Diocese Discerning Cause for Its Patriarch
Monsignor Joseph Francis Buh
When Msgr. Joseph Buh’s funeral Mass was celebrated on Feb. 6, 1922, the bishop of the Diocese of Duluth at the time, Bishop Timothy McNicholas, described him as “a saintly priest whose life was a benediction and whose memory will be an inspiration for future generations.”
Born in present-day Slovenia in 1833, Msgr. Buh came to the United States as a missionary in 1864. He served as a missionary both to Native Americans in the region and to immigrants, especially Slovenian immigrants. When the Diocese of Duluth was formed, he became its vicar general, and he is said to have helped incorporate an astonishing 57 parishes in the diocese.
Bishop McNicholas went on to describe Msgr. Buh, who is informally known as the Patriarch of the Diocese of Duluth and died at age 89, in his 64th year of priesthood, as “one of the greatest pioneer missionaries of the country” and described the priests and people of the diocese as mourning “because they are deprived of the presence of him whose life was always a smile, a kind word, a generous act, a gentle but persevering effort made to win and reclaim souls.”
When he was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth, he was placed in a special metal-lined coffin to protect the body, with the expectation that someday it might be exhumed as part of a cause for his canonization.
Now, the Duluth Diocese has begun discernment and preparatory work to see if that cause for Msgr. Buh should go forward. Bishop Daniel Felton has asked Father Richard Kunst, pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth, who has a deep interest in church history, to oversee those initial efforts.
Father Kunst said he has not formally worked on a cause for canonization before but has been involved in such efforts before and has friends who have done such work. He said that for a sainthood cause to go forward at all, there has to be an existing devotion surrounding the person, known in technical terms as a “cult.” This would include things like asking for the holy person’s intercession or lighting a candle at his or her tomb.
Father Kunst said this has to arise organically and can’t be forced. He said that in this case “there’s been evidence of it, all along actually,” but perhaps there haven’t been the right people in place to initiate it.
In addition to Msgr. Buh’s particular burial, Father Kunst said the sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery have taken an interest in Msgr. Buh over the years, distributing his relics at least up into the 1940s. They also produced an excellent biography of Msgr. Buh. Father Kunst said the late Bishop Paul Sirba had spoken of Msgr. Buh’s cause, and now Bishop Felton has taken an interest in him, citing him as both an example for the missionary time we’re living in and as a good intercessor for the church’s efforts in northeastern Minnesota to bring the healing, hope, and joy of Jesus to all the people living here.
“So there’s this string, this line of interest, this whole time,” Father Kunst said.
He said the goal for discerning the cult is to “nudge it and see if it takes off.” Holy cards have been printed and will be distributed.
And then we’ll “just see where the Holy Spirit takes this cause,” he said. “If there’s a natural growth to it, then we’ll say, ‘OK, there’s something here.’ … If it doesn’t go anywhere, then we’ll say, ‘OK, well, you know, God speaks through that as well.’”
A life of sanctity
Asked why many consider Msgr. Buh to be a saint, Father Kunst said the No. 1 reason is “personal sanctity.”
“It was very abundantly clear, at least in reading the biography … that his spirituality was super impressive,” Father Kunst said. He described Msgr. Buh as someone who embodied a “total emptying of self,” especially for the Native Americans and immigrants among whom he ministered.
He said Bishop Felton has held up Msgr. Buh to diocesan priests as a model of a missionary priest and an example for our own time.
“But of course he [Msgr. Buh] puts all of us modern day priests to shame,” Father Kunst said.
“That is very abundantly clear throughout his biography that he would go anywhere for any reason for the sake of the faith and enriching people’s faith, and bringing the sacraments, baptisms, whatever,” Father Kunst said, comparing him to the “snowshoe priest,” as Ven. Baraga was called.
These virtues are also echoed in the funeral homily of Bishop McNicholas, who said of Msgr. Buh that “his love for souls was beyond our power to measure.”
“The casual observer would not even direct his attention to the extraordinary zeal of this gentle apostle,” he said. “It is only when one realizes the great harvest that he has reaped that one is forced to take into account the many and deep furrows that he plowed in the harvest fields of Christ. His zeal for souls was ever a burning fire. No journey on foot, no distance by horseback was too long or too trying provided a soul was to be helped at the journey’s end. He would set out with a trust in God realizing that God’s love of souls was infinite and that he was but the dispenser of the riches of God’s sacramental graces. He was ever willing to make every sacrifice in the performance of duty for the salvation of souls.”
He also described Msgr. Buh’s deep devotion to celebrating Mass, even up until two days before his death, and his love for the sacrament of penance, describing the confessional as a place “he cheerfully sat for hours even in the last years of his life dispensing mercy to sinners.”
Diocesan officials have noted that causes for canonization, even when successful, can take a long time. Even if Msgr. Joseph Buh is someday formally canonized a saint and “raised to the altars,” that would probably happen in generations to come.
But as a private devotion, Father Kunst noted that devotion to this saintly priest of the Diocese of Duluth has the support of the bishop and therefore ecclesial approval, such that the faithful of the diocese in their private devotions should feel free to invoke his intercession.
Msgr. Joseph Buh, pray for us.
With thanks to Deacon Kyle Eller, Editor, for your assistance.