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Bishop Raphael Fliss, longtime leader of Superior Diocese, dies at age 84

By Lisa Kaczke and Brady Slater

News Tribune

As longtime secretary to Bishop Raphael Fliss, Pat Wildenberg came to revere him — no matter how complicated his legacy grew.

"He dealt with difficult situations and I never saw him get outwardly upset with people," she said. "He was very patient about dealing with every situation that he came across."

Bishop Fliss, the longest-serving bishop of the Diocese of Superior, died Sept. 21 in a Duluth hospital at age 84.

Fliss guided the diocese for 28 years, the first six as coadjutor bishop alongside Bishop George Albert Hammes. During Fliss' tenure the diocese went through parish closings and consolidations, and had to adapt to changing needs of the communities it served. He also helped organize the diocese's 75th and 100th anniversary celebrations.

"He truly loved his brother priests," Wildenberg said. "Like a father treats his sons."

The later years of his tenure were marked by controversies over the handling of abuse cases involving priests in the diocese. Fliss led the Superior Diocese until 2007, retiring upon reaching the mandatory age limit of 75.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki told the Catholic News Service that he remembered Fliss as "a kind and gentle man whose love for the church and the priests, religious, deacons and faithful of his diocese reflected the love and care that Christ calls from each and every one of us."

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at noon Thursday at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior.

The wake for Bishop Fliss will begin with reception of his body at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the cathedral, followed by visitation and evening prayer beginning at 7 p.m. Visitation will continue at 9 a.m. Thursday until the noon Mass.

Born to Paul and Valeria Fliss in 1930 in Milwaukee, Fliss earned a bachelor's degree from St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee in 1952 and received his licentiate degree in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in 1956. He was ordained a priest on May 26, 1956 at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee, according to the Diocese.

After receiving his doctorate in Rome in 1965, he served in several roles in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

He was named a coadjutor bishop of the Superior Diocese in 1979. According to the Diocese, Fliss said at his 1979 ordination, "This day I offer myself to you. I will be pleased to learn and listen. I look to you to help me be a good and dedicated bishop and together may we always see the goodness of the Lord."

After Bishop Hammes' retirement in 1985, Fliss became bishop of the diocese that covers Northwestern Wisconsin, and served for the next 22 years.

Wildenberg recalled Fliss as being guided by a Latin saying, "Deus providet," translating to "God provides."

During Fliss' leadership, the Diocese's Catholic Charities Bureau adapted to meet the changing needs of the Superior community, training programs were implemented to prepare lay ministers and the Office of Religious Education was reorganized, the Diocese reported in a biography of Fliss.

Fliss' tenure also included parishes closing due to changing times and demographics in the region. Thirty-seven parishes closed and several consolidated between 1982 and 2005, according to the Diocese.

In the final years of his tenure, Fliss was involved in controversy over several allegations of sex abuse by priests in the Superior Diocese. Abuse survivors called for Fliss to be investigated after it was revealed that a former Superior Diocese priest sexually assaulted two boys in the early 1980s and the church settled with the victims for nearly $3 million.

Fliss also was alleged to have been involved in the concealment of a priest who assaulted as many as 200 deaf boys in a Milwaukee boarding school before being transferred to the Superior Diocese, where he allegedly abused other boys.

And Fliss apologized in 2006 for poor oversight of a priest in the Diocese who faced allegations of sexual abuse; a judge found probable cause that the priest killed two people in Hudson, Wis., in 2002. The priest later took his own life.

Wildenberg recalled that Fliss would alert people around him to troubling news. He took it to heart, she said.

"He could handle a lot of things and took his time to make the right decision — something some people might fault him with," she said. "But that patience always impressed me."

Fliss' diocese has been practicing his well-known patience in recent months. After his successor, Bishop Peter F. Christensen, was assigned to the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, the Diocese of Superior has gone 10 months without a bishop.

"It's a process," Wildenberg said. "It would be happy to hear the news."