by Bishop Edward J. Burns
It was on December 23, 2008 that I received a call from the Vatican Ambassador telling me that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed me Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau. In my conversation with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, he informed me of steps I had to take in order to prepare for my ordination and installation as the next Bishop of Juneau. Within the course of our conversation, I asked if I could be ordained a bishop in Pittsburgh, PA and installed in Juneau. He responded, “It is not usually done that way. A bishop is ordained and installed in the diocese to which he has been assigned.” I continued to advance my desires by indicating that I was aware of a bishop who had just recently been ordained in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and installed in the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin. I indicated to the Nuncio that the distance between Pittsburgh and Juneau was far greater than that of St. Paul-Minneapolis and Superior. Archbishop Sambi indicated that I would have to discuss it with Archbishop Schweitz of Anchorage, and if the Metropolitan of Alaska was okay with such arrangements then he (the Nuncio) would agree to the arrangement. Archbishop Schwietz gave his overwhelming approval to such an arrangement.
It was a privilege and an honor to learn that the Apostolic Nuncio would then attend both my ordination in Pittsburgh and my installation in Juneau. It wasn’t until later that I learned that Archbishop Sambi had a special request. He asked that we provide an opportunity for him to visit the grave of Father Paschal Tosi, SJ.
Father Paschal Tosi (Italian: Pasquale Tosi) was the first apostolic prefect of the state of Alaska. Tosi was born on April 25, 1837, in the parish of St. Vito, Diocese of Rimini, Italy. In his responsibilities as apostolic prefect he traveled to Rome in 1892 to give an account of his experiences to Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. The Holy Father was so impressed with the stories he heard from Father Tosi that he wanted to ordain Father Tosi a bishop prior to his leaving Rome. Father Tosi, in all humility, refused the Holy Father’s suggestion by saying, “Holy Father, in Alaska I travel with dogs. When a storm comes up, I make a hole in the snow and crawl in with the dogs, and live there until the storm blows over. Please don’t bring down so low the purple of a bishop.”
I learned that Archbishop Sambi grew up in San Vito, Rimini where Father Tosi is a legend. When Archbishop Sambi prepared to come to Juneau, he made a request to visit the grave of Father Tosi in the Juneau Evergreen Cemetery. Father Thomas Weise was gracious enough to shovel all the snow in April, 2009 for Archbishop Sambi to visit the non-descript grave with the simple marker identifying, “Father Paschal Tosi, SJ 1837-1898.” His desire to visit Juneau was clear – it was a pilgrimage for him.
A couple years ago I was contacted by Mr. Piero Ricci indicating that he was writing a book on Father Tosi. Apparently, Archbishop Sambi, who died in 2010, relayed the account of his “pilgrimage” to the grave of Father Tosi to those in his home town. Father Tosi is quite revered in San Vito.
Our pilgrimage to San Vito was an opportunity to pay homage to one of the first men who brought the Catholic faith to Alaska, and to express gratitude to the parishioners of San Vito that one of their own would accept the Gospel message and the commission of Jesus Christ to go to the far corners of the world and “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Our pilgrimage began in Rome and we had the opportunity to attend the Wednesday audience with Pope Francis. It was there that I had the opportunity to express on behalf of the faithful of the diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska our prayers, affection and fidelity to the Holy Father.
In San Vito we experienced the devotion of the people to Fr. Tosi, as well as an outpouring of hospitality to us. As we arrived in Rimini, we saw the street named after Father Tosi and the large monument to him outside the front door of the parish Church. What truly humbled me was the gesture on the part of the parish to commemorate our pilgrimage from Alaska to their parish by establishing a bronze plaque under the monument to Fr. Tosi.
During our Sunday Mass on November 2, 2014, through the use of an interpreter, I expressed to the standing room only congregation our gratitude and close connection with them because of Fr. Tosi. I acknowledged that one of their own ventured out beyond the confines of their town to proclaim the Gospel message in a far away land. I told them that my fellow travelers represented the presence of the Catholic faith in Alaska today, thanks to Fr. Tosi.
It is my hope and desire to continue the bonds with the parish community of San Vito and to advance the legacy and the memory of Fr. Tosi. He was a true pioneer in faith. Like Fr. Tosi, may God strengthen us to take the Gospel message to others. And, let us give thanks for the missionary efforts of all those who brought the Catholic faith to Alaska – especially Father Paschal Tosi, SJ.
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