ALBUQUERQUE (CNS) — Pope Francis has accepted the retirement of Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe and named Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City to succeed him. The Diocese of Phoenix is located within the Ecclesiastical Province of Santa Fe.
Archbishop Sheehan, who has headed the Santa Fe Archdiocese since 1993 and spent six months in 2003 as apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Phoenix prior to the installation of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, turned 75 last year, the age at which bishops are required under canon law to submit their resignations to the pope.
The changes were announced in Washington April 27 by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Archbishop-Designate Wester will be installed in his new post June 4, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.
“Archbishop Sheehan has faithfully served the Church as a bishop for 32 years, taking on difficult challenges such as beginning a new diocese in Lubbock, Texas; restoring calm and trust in a troubled Archdiocese of Santa Fe when he assumed pastoral leadership there; and assisting us in the Diocese of Phoenix in a time of crisis,” said Bishop Olmsted. “Through all of this, he has always shown remarkable trust in the providence of God, serving the Lord with gladness.
“I welcome the good news of Archbishop John Wester becoming the new Ordinary of Santa Fe,” Bishop Olsmted added. “He is well known for his compassion for the marginalized and forgotten, including his pastoral outreach to immigrants and others impacted by ethnic tensions. I look forward to collaborating with him in addressing key issues faced by the Church and society in the Southwest.”
Archbishop Sheehan was appointed to the Santa Fe Archdiocese initially as its apostolic administrator, when former Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez resigned amid allegations of improper conduct. Archbishop Sheehan was named successor to Archbishop Sanchez three months later.
He later simultaneously served for six months in his archdiocesan role and as temporary apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Phoenix. That assignment also was necessitated by a scandal involving the previous head of the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, who resigned after being charged in a fatal hit-and-run car accident.
Archbishop Sheehan is a native of Wichita, Kansas, born July 9, 1939. He was largely raised in Texas and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth on July 12, 1964. He was first made a bishop March 25, 1983, when he was ordained to head the Diocese of Lubbock.
Among some of Archbishop Sheehan’s more recent notable activities in the archdiocese were his appointment of its first full-time coordinator of Native American activities, a deacon who is from the Acoma Pueblo, and launching the canonization cause of Sister of Charity Blandina Segale. Sister Blandina was an Italian missionary who worked among the poor and migrants in the late 19th century.
As secretary of the USCCB in 2006, Archbishop Sheehan shepherded restructuring of the bishops’ conference. Under the reorganization, the conference’s 36 standing committees were reduced to 16, among other changes.
Archbishop Wester’s move to the Santa Fe Archdiocese will bring him to a slightly larger Catholic population, with about 323,000 over Utah’s 250,000, but who represent a much greater proportion of the population. About 9 percent of Utah’s population is Catholic, while in the Santa Fe Archdiocese, about 25 percent of the population is Catholic.
Archbishop Wester said that as he approaches his new role his weaknesses are his own but his strengths are “the result of the love and support I received from God’s holy people in Utah and from those with whom I served in San Francisco as auxiliary bishop.”
During the news conference at the archdiocesan pastoral center in Albuquerque, the archbishop said he has been impressed by the state’s mountains, mesas, sandstone canyons, art, music and southwest cuisine.
“But even more, I suspect that the real attraction and delight of this state, and of this archdiocese, is the people,” he said, noting the rich diversity of the archdiocese with the Navajo, Apache and Ute tribe members and a large number of Latinos.
He asked for prayers during this time of transition and in the years ahead.
Archbishop Wester was born Nov. 5, 1950, the eldest of four children of Charles and Helen Wester. He earned degrees from St. Joseph College, the former seminary of the San Francisco Archdiocese, as well as St. Patrick College and St. Patrick Seminary, the University of San Francisco and Holy Names College, all in the San Francisco Bay area.
After his ordination May 15, 1976 for the San Francisco Archdiocese, he served as a parish priest, as teacher, campus ministry director and then president of Marin Catholic High School and as assistant superintendent for archdiocesan high schools before becoming administrative assistant to Archbishop John R. Quinn, and vicar for clergy. On Sept. 18, 1998, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop and became vicar general of the archdiocese.
Then-Bishop Wester served as apostolic administrator of the San Francisco Archdiocese for six months after then-Archbishop William J. Levada was named in 2005 by Pope Benedict to be prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was named bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which encompasses the entire state of Utah, in January 2007.
As a consultant to the USCCB’s Committee on Migration and with his role in the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Archbishop Wester has been active in seeking comprehensive immigration reform, making him a familiar face in dioceses of the southwest. For example, he was among the dozen bishops concelebrating Mass last April along the Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona. He also chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Communications.
In Utah, Archbishop Wester was vocal in opposing the state’s reinstatement in March of the firing squad as an option for executions. He has been a member of organizations in the state including the Alliance for Unity and the president’s advisory board for United Way of Salt Lake City.