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Bishop Peter Muhich with parishioners and descendants of Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk in Manderson, S.D.

It is an extraordinary testament to a person’s pastoral care when they are remembered as someone who was a steady presence in the most difficult times. For a priest, a finer thing could hardly be said. This is how our family remembers the late Bishop Peter Muhich who died on Saturday after a battle with cancer.

Before being named the ninth bishop of Rapid City, S.D., Bishop Peter was Father Peter to us and was our pastor for over 10 years at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Duluth, Minn.

I (Patrice) remember the first homily he delivered at our parish. I sat in the pew with my husband and our five children and listened while he talked about God loving each of us in a personal and marvelous way. I initially let it skip right over me. As a church employee and a mom of five, my focus was to ensure that everyone else knew of God’s love. Somehow, the words then-Father Peter used and the repetition he employed, penetrated my heart in a way that reminded me of God’s love for me as well. It was a powerful moment.

Father Peter was our pastor during the most challenging years of our lives. When my unchurched mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he dropped everything to be with her for each hospitalization. When she eventually died, he celebrated her funeral Mass. Each Sunday after Mass, he graciously visited briefly with my mom, who was mostly non-verbal due to her dementia, and eventually, he celebrated her funeral as well. When my grandfather, a former daily Massgoer, had to be moved to an assisted living facility miles away from his parish and the nearby pastor couldn’t make time to visit him, Father Peter made a weekly 30-minute drive out of his way to bring him Communion and pray with him. He anointed five members of our family at different moments of sickness or before surgeries.

Bishop Peter‘s primary purpose was to point us toward Jesus. He was faithful to all of us because he was faithful to God.

He used to joke about being overly organized. I believe his compulsion to be organized was a gift from the Holy Spirit that empowered him to work 48 hours into a 24-hour day, every day, so he could be there for so many of us.

There is no doubt he did all of those things because he loved his parishioners, but his primary purpose was to point us toward Jesus. He was faithful to all of us because he was faithful to God.

Father Peter knew that clergy could bring people to Jesus or turn them away in hurt. He was very intentional about making sure his encounters with people put them at ease, even if he had to communicate something difficult.

Following a diocesan strategic plan that created new parish clusters and mergers, he was assigned two parishes serving the wealthiest and lowest-income neighborhoods in town. He navigated it perfectly. In 2016, a fire destroyed the Lutheran church that hosted free breakfast every month in the low-income neighborhood. Before the flames were extinguished, Father Peter reached out to the Lutheran pastor and assured him that the Catholic parish he pastored would be available until the Lutherans could host again.

His life also included close, dear friends. His two closest friends were priests as well, and their friendship radiated joy. They traveled together, supported each other and praised God together. Such remarkable friendships among the clergy strengthen those within them and bless everyone who knows them.

His homilies contained lessons that we could carry with us into the week. In addition to his concrete “three things you can do this week,” which he listed in many homilies, he would issue challenges to parishioners. But they were always delivered gently.

When Father Peter was appointed bishop of Rapid City, I (Billy) was well into my formation as a Jesuit, which he helped to support and nurture. Shortly after his installation, I was assigned to the Jesuit mission on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where I would have Bishop Peter once again as my pastor.

Bishop Peter Muhich celebrating Mass on the anniversary of Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk’s death in Manderson, S.D.
Bishop Peter Muhich celebrating Mass on the anniversary of Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk’s death in Manderson, S.D. 

He was a kind and discerning bishop. When I worked with him on issues related to Truth and Reconciliation and the church’s troubled history with Indian boarding schools, he was prudent in his course of action. He knew how to slowly, but effectively, bring potentially resistant parties along in dialogue.

This was matched also by a fervent support and interest in ministry in the Native communities and enthusiastically promoted the cause for Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk’s canonization.

Bishop Peter first became a pastor in Duluth when I was in middle school. At our weekly school Masses, he would elevate the Host and say, “This is truly Jesus, the heart of our school; The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world...” Such a simple insertion impacted me. As a young boy contemplating the priesthood, there was a sincerity in him that was undeniable. He believed and wanted the rest of us to understand that nothing else, not tuition nor academics, was the heart of our school. Jesus was.

The passing of an active bishop is tragic for many reasons. Not only was Bishop Peter beloved because of his many many attributes; he was cherished because of his office.

The bishop is not only the symbol of unity among Catholics in a diocese, but he is, in a very special manner, our link to Christ and his apostles. He represents for us, whether we are always conscious of it or not, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic nature of our faith. It is the bishop who links us to the first apostles, who link our local church to Rome, who fully initiates us into the Christian community at confirmation and who blesses the oils that heal and comfort us in the graced and precarious moments of our lives.

The death of a bishop is both the loss of a person and of an important symbolic part of our religious lives. We mourn the loss of Bishop Peter both as bishop and as Peter. We pray for the many in northern Minnesota, South Dakota and elsewhere who mourn the loss of their faithful friend, son, brother, pastor and bishop.

We are not grateful for his passing, but we are glad that his death can highlight the witness of his life and deepen our gratitude for faithful pastors and bishops. He lived up to his episcopal motto: Exemplum Dedi Vobis (“I have given you an example.” Jn 13:15). May he be welcomed into paradise by his fellow apostles, to whom the Lord spoke those same words.

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