The man who became the joyful Archbishop of Portland grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression. In that lakeside city of immigrants, the Catholic Church was a social and spiritual hub.
When John Vlazny, Jr. was born in 1937, Chicago was a place where Catholics proudly built their church steeples alongside the smokestacks of packinghouses and steel mills. The city was more a mosaic than a melting pot, yet its Catholic churches and schools were powerful reminders that religion shaped communal life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Like many children of immigrants, the archbishop’s father, John Vlazny Sr., was familiar with the precarious nature of family life. Hattie, his wife, had died suddenly, leaving him and a young daughter, Marcella, alone. He later married Marie Brezina who would bear him a son and a daughter.
Despite living in a city of more than three million, families such as the Brezinas and Vlaznys found Chicago to be more like a small town. One of the reasons was the extensive network of Catholic parishes that honeycombed the city. For children coming of age, a bungalow’s back yard and the sidewalk in front offered unparalleled opportunities to play without the danger of being hit by delivery wagons. Children could walk to school and to church on their own and to the commercial districts with their small stores and theaters.
The Sister Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary from Beaverville, Ill., arrived at St. Gall Parish in 1924. Enrollment in the school steadily increased and in 1935 an addition was built. Visible to all travelers on busy Kedzie Avenue was the admonition carved in stone, “Teach Me Goodness, Discipline, Knowledge, O Lord.”
Sport was an early pleasure in John Vlazny’s life. He still pays close attention to his hometown Chicago White Sox. He recalls listening to the Sox on the radio with his father into the night. More often than not, he hit the pillow dejected over yet another loss.
He occasionally “helped” his father in the family drug store, he now jokes. Young John would show up for work, get a candy bar, a comic book, make a milkshake for himself and relax.
On Wednesdays, a day off from the pharmacy, the father would take the family on outings. His mother baked Bohemian treats and served roast pork, sauerkraut, and dumplings for special dinners. A daily fare was soup with her homemade noodles. Guests were almost always invited to stay for dinner. Often, it was Msgr. James Hishen of St. Gall’s, a man who was close to the family and a strong influence on the Vlazny children.
John Vlazny, Sr. was a religious man who impressed upon his children the importance of the church in their lives.
John Jr. would play priest with his younger sister Marion; she was the server. The pair also created an altar to Mary each May. Years later, Marion (and her husband Dennis) would characterize her brother as someone who took church seriously and yet was fun-loving. He always saw the bright side of things, they said.
Parish histories rarely include the names of women responsible for nurturing vocations to the priesthood, but Archbishop Vlazny can still remember his first-grade teacher, Sister Madeline Sophie, and Sister Mary Magdalene, who was in charge of the altar servers, and he credits Sister Virginia Marie and Sister Mary George as being “influential in my life and vocation.”
He had just entered the seminary when his father died of cancer. Supportive relatives and neighbors got the family through.
He was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained with men who would be lifelong friends, including a Californian named William Levada, who would eventually become a cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.
Father Vlazny returned from Rome in 1962. The Chicago he found then had much in common with the city in which his father was born in 1896. Newcomers from Puerto Rico and the Philippines were changing the face of older ethnic parishes on Chicago’s North Side while Mexican families were putting down roots in the old stockyards and steel mill neighborhoods.
Young Father Vlazny’s childhood in one of Chicago’s most multi-ethnic neighborhoods and his renewed appreciation for the universality of the church, thanks to his student days in Rome, prepared him well for his various assignments in suburb and city. He also served at the minor seminary in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Of all his assignments in the Chicago archdiocese, St. Aloysius in Humboldt Park left a deep impression on the future archbishop. Staying put at a time when Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues were leaving the city was no small feat. As much as he embraced parishioners, they adored him. The young adult choir described itself unofficially as the “Vlaznyites,” even giving their Spanish-speaking pastor a “Vlaznyite” t-shirt when he left the parish in 1981 to serve as rector of the college seminary.
At St. Aloysius, Father Vlazny experienced close-up the genius that has been the Chicago Catholic experience — welcoming a new group, in this case Puerto Rican Catholics, while continuing to meet the needs of Poles, Filipinos, Germans and African Americans. Long before it became fashionable to talk about diversity, Catholic parishes led the way. It’s an old old story, and one that the pastor’s parents and grandparents would have understood by heart.
When Father Vlazny left his post as rector of Niles College Seminary in 1983 for a larger assignment, students were upset.
“He gave me a different perspective of priesthood,” a seminarian said at the time. “Before I had just seen priests in the parish. But now I also see priests as administrators and leaders of a larger community, as people who are more involved in decision making.”
That year Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin named him an auxiliary bishop. The new bishop wrote in the Catholic New World newspaper that “care, concern and effective leadership” are essential components for his new position.
While serving as episcopal vicar, Bishop Vlazny worked closely with the Office of the Hispanic Apostolate, using his Spanish.
“We need to have more clearly defined and identifiable places in Lake County where Hispanics know they can go for all their ministerial needs,” Bishop Vlazny told the Catholic New World.
