Bishop Paul Sirba, 59, was just days away from marking a full decade as leader of the Catholic Diocese of Duluth when a sudden cardiac arrest claimed his life Sunday as he was on his way to celebrate morning Mass at St. Rose Church in Proctor.
He was rushed to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth where efforts to revive him proved unsuccessful. He received last rites from the Rev. John Petrich, a hospital chaplain, and died shortly after 9 a.m.
“It’s a shock to everybody,” said the Rev. Ryan Moravitz of Duluth’s St. Lawrence Parish.
The realization of Sirba’s unexpected death has been admittedly difficult for Moravitz to process.
“It’s sinking in,” he said. “It comes in both waves of gratitude and waves of sadness. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
The Rev. James Bissonette, who served as vicar general under the late Bishop Paul Sirba, said Catholics around the nation are mourning his loss.
“Our faithful are in shock and they’re grieving, and rightly so, because they loved Bishop Sirba, and he was a very kind, gentle, faithful shepherd. A lot of people felt that and understood that and now are showing appreciation for that. I myself am grieving not only because like the other priests of the diocese I lost a good shepherd, but he was also a good friend, and he will be missed greatly,” said Bissonnette in a written statement.
“Our first priority is to pray for and say goodbye to Bishop Sirba until we see him again on the day of resurrection, because we are people of hope, and we believe in the fullness of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ,” Bissonnette went on to say.
As a man of deep faith and an early riser, Sirba started his daily routine around 4:30 or 5 a.m., deeply alone in prayer, Moravitz said.
“To be able to spend that first hour of his day with God, and then to be able to step into the day. That’s what sustained him,” Moravitz said. “He was a man of peace. He was steady with a peaceful heart. He always had a calm about him in the midst of any storm, and it was always inspiring.”
The Rev. Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry, reflected on Sirba’s service, with a Twitter post, saying: “He was so much like Jesus: gentle with people and uncompromising with truth. A true shepherd and father.”
Sirba helped the diocese navigate a challenging period that culminated in October with an agreement to pay survivors of childhood sex abuse $39 million to settle outstanding claims against the church, allowing it to emerge from nearly four years of bankruptcy protection.
Moravitz expressed gratitude that Sirba was able to reach the settlement before his life was cut short.
“It was a grace, because he saw it through for those who have been hurt, and he remained focused on those that have been hurt, wanting to journey and minister to them, to make it right to the best of our ability to make it right. His love and care and concern was always for the victims,” Moravitz said.
“He was a gentle and strong servant,” Moravitz went on to say. “He had a heart for people, and he always desired charity and love to be at the core of everything. Even when there was disagreement or struggles, he wanted people to move toward the love of God. He always directed us, as a leader, in that direction — to focus us on Christ, to focus us on the love of God, even in the midst of the struggles that he brought us through.”
In bankruptcy court testimony Oct. 21 as the settlement was announced, Sirba said: “Our first thoughts today are with the innocent people who suffered abuse. We know that no amount of money can heal their suffering. We believe only Jesus brings that kind of healing. But for us, the compensation can be a sign of our repentance and accountability and solidarity.”
At the time of his death, Sirba was living at the St. Rose Church rectory. As part of the recent bankruptcy settlement, the diocese agreed to sell the bishop’s residence for $500,000.
Clergy from around the nation poured out their sympathies in the wake of Sirba’s death.
The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf from the Diocese of Madison, Wis., called for prayers in his blog, saying: “Paul was prayerful and gracious and a real gentleman, a priests’ priest, I have it on good authority that he was an exceptional confessor and spiritual director as a priest. And he played a heck of a good game of pingpong.”
Archbishop Bernard Hebda sent a statement offering his condolences, as well, writing: “The Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis grieves with the Diocese of Duluth over the passing of their beloved shepherd, Bishop Paul Sirba, recalling his many years of joyful service as a son of this local Church. May he rest in peace.”
Moravitz said that despite his station and the great responsibilities of his job, Sirba managed to maintain a sense of fun and never took himself too seriously, as evidenced by his recent appearances at the St. Lawrence Church’s annual All-Saints Party.
“He showed up the last two years dressed up as Bishop Baraga, who was one of the first bishops here in the Great Lakes area. So this year he had a big fuzzy hat on. He had a great sense of humor. He always had an ability to laugh and to laugh at himself, too,” Moravitz said.
A vigil will be held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5. The vigil will resume at 8 a.m. Friday, Dec. 6, until Bishop Sirba's 11 a.m. funeral.