SASKATOON — Family, friends and fellow Oblates recently gathered at Queen’s House in Saskatoon to honour Bishop Gerald Wiesner, OMI, on his 80th birthday.
Raised on a farm near Denzil, Sask., Wiesner made his perpetual vows as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate in 1959 and was ordained Feb. 23, 1963. Over the years he has served in many capacities, including as the bishop of Prince George, B.C., from 1993 until his retirement in 2013.
The birthday celebration included a program that touched on Wiesner’s prairie roots, his close family ties and love of sports, as well as his integrity, prayerful spirit, and healing presence. Speakers highlighted his passionate commitment to inspiring and supporting the laity in living their baptism as disciples of Jesus Christ.
A program during the celebration included a slide show of family photos prepared by Wiesner’s nieces and nephews. Then his five siblings — James, Peter, Marie, Margaret and Vincent — presented a light-hearted question-and-answer session about their brother.
Rev. Paul Fachet, OMI, spoke on behalf of the Oblates, who have been “another family” for Wiesner for some 60 years. Wiesner has been a teacher, a theology professor, a superior and a provincial in the order, listed Fachet, echoing words he once received from a Hindu faith leader: “Blessing, blessing — you are a blessing.”
Kathy Hitchings and Mona Goodman — who have served as co-ordinators of the Lay Formation program that Wiesner helped to create and launch in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon in 1987 — expressed gratitude to Wiesner for his friendship and support, and for his passionate commitment to the Second Vatican Council’s vision of the church as the People of God.
“I want to thank you for creating a safe place, and for encouraging spaces for the laity to fully respond to their baptismal call with complete respect for their dignity, and for your confident belief that they bring major gifts and abilities,” said Hitchings.
She also noted Wiesner’s tireless commitment to healing and reconciliation, recalling his participation in the Returning to Spirit process, which addresses the hurtful legacy of Indian residential schools.
As part of their healing, some indigenous brothers and sisters need a representative of the church to honour their suffering and receive their pain, said Hitchings, describing how Wiesner answered that call. “Though often exhausted and heartbroken, I witnessed you turn your face to the rage and the contempt, to the despair and the fears for as long as it took to receive every person who needed you,” she said.
Goodman recalled how 30 years ago the Lay Formation program began in the Diocese of Saskatoon, developed by Wiesner, Gisele Bauche, Sister Cecile Fahl, SMS, and Rev. Don Hamel.
Wiesner “wanted the People of God to have a place where they could come together to learn about their Catholic faith; to journey with others who had that desire to deepen community and relationship with God, others and self; and to grow in prayer and spirit,” Goodman said.
Wiesner’s longtime friend and colleague Susan Campbell was director of the pastoral centre in Prince George when Wiesner was bishop. “What sets Gerry apart is the way he helps us answer our call,” she said.
Wiesner’s friend and colleague Gisele Bauche also spoke, beginning with the words of St. Paul to the church at Philippi: “We thank God whenever we think of you, and every time we pray for you, we always pray with joy.” Bauche emphasized the encouragement and confidence Wiesner gives to the laity, adding, “We have also experienced your deep compassion. We have experienced your ability and grace for forgiveness, the ability for reconciliation, and your humility, showing kindness and charity to all.”
During his time as Bishop of Prince George, Wiesner worked on reconciliation, collaboration with the laity, and building relationships with indigenous people. As president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1999 - 2001, he particularly promoted the involvement of women in society and in the church.
Asked at the time of his episcopal ordination about his vision of church, Wiesner replied: “The only way I can see church is as the People of God. In the early church the mission and ministry of Jesus was entrusted to the laity, the People of God. The Second Vatican Council encourages us to return to that pristine form of church.”