LA CROSSE –– The sainthood cause for Fr. Joseph Walijewski, a La Crosse diocesan priest who established a Bolivia parish and a Peru orphanage on behalf of the diocese, has been officially opened.

Known affectionately as "Father Joe," the priest established two missionary foundations that are sponsored by the diocese: Holy Cross Parish of Santa Cruz in Bolivia and Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage in Lurin, Peru.

Bishop William P. Callahan of La Crosse announced the cause was officially open at the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in La Crosse on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19.

The bishop made the announcement through the long-standing custom of hanging the official edict on the cathedral door. The edict invites the public to offer any information on Fr. Walijewski's life that would serve as testimony to help in the canonization process.

A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., he was ordained for the La Crosse Diocese in 1950. He established the parish in Bolivia in the 1950s and the orphanage in Peru in the 1980s. He returned to the La Crosse Diocese for parish work in between missionary assignments. The priest died in 2006 at age 82 in Lima, Peru. He is buried in the grotto near Casa Hogar.

On hand at the cathedral were Andrea Ambrosi, official postulator of Fr. Walijewski's cause in Rome, and his assistant, Madeline Kunz, who interpreted for Ambrosi.

Now the priest will be known as a "servant of God" as his cause is investigated. The effort includes gathering witnesses, documents and other evidence to determine the priest's holiness.

The next step is the declaration of a person's heroic virtues, giving the candidate the title of "venerable." In general, the church must then confirm two miracles before sainthood is declared. The first miracle is needed for beatification and the second for canonization.

According to Ambrosi, the timing of Fr. Walijewski's cause is ideal.

"This process is starting at the perfect time because it is starting a few years after Fr. Walijewski has passed away," he said, with Kunz interpreting. "Oftentimes, causes are begun years after the death of a certain individual. Most likely (in Father Joe's case) the witnesses that are able to testify for his life are probably still living.

"When a process or investigation is brought forth through the direct testimony of people who knew the servant of God, the cause obviously has a much better chance of coming to a successful completion," he added.

Bishop Callahan named two diocesan priests and a layperson to help with the investigation of the priest's life.

Father Eric Berns, parochial administrator of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Marshfield, Wis., will represent theological concerns. Canonical affairs will be supervised by Msgr. Richard Gilles, a canon lawyer and pastor of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish in Tomah and St. Andrew Parish in Warrens. Adam Wolfe, who teaches at Providence Academy in La Crosse, will oversee historical concerns and chronicle data as it comes in.

"If prayers are answered or specific miracles occur, we would like to know about it at the diocesan offices," the bishop said, adding that both the newly established Fr. Joseph Walijewski Guild website –– –– and the Diocese of La Crosse website –– –– have contact information.

Msgr. Joseph Hirsch is currently pastor at Santa Cruz Parish, which Fr. Walijewski built on his first missionary assignment back in the 1950s. He'll soon be going to Peru to work as director at Casa Hogar. Once he is there he will assemble data on Fr. Walijewski for those working on his cause in La Crosse to review.

"I knew Father Joe for almost 40 years and now I'm working in his first foundation and in a couple months I'll be working in his last foundation," said Msgr. Hirsch. "I find that I am walking in the footsteps — not just reporting on him — with all these various people of two different countries."

Fr. Mark Inglot, Fr. Walijewski's nephew, stated that the late priest's family wasn't surprised at the news about his cause officially being opened, but they were "overwhelmed."

"I obviously grew up with Father Joe and he was my inspiration for my becoming a priest 31 years ago," said the priest, who is pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing, Mich., in the Lansing Diocese.

While his uncle "always had a missionary heart" for "the far reaches of the world," Fr. Inglot said, he was "always available to us as family."

"He visited me at seminary, he came to my ordination and he visited me at one of my parishes," the Michigan pastor said. "I did have the opportunity to visit Fr. Joe at Casa Hogar and blessed to attend his funeral, one of the most moving events I've ever encountered, including my ordination."

O'Brien is on the staff of The Catholic Times, newspaper of the La Crosse Diocese.