By Renae Kranz
When Bishop Paul Swain first arrived in eastern South Dakota more than 13 years ago to begin his tenure as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, he had no idea what he was in for. He knew the landscape would be different from his home state of Wisconsin, but traversing the more than 35,000 square miles of his new diocese over the years opened his eyes to some things he didn’t expect.
“I must admit when I arrived here for the first time, I was taken aback by the wide open spaces,” Bishop Swain said. “In my over 13 years of car time as bishop here, I have grown to appreciate the prairies and the plains, the vistas and the sky to the extent that when I now return to Wisconsin, I feel closed in. This unique part of God’s creation is a treasure to be savored and preserved.”
But the landscape wasn’t the only thing he grew to love and appreciate. He learned to enjoy and respect the people of South Dakota over the years for their work ethic and deep faith grounded in hope.
“Those core values are deeply ingrained here, not only in the rural areas but in our cities and villages as well, and therefore in our parishes and our people,” Bishop Swain said.
For him, ministering to the people he has come to love here was a great joy, but the bigger joy was how they ministered to him through the years. It was something he said he really needed.
In mid-February, Bishop Swain will hand over the reins of the diocese to Bishop-elect Donald DeGrood. He leaves behind a legacy as a gentle, calm presence in an often manic world, leading the diocese in his care to offer more to the communities within it, and making Christ more present to those who live inside its borders.
Father Charles Cimpl, pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls and vicar general of the diocese, said when he first met Bishop Swain it was obvious to him that the then newly elected bishop was a man of prayer. He remembered the bishop saying at his opening press conference that he wasn’t worried about the difficult task of being a bishop that lay ahead of him because he had been told the Diocese of Sioux Falls was “a gem of a diocese.”
As Father Cimpl worked with him over the years, he learned Bishop Swain was keenly aware of the gifts and efforts of those around him.
“He always felt that any of the accomplishments that were made during his time as our bishop were done through the cooperative spirit of the priests, deacons, religious, the diocesan staff and the laity,” Father Cimpl said.
Bishop Swain’s leadership and careful, prudent decision making produced many beautiful fruits for the benefit of the entire diocese. Two of the more visible decisions the bishop made were to restore the Cathedral of Saint Joseph and to bring to fruition the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. Both were huge needs in the diocese and both have been unexpected gifts.
The vision of Bishop Thomas O’Gorman to build the Cathedral of Saint Joseph early in the history of the diocese is quite extraordinary according to Bishop Swain. It was a leap of faith to build it and another leap of faith to ask the people of the diocese to fund the restoration. But he knew it needed to be done, especially after seeing the cathedral in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was rector, burn down.
“I’ve learned over time the importance of sacred art and how it can move people as a teaching device, but also just lift our spirits,” Bishop Swain said. “It’s wonderful to see people come in there and just kind of be overwhelmed with what they encounter. And the people were very generous and supportive all over the diocese. There’s only one cathedral and it belongs to everybody and it’s also a community landmark. It was a leap of faith.”
The needs answered by the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House were much different but critical to answering the call to serve those in dire need in our diocese. Bishop Swain said at first they didn’t know quite how to meet the needs of the homeless, but when a building became available, God provided the opportunity. The entire community pitched in and got the project done. It serves a population that was crying out for help.
“A good number of those who use that, either as an overnight shelter or for other services, come to Sioux Falls from other places in the diocese and around the area. It really is one of those things that brings us together as a family, and as a family we need to take care of each other,” Bishop Swain said.
That constant care for the other was something Father James Morgan, rector at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, has appreciated about Bishop Swain.
“What has impressed me most working with Bishop Swain is his concern for the other—especially the poor, the downtrodden, the immigrant,” Father Morgan said. “The creation of the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House is a testament to that, of course, but to see him in the parish hall at the Cathedral, personally greeting the homeless at the Christmas at the Cathedral rehearsal, for example, is beyond touching. You see the bishop/priest/man for who he really is.”
With all of the bishop’s travels around the state over the years, many of us have seen or met him at charity events, confirmations, Catholic school Masses, or while praying at Planned Parenthood. He initiated the building of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery for the Adoration Sisters and continued development of affordable housing through St. Joseph Catholic housing. He also moved the Sunday TV Mass recording into the cathedral after its restoration.
Bishop Swain’s time as our shepherd hasn’t been without its challenges. He often sees himself as the successor of the Apostle Thomas because he doubted.
“Every time I begin to doubt what’s going on I say, ‘Oh, there Thomas is coming out of me again.’ But he eventually said, ‘My Lord and my God.’ And that’s where we need to end up,” Bishop Swain said.
Dan Fritz, diocesan attorney over the course of several years, worked side-by-side with Bishop Swain through many of the challenging times. During those years, a friendship grew along with a profound respect for the bishop’s character.
“Bishop Swain’s strong faith, his love of God, and his dedication to prayer are evident in his approach to all aspects of his work,” Fritz said. “As a result, Bishop Swain consistently approached very difficult situations with a perspective that always placed his own self-interests aside in order to further the best interests of the diocese and other individuals involved. I witnessed the best form of leadership from Bishop Swain that will likely never be fully known or appreciated by most.”
Fritz said Bishop Swain’s selfless leadership, high degree of intellect, and common sense helped him make the best decisions to benefit our diocese even in difficult circumstances. Beyond all that seriousness, a bit of humor often peaked through to lighten the mood.
“Bishop Swain’s most endearing quality may be his very understated but entertaining sense of humor,” Fritz said. “He won’t be the loud center of attention in a social group, but I have experienced several times his ability to slip a very subtle but extremely funny line in that puts a smile on everyone’s face to lighten what might otherwise be a very heavy conversation.”
There are plenty of heavy things to shoulder as a bishop. From Fritz’s vantage point, Bishop Swain guided the diocese through all the twists and turns and left us in very good shape.
“That doesn’t happen by chance. It happens through leadership—the quiet, thoughtful, prayerful leadership that Bishop Swain blessed us with over his years as our bishop,” Fritz said.
The joys have always outweighed the challenges, especially when it involved bringing the Sacraments and the love of Jesus Christ to all he encountered. Bishop Swain said he never tired of confirmations and ordinations. He ordained over 30 priests and confirmed over 20,000 teens and those joining the Church through RCIA.
“I get letters from the kids thanking me for confirming them. It’s just a wonderful experience,” the bishop said.
Now that his time here is coming to an end, he has decided to stay in South Dakota in retirement. Even though he lived in Wisconsin for 40 years, this is now home to him. He will certainly miss his work, but he knows many good shepherds will come after him.
The Bishop’s House next to the Cathedral of Saint Joseph houses in one room the portraits of all of the diocese’s bishops over the years. More than once, Bishop Swain has told the story of explaining who those men are in those portraits because many people don’t know them. They are his predecessors—Bishops Marty, O’Gorman, Mahoney, Brady, Hoch, Dudley and Carlson.
“I realized that someday my portrait would be there and someone would have to explain who I was. Bishops come and go; the Church remains,” he said.
The time has come for someone to explain who you were Bishop Swain. You were a good and faithful servant to our diocese. Enjoy your retirement.
To view more photos from Bishop Paul Swain’s nearly 14 years as bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, visit sfcatholic.org/swain