Bishop Wirz said the ‘romance of the priesthood’ never left him Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Dec. 02, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

Bishop George O. Wirz was in love — with the priesthood. When he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest in 1977, he told his parishioners

at St. Bernard Parish in Madison, where he was the pastor, “The romance of the priesthood has never left me. I’m still in love.”

If I had asked him that question before he died, I’m sure he would have said the same thing. In fact, I did talk with him the week before he died. Since 2010 marked his 50th anniversary of being named a Monsignor and the 45th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, we discussed setting up an interview to talk about those occasions.

In his usual humble way, Bishop Wirz said we should wait until after the holidays, when things slowed down. Although we weren’t able to meet for that interview, I know from previous conversations what he might have said.

Seeds for his vocation

Where did that love of the priesthood start? The seeds for his vocation were planted by his home life and early education. The fact that both he and his sister, Josephine (now Sr. Joan Wirz, a Sister of St. Agnes), entered the priesthood and religious life respectively, can be attributed in great part to their parents’ example.

Prayer and faith were a part of daily life as they grew up. Their father, Otto Wirz, said that their mother, Ida, “was an exceptional woman of prayer, a kind of saint.” Bishop Wirz also had a cousin, Msgr. Joseph Emmenegger, who entered the seminary.

Bishop Wirz likewise credited his religious training at St. Joseph Parish in Argyle with helping plant the seed of a vocation. He and his sister attended public schools in Argyle and Monroe, so they went to religious education classes on Saturday mornings at St. Joseph.

Bishop Wirz told me that the most enjoyable part of his religious education as a youth was  spent in the summer. That’s when the Sinsinawa Dominicans came for a two-week vacation school. “They prepared me for my First Communion and Confirmation,” he said. “It was my only contact with Sisters, and it has left an indelible mark on my life.”

Seminary studies and influence of priests

Although later he did very well in his seminary studies, Bishop Wirz remembers flunking his first Latin test at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee. “I was ready to pack up and go,” he told me. Fortunately his Latin teacher, Fr. Leonard Busch, encouraged him to stay.

The outstanding example of the priests he met at St. Francis Seminary also helped his vocation blossom. He appreciated meeting other young men with similar interests, too. It all gradually deepened his desire for the priesthood.

He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from St. Francis in 1948 and then went to the Catholic University of America, where he received a licentiate in sacred theology, the equivalent of a master’s degree. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 31, 1952, by Bishop William P. O’Connor at St. Raphael Cathedral in Madison.

Working in the diocese

He spent two years as an assistant pastor at St. Bernard Parish in Madison (returning years later as pastor), but Bishop O’Connor tapped him to work in the chancery as his secretary and later as vice-chancellor and chancellor. He was also asked to teach at Queen of Apostles Seminary in Madison and serve as chaplain at the Catholic Information Center on State St. in downtown Madison. This was a storefront place that provided information on the Catholic Church, especially to students at UW-Madison.

A highlight of his days with Bishop O’Connor was the opportunity to attend the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Two years before the council, Bishop O’Connor named him a Monsignor, perhaps so that he would have more standing while attending the council. There had not been an ecumenical council since 1870, so participating in it was exciting for Bishop Wirz. He was able to mingle with bishops and cardinals from around the world and hear Pope John XXIII speak in person.

Bishop Wirz agreed with the Holy Father on the importance of updating the Catholic Church and embracing ecumenism. “That became a roadmap for the rest of my life,” Bishop Wirz said. As someone with ancestors who were clergymen in the Swiss Reformed Church, Bishop Wirz was especially interested in interfaith dialogue. He co-chaired the local Lutheran/Methodist/Roman Catholic Dialogue from 1975 to 1986 and was a friend of Jewish Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky, among many clergy of other denominations.

Rector of Holy Name Seminary

Returning from the Vatican Council, Bishop Wirz was named rector of the newly erected Holy Name Seminary in Madison, which opened in 1963. He served as rector for 10 years, endearing himself to students and faculty alike.

Fr. Bill Connell, pastor of St. Stephen Parish in Clinton, was a member of his original Class of 1963 at Holy Name Seminary.  Father Connell told me, “Bishop Wirz was such a gracious, caring, and humble man. I feel truly honored to have been able to call him a friend and mentor. He was so proud to let us know that he had prayed a rosary every day since 1963 specifically for our class.”

Added Father Connell, “He was never embarrassed to share his faith and love of Church, even to those who totally disagreed with him. I was privileged to work with him on diocesan committees, including the Office of Continuing Education for Priests. His love of priesthood and priests was always obvious. He was always there to visit the sick, primarily priests, but also friends and family. I will always be grateful when he anointed my dying father at Mercy Hospital in Janesville. We have lost a true model of holiness, graciousness, and love of Church. He is everything that I look for in the model for a bishop. May he rest in peace.”

I couldn’t have said it better. We will certainly miss the gentle spirit and strong faith of Bishop Wirz, who was in love with the priesthood throughout his whole life. May be continue to inspire other men to follow in his footsteps.