Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos, who led the Diocese of Jefferson City from 1997-2018, had to postpone his scheduled 25th anniversary celebration on Aug. 15 due to illness. He asks for prayers as he recovers and looks back gratefully on his time as bishop.
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos immediately noticed the friendliness and authenticity of the flock he had been sent to guard, unite and govern.
“I could tell right off that they were wonderful people, what I call ‘the salt of the earth,’” said Bishop Gaydos, who became the diocese’s third bishop 25 years ago this month and continued until his retirement in 2018.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be good!’” he said. “And it has been good.”
He spent the next 20 years promoting the New Evangelization in these 38 counties, through a period of sweeping demographic changes and a diminishing number of available priests.
“The work of the Church is to go out and make disciples!” he said in an Aug. 8 interview. “That is not optional.”
He recalled growing up in a tight-knit neighborhood in St. Louis, where life revolved around home and St. Agnes Church and School.
Living within walking distance, he served at Mass many mornings and filled-in for the parish sacristan over the summers.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who taught him at school and two of St. Agnes’s associate pastors in particular encouraged him to think about being a priest.
Ties to this diocese were already being forged.
“I always say, Father (Arnold) Bruckerhoff, who was from Rhineland, sent me to the seminary, and Father (Bernard) Boessen, who was from St. Thomas, kept me in the seminary,” said Bishop Gaydos.
After studying in St. Louis and Rome, he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on Dec. 20, 1968.
He served for nearly 19 years as a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese, ministering in parishes and assisting Cardinal John J. Carberry, Archbishop John L. May and Archbishop (later Cardinal) Justin F. Rigali in the Chancery.
Late one evening in June of 1997, Archbishop Rigali summoned him to the archbishop’s residence to tell him: “Pope John Paul II has decided to send you to be the next bishop of Jefferson City.”
The new bishop was ordained and installed on Aug. 27 of that year, succeeding Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, who retired after leading the diocese for 28 years.
Bishop Gaydos, whose surname is Slovak for “Shepherd,” took the motto, “With a Shepherd’s Care.”
From Day 1, Bishop Gaydos worked with priests, curia and the lay faithful to bolster the spiritual renewal of the Church here, beginning with the laity.
Among the highlights of his episcopacy were the establishment of a diocesan affiliate of Catholic Charities USA, the building of the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center, the opening of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, the intensification of formation for permanent deacons, and the inviting of a new wave of missionary priests from around the world to minister here.
Churches, schools and Newman centers were built or expanded on his watch.
“None of this is my work,” he insisted. “It’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”
One of his first acts was to convene the four-year “Disciples in Mission” faith-sharing and renewal process in parishes throughout the diocese.
“I saw it as a perfect way to draw more people into the heart of the mission of the Church,” he said.
The process culminated with the convening of a reconfigured Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC), made up of lay and ordained representatives from throughout the diocese, to advise the bishop on ways to put the Church’s mission into action.
Faith in action
When Bishop Gaydos arrived in Jefferson City, the administration and central support ministries of the diocese were scattered across four older buildings that had become very expensive to maintain.
“I can’t think of a more difficult thing to try to get people interested in supporting than building a new office for their bishop,” he recalled. “So I prayed.”
The answer came through the family of the late Alphonse J. Schwartze, a Westphalia native who had started out poor but mastered the art of investing.
Mr. Schwartze’s family, the trustees of the community foundation he established, and his pastor, Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, contacted Bishop Gaydos. The family wanted to do something substantial to honor God in Mr. Schwartze’s memory.
The foundation paid to build the Catholic Center that now carries Mr. Schwartze’s name, with a chapel dedicated in honor of his patron saint, St. Alphonsus Liguori — “who founded a religious community to work with the rural poor,” the retired bishop noted.
Bishop Gaydos worked with deacons and laypeople to establish conferences of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in parishes throughout the diocese, providing a prayerful and distinctly Catholic way to help local people in need.
Those efforts, coupled with the diocese’s already vibrant refugee resettlement, prison ministry, social concerns, rural life and family life efforts, led to the creation of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) in 2011.
“Many, many people had a hand in bringing Catholic Charities into being,” Bishop Gaydos noted.
Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, serving as chancellor and director of parish services, helped set the agency’s vision and convene its board of trustees.
Looking back to the same timeframe, Bishop Gaydos recalled being surprised to find out that the largest city in this diocese did not have a Catholic high school.
Parents in Columbia with children in grade school were eager to get a school started right away, but Bishop Gaydos counseled them: “Raising the money to start a high school is the easiest part. Keeping it going is the most difficult.”
Years of preparation and fundraising went into creating Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School, which opened in 2011 and draws students from a large radius.
It is named for the Church’s first noticeably Black priest in the United States, who was born in 1854 into a family of enslaved people in what is now part of this diocese.
Planning, inviting and healing
Bishop Gaydos and his advisors worked to develop and implement a diocesan pastoral plan, with emphasis on building up family life; promoting deeper knowledge and understanding of the faith; and creating a more welcoming environment in all parishes for newcomers, immigrants, the marginalized and the inactive.
An intensive, two-year consultation led in 2015 to the reaffirmation of those priorities along with a realignment of the Chancery staff to help it become more collaborative and directly focused on the needs of people in the parishes.
He worked with his vicars general — first Monsignor Michael J. Wilbers, then Monsignor Gregory L. Higley, then Father Joseph S. Corel — to invite and welcome missionary priests from Africa and Asia to serve in this diocese.
“These priests from all these faraway places — their sense of mission and dedication is such a great gift to us,” said Bishop Gaydos. “People whose ancestors first came to know Christ through missionaries from the homelands of many of our ancestors are now here ministering to us.”
The most difficult challenge of Bishop Gaydos’s episcopacy involved coming to terms with and addressing the fact that there were members of the clergy who had sexually abused children who were entrusted to their care.
Priests of the diocese who were deemed to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors in the past were removed from ministry, and new, robust safeguards in keeping with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People were implemented and refined.
It was a heart-wrenching process for everyone involved.
“If there’s one thing that kept me sane through all of this, it’s the fact that Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church,” said Bishop Gaydos. “The Church is the Body of Jesus, risen from the dead! It may be wounded, but it will be healed.”
In retirement, Bishop Gaydos resides in the Cathedral of St. Joseph Rectory, devoting much of his time to prayer and contemplation and offering daily Mass for the people of this diocese, living and deceased.
“I have much more time for just being with the Lord,” he noted.
He is confident that the Body of Christ will weather and eventually prevail over such setbacks and challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One way or another, the work of the Church is going to continue,” he said. “It’s going to grow, and we’re going to continue to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus and make that a present reality, until the end of time,” he said.
As the third bishop of Jefferson City to celebrate both his 50th priestly anniversary and his 25th episcopal anniversary here, he insisted that “God’s plan for us is infinitely much more wonderful than anything we can think of or plan for ourselves.”
“Everywhere along the way, starting with Fr. Bruckerhoff saying, ‘John what would you think about taking the entrance exam for the seminary?’ — up through Archbishop Rigali telling me, ‘Pope John Paul is sending you as the next bishop of Jefferson City’ — up to the ability to accept into my heart and the heart of this diocese my successor — it’s all been much more fascinating, much more wonderful than anything I could dream up,” he said.
“It’s been an awesome adventure,” Bishop Gaydos stated. “I’m very grateful to have had, so far, these 25 years and counting as a successor of the Apostles in the midst of the people of this diocese.”