the moment, decided to reveal the vote totals to the entire assembly on the big screen. He wanted to ensure the people had a voice, and that the hopes and dreams of all participants were truly reflected in his final document. The final document simply captured what occurred, with no alteration or change. To display the vote totals before he knew them was a bold move of trust by Archbishop Listecki.

Petrie: I knew we were embarking on a mission of experiencing the good and holy. The synod message gave us priorities to examine and work on. There were so many nuggets that I jotted down in my notes.

Seton Catholic Schools: ‘Lighthouses showing the way’

Following an 18-month study conducted by Notre Dame University on 26 urban Catholic schools, two of the main recommendations for the archdiocese were to reinvigorate the Catholic identity and culture and to explore the possibility of a regional network. Out of that study and ensuing discussions came Seton Catholic Schools, which began in the fall of 2016 and will have 14 schools in the network this fall.

Dr. Kathleen Cepelka (Dr. Cepelka was the superintendent of Catholic schools from 2010-22 and was the primary visionary in establishing Seton Catholic Schools, and later the Siena network in Racine): I thought this could be an opportunity to step back a little bit and find out what outsiders would say about this. I was the leader at the time, and I took this seriously.

Don Drees (Drees was the first president of Seton Catholic Schools after coming in as a consultant during the planning process): Over the course of the summer (of 2015), we developed the plan to create an urban school network. Various reviews with many leadership groups gave us strong belief in the idea. In the fall, Kathleen came up with the name of Seton Catholic Schools and we received approval to move forward with building the network.

Joan Shafer (Shafer was the secretary of the board of directors during the planning process and became the second president of Seton Catholic Schools): Urban education was too complex for the old model of Catholic education, where a parish pastor and principal would run a stand-alone school. Parish schools would also continue to have their own community identity. The Seton model made complete sense to me.

Kris Rappe (Rappe was the initial board chair for Seton Catholic Schools): The first step was to gather an advisory group of business and educational leaders. This group was instrumental in giving critical feedback on the network concept, implementation and perhaps most importantly, stakeholder acceptance.

Seton Catholic Schools launched in the fall of 2016 with nine initial member schools. The “carrot” for schools was the financial savings and the resources they would have access to. After a couple of years, and gaining valuable feedback, Seton went through a “reset” during the summer of 2019.

Shafer: In the summer of 2019, our board chair asked me to convene a committee of the board to assess the progress versus the early commitments we made at Seton’s formation. In other words, was the promise of Seton being fulfilled? It was determined that we were, in part, meeting the promise, (i.e. student academic progress, financial rigor), and lagged in other areas, including culture, consolidation, change management, etc.

Cepelka: Everyone agreed that we weren’t dumping this and there was a real danger that summer that we may have because people were so unhappy. With the reset, Joan Shafer came on board and Kristen Foster (as chief schools officer) was hired. When you have new personnel, you have a change of culture.

As test results started coming in showing that Seton Catholic Schools were excelling in standardized testing, it became clear the model was working and Seton had stabilized.

Rappe: Several of the schools that are now part of the Seton Catholic Schools network would have closed had we not taken this approach. Today, the students in these schools are receiving a quality faith-based education and the Catholic school remains a pivotal focal point in the community.

Cepelka: Seton is the hope for the central city of Milwaukee. You have, soon to be 14, schools all over the city of Milwaukee … that are points of light in this city where there is order, there is safety, there is love, there is this sense of not only do you belong here, but we want you here and we care for you while you’re here and we care for you while you’re not here. Goodness knows, this is something our city craves. It’s like having lighthouses all across the city that are showing the way.

175th Anniversary: ‘Beginning of a new tradition’

From the Nov. 25, 2018, opening Mass to Thanksgiving 2019 (Nov. 28), the Archdiocese of Milwaukee reflected on its heritage and storied past. Among the events during that year was the May 4, 2019, 175! Alive event at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and Cathedral Park. Planning began in 2017.

Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines (Bishop Haines was the rector of the Cathedral during that time frame): The Cathedral staff worked very hard to set a welcoming tone for guests for the Mass that day. The Cathedral was open for most of the day, as our parish docents staffed tours of the church. I spent the entire day offering tours that day, as well. My role was to host tours of the crypt and to speak about the archbishops and bishops laid to rest there. It was a remarkable opportunity for the Cathedral to tell the story of our history and our role as Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Jenni Oliva (Oliva was manager of events and special programs for the archdiocese at the time): I remember that our team worked so well together to make the anniversary year so special. It took a lot of people to make all the celebrations, Masses, service experiences and fun experiences happen. But I also remember that trying to narrow down what we wanted to do and what we wanted to focus on was difficult at first. What do you focus on? What do you not focus on? There is a lot of history in 175 years, and we wanted to do all of it justice. I think we did that pretty well.

One of the major highlights of the anniversary year was the first Pray, Reconcile, Rejoice: 12 Hours of Reconciliation, which is a tradition that began in 2019 and continues to this day (after a brief hiatus for COVID-19).

Oliva: It is my favorite because I was able to work with our priests and hosting parishes to develop an event that called many people back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I remember that we were not sure how this sacramental event would go over; but as the day went on, we started hearing from our host sites. People were coming in droves. When all was said and done, we figure that about 7,000 participated in the sacrament of Reconciliation in that one day. I am very proud of this event as this is also one event that has become an annual event in the archdiocese.

Bishop James T. Schuerman (Bishop Schuerman has been an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese since 2017): It proved to be so well-received that it has become an annual tradition ever since.

The year of celebration concluded on the morning of Thanksgiving 2019 with the ringing of bells throughout the archdiocese.

Bishop Schuerman: It was an appropriate time to give thanks for 175 years of evangelization, preaching of the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments, providing education, and engaging in works of service and charity within our archdiocese.

COVID-19: ‘A Wreck’

In January 2020, reports of a mysterious virus started emerging on the news, and less than two months later, the world had basically shut down: businesses were closed or sent workers home, schools went virtual and more pertinent in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, churches were shut down due to safety concerns. In response to Gov. Tony Evers declaring a state of emergency in Wisconsin, Archbishop Listecki had the unenviable task of closing churches to public celebrations of Mass and took the unprecedented step of offering a dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation that lasted almost six months.

Kim Mandelkow (Mandelkow was the director of the office of for worship at the time): I was shocked! Never in my life had there been a dispensation from Mass attendance. When Archbishop Listecki and other bishops around the country and the world dispensed the faithful of their obligation to attend Mass was when I realized the severity/seriousness of COVID-19. It wasn’t just another bad seasonal virus like the flu but instead something very serious.

Oliva: The days leading up to the closures of our pastoral center and parishes I was charged with looking ahead on the schedule to see what large events we had coming up and figuring out if we could safely hold them. It was decided a few weeks before the state of Wisconsin went into lockdown that most large events had to be canceled.

Fr. Curt Frederick (Fr. Frederick was moderator of the curia at the time of the COVID shutdowns): COVID was a wreck! I thought that it was very responsible for the archbishop to dispense from Mass. None of us knew what the repercussions of gathering during the pandemic would have been. I was totally supportive of his decision. It was wonderful to return to church when we reopened. We all were delighted to return to celebrate the Eucharist. One person told me that it was like “First Communion all over again.” That says it all.

Fr. Jerry Herda (Fr. Herda was the vicar for clergy for the archdiocese at the time): It was a strange time because we needed to balance keeping people safe and allowing people to receive the sacraments. There was a lot of uncertainty and many unanswered questions. My role was to keep the priests informed as to what would be allowed, but also to check in with priests simply to see how they were doing. Public Masses had been suspended, yet there were still people who were sick that needed to be anointed, there were still people who died and the family wanted to do a funeral, there were still couples that had a wedding scheduled. It was necessary to follow the government mandates, but not to lose our religious practices. During the early weeks of the COVID pandemic, Archbishop Listecki held several conference calls with the priests, which helped not only to answer questions but also to boost morale.

Bishop Haines: I was expecting a dispensation, because it was not possible for people to come to church (other than the small number of about 10 people who were celebrating the live-streamed Masses). Clearly, the archbishop found it difficult to have no option in closing the churches. He also was upset that government leaders did not consult with him in making the decision to close the churches. Gov. Evers never contacted him. The Mayor of Milwaukee only spoke to him when the archbishop reopened churches for the restart of Masses at Pentecost.

Bishop Schuerman: During this crisis, we learned a lot from the faithful about what it means to be Catholic.