He saw the dearth of priests who speak Spanish and so developed lay ministers to give aid.
“Each day it seemed that he had three or four meetings, or presentations, or religious ceremonies; and I would think to myself, why would anyone want to be a bishop?” said Father John Thinnes, who lived with the new auxiliary bishop in the northern part of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “The dedication and the excellence he brought to the work of his ministry was always very impressive.”
As is typical, Bishop Vlazny was able to point out the humor of his new role. “Being a bishop is like being a grandparent,” he told the Catholic New World. “When you come into a parish for a confirmation or other liturgical function, it is fun and everyone is nice to you, and then you go away and leave the pastor with all the problems.”
It was not long before his dedication and friendliness led to yet another mission. There was an opening for a bishop in southern Minnesota.
When Auxiliary Bishop Vlazny was made Bishop of the Diocese of Winona, Minn. in 1987, members of St. Aloysius Parish in Chicago wanted to show support for their beloved former pastor.
About 75 of the largely immigrant community chartered a bus and made the five-hour trip for the installation. The city dwellers had trouble finding the right place, so were late. When they eventually flowed into the room, they all headed straight for their man, who embraced and welcomed each one warmly. Everyone wanted a photo with the new bishop.
“I never was a chancery person. The Church always has to be missionary,” the new spiritual leader told a reporter then.
Over the next 10 years, he became known for getting out among the people he served — not just to make an appearance for a special liturgy or diocesan event, but to talk with them and listen to them, to teach and be taught by them.
One of Bishop Vlazny’s priorities for Winona was to support and strengthen rural life in southern Minnesota. “Farm foreclosures and flight to large population centers weaken our small communities, parishes, schools and threaten family life,” he wrote.
“These folks need and deserve good pastoring. The Church must be with them in these troublesome times.”
He started the tradition of the “Harvest Mass,” an outdoor liturgy celebrated on a family farm in a different deanery every year.
Already intent on evangelization, which Pope John Paul had made clear was the definitive mission of the church, he created an office for the mission.
During a presentation to a group in the small town of Albert Lea, the bishop said those who have already heard the Gospel are called to bring the news of God to others.
“We as church do not exist for ourselves,” he told the group.
As pastoral as he was, it became clear that Bishop Vlazny had top-notch administrative skills. He quietly managed to expand diocesan ministries while putting the diocese on a sound financial footing. Justice seemed to be behind it all. He saved a priests’ pension plan and improved benefits for diocesan employees.
Much of his work went by under the radar. But in 1994, the bishop generated considerable discussion statewide when he issued a position statement on gambling, such as bingo or other games of chance, as a source of revenue for parishes and schools. He asked Catholics to consider ending all gambling operations in which there had been an “attitudinal shift from recreation to profit.”
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune responded in an editorial that said, “At a time when everyone else seems driven only by a lust for greater gambling profits, the Winona statement is a rare and welcome word of compassion for the victims.”
Within a few years of arriving in Minnesota, he also had to endure the trial of a Winona priest accused of sex abuse of a minor. The accuser eventually was awarded $1 million.
Through that, the bishop persisted in his role as a teacher, presenting workshops, conducting question-and-answer sessions and leading prayer services.
In a weekly radio program that aired throughout the diocese for more than three years, he discussed every aspect of the Church, from its hierarchical structure to its position on abortion, from the significance of its sacraments to its role in shaping public policy.
He condemned abortion and euthanasia, sought greater roles for women in the Church, spoke out against the death penalty and urged legislation to assist private education.
He supported the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination and its rules on priestly celibacy, invoked Humanae Vitae in criticizing the contraceptive culture, and called his people to prayer and sacrifice as a way to address the world’s problems.
His convictions tended to deflate those who sought to pigeonhole him as either “conservative” or “liberal.”
He showed himself as a strong supporter of the consistent ethic of life, the seamless garment theme set forth by his friend, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
“Bishop Vlazny won’t be a single-issue person,” said the secretary of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, noting that the bishop preferred all life issues to be dealt with as one.
Meanwhile, as a bishop, he began a ministry to the wider church. In 1993, he was elected chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization. He would also serve on committees for the North American College in Rome, priestly formation, religious life and ministry, and the third millennium. He’d become a liaison to the National Council of Catholic Women and serve as chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Economic Concerns of the Holy See.
Msgr. James Habiger of the Winona Diocese knew that everyone loved Bishop Vlazny. But he warned that anyone who tried to bully the bishop soon would discover that he is “steel wrapped in velvet.”
In 1997, he was asked by the Vatican to take on a yet larger mission, because church leaders knew his light should shine in an even more prominent place. The people of the Winona Diocese were happy for him but crestfallen to see him leave for the Archdiocese of Portland, across the country. St. Mary’s University in the hills above Winona even renamed Thomas Aquinas Hall as Vlazny Hall. The kind, evangelization-minded bishop had displaced a doctor of the church, some noted with a chuckle.