Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz has spent more than half of his 50 years of priestly ministry as a bishop and archbishop, first in Duluth, Minnesota, and then in Anchorage.
But, at age 77 and anticipating his golden anniversary of ordination to the priesthood in December, he’s getting a chance to do once again what he truly loves in priestly ministry, being a pastor.
As pastor of St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, the man who shepherded the Archdiocese of Anchorage for more than 17 years said he missed the role of parish priest during his years in the episcopacy.
“I find being a pastor very rewarding,” he said. “It’s great being close to people, accompanying them in birth and in their final days, being with them in their ups and downs. You participate in the full spectrum of ministering to families.”
When his successor, Archbishop Paul Etienne, took over in 2016, Archbishop Schwietz offered his services in any way he was needed. With characteristic humility, he told the Anchor then that he envisioned himself as a “grandpa” to the archdiocese.
Although he has a home in Fort Myers, Florida, he doesn’t spend much time there. When he is in Alaska, Archbishop Schwietz offers Mass on Tuesdays and Fridays at the parish, attends staff meetings, and spends the weekend at Masses and hearing confessions.
Father Arthur Roraff is the parochial vicar at St. Andrew. Although Archbishop Schwietz lives in a home in midtown Anchorage, he often spends one or two nights at the St. Andrew rectory, especially if the weather is bad or meetings run late.
In late November, Archbishop Schwietz traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a successful heart valve replacement. After suffering a minor heart attack in April, the valve problem was discovered.
“My heart was functioning at a lower capacity,” the archbishop said. “I tired more easily and had to slow down.”
Slowing down is a relative term. In early November, a couple of weeks before surgery, the archbishop returned from a scheduled trip to the Holy Land with 45 people, including fellow members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, an ancient order dedicated to assisting the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. He served as the spiritual director on the journey.
Archbishop Schwietz was born into a Polish-American family in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father owned a tavern.
“It was the local neighborhood bar,” he said. “Dad tended bar and ran the business.”
The establishment was only four blocks from St. Casimir Church, at the time a Polish national church where Polish immigrants could hear the day’s sermon in their native tongue and find Polish-speaking priests in the confessional.
After graduating from a Christian Brothers’ high school, the young Schwietz entered a college seminary to study to be a priest in the religious order Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Eventually he received a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa and a licentiate and a master’s degree in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
He was ordained a priest on Dec. 20, 1967.
“I spent my first year in a parish in Fond du Lac in the Milwaukee Diocese,” he said. “It was an Oblate parish.”
But the man who came to love parish work soon found his religious order often needed his talents for the education of seminarians. Among other parish and seminary assignments, he spent nearly nine years in two different stints at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he directed an Oblate house of study.
In 1989, Pope John Paul II selected him as the bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, where he was installed in 1990. Ten years later, he was sent to Anchorage and succeeded Archbishop Francis Hurley as archbishop of Anchorage in 2001.
“I’ve been blessed,” the archbishop said in recalling his 50 years of priestly ministry. “I have no regrets about any of the things I’ve been asked to do. Even when I doubted my own talents, every time I said ‘yes,’ things have worked out.”
Growing older has its benefits, he said.
“I have the wonderful experience of recalling so much that I’m grateful for,” he reflected, “the great people I’ve known, the guys I worked with in the seminary.”
Nevertheless, the years have imposed some restraints on the tall and once athletic prelate.
“There are some things I can’t do anymore. I used to play tennis. And I loved very active sports,” he said. “I can still do some cross country skiing, but no more downhill.”
He continues to love travel, and eventually he would like to “be a snowbird” and spend at least two winter months at his Fort Myers home, near his younger brother. Family has been important to Archbishop Schwietz ever since growing up in his tight-knit Polish neighborhood. He has an older sister, and two younger sisters accompanied him to the Mayo Clinic in November. Another sister, Debbie, is deceased.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage will help Archbishop Schwietz celebrate his 50 years of priesthood with a solemn Mass of thanksgiving Dec. 20. The Mass is at 5:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral with a reception following. It is open to the public.