As the bells toll outside my office at the Bishop O’Connor Pastoral Center in Madison, I am reminded of the death of Bishop William H. Bullock, our respected and beloved bishop emeritus.
I remember April 13, 1993, when I met our newly appointed bishop at the airport in Madison along with Bishop George Wirz, Fr. Pat Higgins, and Fr. Mike Hippee. Bishop Bullock walked with a spring in his step as he exited the airplane’s runway and gave us a warm smile.
We all shook hands and smiled in return. Bishop Bullock brought some information about himself and pictures, which I appreciated getting to use in the Catholic Herald.
I learned much about Bishop Bullock in those first minutes. He was friendly, energetic, and well-prepared. And it was clear he was in charge!
All those qualities proved to be hallmarks of his time as a bishop in the Diocese of Madison.
Mingling with the people
As a farm boy from Minnesota, Bishop Bullock perhaps better understood the role of a shepherd. His rural roots
“moored him,” he told me, and gave him a down-to-earth personal quality. He was friendly and showed concern for the well-being of people throughout the diocese.
He truly enjoyed mingling with people. I remember one of his first visits to a rural parish. He celebrated Mass and sat down among the people at a dinner following Mass. I think the parishioners were surprised to be rubbing elbows with the bishop!
He made a point of visiting every parish in the diocese throughout his tenure. He became acquainted with priests, Sisters, and lay people and remembered them by name.
He held regular meetings with diocesan staff members and heads of agencies, keeping an eye on what was happening in every department. Like the good shepherd he was, he guided when necessary and otherwise let people do their work in their areas of expertise.
Although he grew up on a farm, he knew early on that he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. But he did value the work ethic he learned there.
Serving his country, becoming a priest
He thought about becoming a priest in high school, but it was 1944 and World War II was happening. Although seminarians were exempt from the draft, he decided he wanted to serve his country. Within a week of his 18th birthday, he enrolled in the Navy.
He served in the Navy until 1946. Because of his service, he was able to attend the “university of his dreams” — Notre Dame — through the G.I. Bill. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and later, after ordination to the priesthood, obtained a master’s degree in liturgy and religious education.
His parents and family were very supportive of his vocation, he said. He told me that priests need their family “even more after ordination.”
After his ordination in 1952, he served at several parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. He then became an instructor and eventually headmaster of St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul.
After 14 years at the academy, he became pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Excelsior, Minn., where he served for nine years.
“I was very happy as a pastor,” he said. He helped implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including establishing a parish council, maintaining a grade school, and enlarging the parish’s religious education, youth, and adult education programs. “I became convinced that parents have to become more articulate about their faith and commitment with their children,” he told me. “This is what I mean by ‘transferring our faith to the next generation.’”
When he was a pastor, he wrote a weekly column for the parish bulletin. He continued to exercise his writing skills in Des Moines and later in the Diocese of Madison by writing a weekly column for the Catholic Herald. He believed in the importance of communicating with the people regularly.
His priorities as a bishop
In 1980, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis and in 1987 he was named bishop of Des Moines, Iowa. Among his priorities in Des Moines which he continued in Madison were:
• Helping instill a sense of the importance of prayer among the people.
• Promoting a consistent ethic of life embracing abortion, euthanasia, poverty, capital punishment, and the arms race.
• Encouraging an updated sense of Catholic identity.
• Assisting families in meeting challenges in Church and society.
• Evangelizing Catholics, including those who have been baptized but haven’t had an interior conversion as well as the unchurched.
• Cultivating a sense of stewardship involving the sharing of time, talent, and treasure.
Bishop Bullock emphasized that we have to reach out, to be present to people, and to ask people personally to be involved in the Church. We must also have opportunities for people to socialize, he said, noting that he himself liked to “pray, plan, and party.”
Putting priorities into action in Madison
In the Diocese of Madison, Bishop Bullock put those priorities into action. He always emphasized the importance of prayer. One of his first actions as bishop here was to write a “Prayer for the Diocese of Madison,” which I still have in a frame on my desk.
Diocesan liturgies were always well done and inspiring. And who can forget the incense! Even after becoming bishop emeritus in 2003, Bishop Bullock continued to celebrate daily Mass, including his regular Monday Mass at the Bishop O’Connor Center. He enjoyed praying a daily Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours saying last year, “As I rise each day, I thank God for bringing me the light of a new day and I promise praise to Him for his goodness and offer my life in daily Mass and prayer for the Church.”
Bishop Bullock promoted respect for all life in his preaching, writing, and work. He spearheaded the building of a new Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC) in Madison to replace the deteriorating St. Martin House on Beld St. The CMC offers a daily meal program and many other services for the poor and people of color in this area.
When the Diocese of Madison could no longer fund the operation of the CMC, Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Madison generously took over its operation. Bishop Bullock has asked that memorials be given to the CMC.
Bishop Bullock also made the hard decision to close Holy Name Seminary in 1995. He then renovated the building and renamed it the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center. It opened in 1998 as an administrative center for the diocese, a place for meetings and retreats, and providing apartments for retired priests. Bishop Bullock himself moved there after he became bishop emeritus.
Besides his administrative talents, Bishop Bullock will also be remembered for his personal kindness. He was known for sending personal cards (usually hand-written) to those he knew, often accompanied by prayer cards.
In more recent years he began using e-mail more often. I corresponded with him during his annual winter sojourns to California and had a message not long before his diagnosis with cancer. He said he was looking forward to preaching at the first Mass of Fr. Tim Renz and being there for the ordination of David Johannes as a deacon this spring. He was proud of the vocations he nurtured through the years.
“Keep well, stay warm, and continue to be the blessing you are for the Catholic press,” he told me, adding, “Take care. You and John (my husband) and your children are always in my prayers.” One of the nicest things he did over the years was host a Mass and breakfast at his residence when John and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
Bishop Bullock reached out with kindness to so many others: his family members, friends, brother bishops, priests, Sisters, and lay people throughout our diocese and beyond. We will remember him with admiration and affection as we pray for his eternal happiness. May God’s Grace, Mercy, and Peace be with him!