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Rev. Christensen looks forward to new challenge as bishop

A Twin Cities priest with a yen for sailing has been chosen to lead the Catholic Diocese of Superior. The transformation began three weeks ago with a phone call from Pope Benedick XVI to Nativity of our Lord Parish in St. Paul. "I got off the pho...

A Twin Cities priest with a yen for sailing has been chosen to lead the Catholic Diocese of Superior.

The transformation began three weeks ago with a phone call from Pope Benedick XVI to Nativity of our Lord Parish in St. Paul.

"I got off the phone and I sobbed for about 15 minutes," said Peter Christensen, 54, the church's pastor and Superior's incoming bishop.

It was not an honor he sought.

"I'm still trying to get used to the idea of being called bishop," he said. "I was very happy being a pastor."

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Now, his flock has grown from 2,000 families in St. Paul to 78,739 Catholics spread across 103 parishes from Superior to River Falls, Merrill to Hurley.

"I've never had this kind of responsibility before," Christensen said during a Thursday interview in Superior. "I have to translate it into parish experience."

He succeeds Bishop Raphael Fliss, who has been with the diocese for 28 years. Fliss called his successor a "very nice man" and a "good find."

"He has a deep faith and deep love for people," said the Rev. Daniel Dahlberg, rector of Cathedral of Christ the King. "I think he'll bring good leadership."

Christensen had a very hands-on approach in St. Paul.

"I've been able to be part of a real family life," he said, walking beside parishioners through baptisms, marriages and deaths. "Coming to a new setting, I would have to learn, again, those families."

He is no stranger to the area. Christensen's mother resided on Park Point.

"I've done quite a bit of sailing on the lake," he said. He saw his role in the diocese as being a pastor to those who lead the parishes.

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Taking over from Bishop Raphael Fliss, who has been at the diocese for 28 years, Christensen plans to use his pastoral talents.

"One of the gifts I know I have is common sense," he said. "Common sense matched with deep faith."

That will be called upon in the diocese, which is still reeling from controversy and lawsuits over local sex abuse cases and the 2002 murders of Dan O'Connell and James Ellison, which a court ruled was likely committed by a Hudson priest, the Rev. Ryan Erickson.

"St. Patrick's Parish in Hudson -- what the families must feel I can't imaginge," Christensen said. "It's total betrayal."

The entire community has lived with the pain for two years, he said, and it will be a challenge to rebuild trust and bring "a sense of light" back.

"If the church can be a forerunner in helping understand how we help both the victimizer and the victim, good for the church," Christensen said. "Let's use this experience as something for the rest of society -- because it's not, I repeat not, just the churches."

The Bishop-elect agreed that more attention should be paid to priests as they go through seminary.

"Not just the preliminary screening for psychological testing and tools, but also really learning who these men are in community life. That's where you can see it," Christensen said. "If a person struggles in community life, if they're not balanced, you can see that fairly quickly."

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He also favors making names of predatory priests public "within reason."

"I think if it serves a purpose for the healing of families and communities that's good," the incoming Bishop said. "It makes no sense after they've passed away."

He said he would have to discuss the issue with Fliss before making further comment.

The mantle of bishop won't be passed on until later, most likely September, Fliss said. After that, the 76-year-old plans to retire in Superior.

"As long as my health will allow, I will be pleased to be of whatever assistance I can to him in the ministry that is ahead," he said.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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