'He's Been a Gift to Us'
By Kevin Harter
St. Paul Pioneer Press [Wisconsin]
November 5, 2006
Parishioners at St. Patrick's Catholic Church credit the Rev. John Parr for healing the wounds inflicted by a priest suspected of murder.
• St. Patrick's Parish: A Journey of Healing (PDF)
If the Rev. Ryan Erickson was a murderous devil, as many at St. Patrick's Catholic Church believe, the Rev. John Parr is an answered prayer, sent to reconcile the spiritually fractured parish in Hudson, Wis.
In the past four years in the parish, an associate priest has been accused of killing a parishioner and another man to conceal the molestation of a boy, and another was accused of inappropriately touching women. And when the senior pastor retired, he said he knew nothing about allegations against either of the associates.
Parishioners were skeptical of their leaders. They were angry that warning signs were ignored. And they were quitting their church.
Then Parr arrived from Wausau, Wis., in September 2004. He would soon learn of the divisions within the 1,900-family parish. And it would get worse when Erickson became a murder suspect weeks later.
"I wasn't aware of any of it when I arrived," the 54-year-old Parr recalls. One of the first things he did was sit down for a painful discussion with the family most affected, Tom and Janet O'Connell.
Their son Dan O'Connell was killed on a clear, cold winter day in 2002 along with a University of Minnesota mortuary science intern in the family funeral home in Hudson. Erickson was the likely killer, a judge has since ruled.
Through the anger and the pain, Parr has pulled their parish back together, Tom O'Connell Sr. says.
"It's almost as if the Holy Spirit has come upon the parish and brought him here," he says of Parr.
"The difference between them is night and day," his wife says of Parr and Erickson. "One is good. And one was evil — very much the devil.
"If it weren't for (Parr), well, I don't know if I could have gone back to that church," she says. "Probably not."
A PARISH TORN APART
For a century and a half, Hudson-area Catholics have gathered to pray and sing in unison at St. Patrick's. It has been a place of compassion, healing and reverence. The heartbreaking trauma of 2002 nearly tore it apart.
Dan O'Connell, 39, whose family had been parish members for more than 50 years, and James Ellison, 22, of Barron, Wis., were found shot to death inside the O'Connell Family Funeral Home on Feb. 5, 2002. It became a mystery that engulfed the community, as police searched for years without making an arrest.
It was also the year that allegations of inappropriate behavior involving another associate pastor at St. Patrick's were investigated by police.
But it was Erickson on whom much of the controversy centered.
Erickson's stormy three-year tenure at the parish pitted parishioners against each other and prompted some to quit attending the church even before the priest was linked to the homicides. He was curt, unyielding on church issues and self-righteous, parishioners say.
The same week of the funeral home slayings, police were called to St. Patrick's School to investigate an assault report by the school's principal against one of Erickson's supporters. The principal had been a critic of the priest.
The parish anxiously waited for answers, first from the courts, then from the diocese. Rumors began to swirl. Then word began to spread that Erickson, who had moved on to another Wisconsin parish, was a suspect in the killings. But what exactly led to O'Connell's and Ellison's slayings might never be known. Erickson hanged himself outside his new parish in Hurley on Dec. 19, 2004.
INHERITING THE TROUBLES
When Parr arrived in Hudson, he knew nothing of the homicides, the divisive Erickson or other controversies about to surface.
The oldest of five boys, Parr, who grew up in a tiny rural western Wisconsin community near La Crosse, became interested in politics, law and the priesthood as a teen. He went on to study at St. John's University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in literature. He soon found his calling and entered the seminary.
Parishioners say his faith and his genuine, caring nature have helped him guide St. Patrick's through the painful past few years.
In his first few days at St. Patrick's, Parr began searching for answers. He reached out to parish members, including those who had left. And he sat down with members to discuss their concerns.
"He is a holy man. He represents what is good, just and right," says Sam Cari, chairman of the parish pastoral council and a 30-year member of St. Patrick's. "God had a hand in his being here — and I hope he remains for many years to come."
Adds Mary Piasecki, principal at St. Patrick's School: "He's been a gift to us. He's wise, insightful, kind and spiritual. He's everything we've been waiting for and wanting in a priest."
This past week, he and other church leaders presented a "Journey of Healing" report to parishioners. It was a stark reminder of what the parish has been through the past few years, and it outlined a Scripture-based blueprint for the future, including goals such as:
• Holding ourselves and our leaders accountable.
• Having a culture and interaction of respect and civility.
• Being a vibrant and welcoming faith community.
After Mass last Sunday morning, tears welled up Jane Kelley's eyes as she waited with her teenage daughter Victoria to shake Parr's hand.
"Without Father Parr, we wouldn't be where we are today," Kelley said. "It turned into a completely different parish because of his presence. … He is the most genuine person I think I have ever met."
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
St. Patrick's previously had three priests, but those jobs have been consolidated onto the shoulders of Parr. While many have openly wondered how he can keep calm under the pressure and workload, Parr simply says it is an honor and a privilege to be at St. Patrick's.
And challenges remain.
The O'Connells — and other members of the parish — have expressed two related concerns to church leaders: How was Erickson allowed to flourish, despite many concerns reported to his superiors about his erratic behavior? And how do they ensure it will never happen again?
In February, the O'Connell and Ellison families outlined a five-point plan for church reforms, such as better screening of men admitted to the seminary and better policing of priests after they are ordained. Failing to get the response they wanted, the O'Connells and their St. Paul attorney, Jeff Anderson, filed an unprecedented lawsuit in August, which asks for the names and locations of some 5,000 Catholic clergy accused of molesting children, so they can publicize the list.
"We don't want money. We've never wanted money. We want answers," Tom O'Connell says.
Officials in the Superior, Wis., Diocese did not return phone calls seeking comment on Parr's work at St. Patrick's and the status of the bishop's plan to address the families' concerns.
As for Parr, he sets aside all the praise from parishioners with a smile. The credit, he says, should go to parishioners who set about addressing and resolving the issues facing St. Patrick's.
"More often than not, I was running to catch up with the people I was to lead," he says. "It is an exceptional parish of faith, wisdom, talent and generosity."
Kevin Harter can be reached at email@example.com or 1-800-950-9080, ext. 2149.
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