TYLER – In a rare move, Pope Benedict XVI has named an East Texas priest to lead his local diocese.
Msgr. Joseph Strickland of Tyler was appointed the fourth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tyler, which comprises 33 counties of northeast Texas, including Cherokee County.
“We find ourselves in a very unusual place – if there were bets going on in Las Vegas, probably a lot of people lost,” Bishop-elect Strickland said to laughter from a standing-room-only crowd gathered at a Saturday press conference in Tyler.
“As my own sister said, ‘They don’t do that. They don’t make make bishops where I live. They make them and ship them off,’” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, that’s the case, but I do feel grateful for it. It’s a tremendous call of the Holy Spirit, but a very real call from God to serve here.”
“Father Joe,” as he is known to many throughout the diocese, will be consecrated and installed as bishop during a Nov. 28 ordination at the Caldwell Center in Tyler, with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as principal consecrator. Bishop Edmond Carmody, second bishop of the Tyler diocese, will preach at a Nov. 27 vespers service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler.
Strickland, 53, was raised in Cass County, where his family were founding members of the Catholic parish in Atlanta. He was ordained a priest of the Dallas Diocese in 1984, becoming a priest of the Tyler diocese when it was erected in 1987. He has served at parishes in Nacogdoches, Mount Pleasant, Henderson and Tyler, and has served at the diocesan level in different capacities over the years. In 1996, Pope John Paul II named him a monsignor.
As bishop, he will oversee the diocese’s 71 parishes and missions, working with 88 priests, 87 deacons and a large number of religious men and women serving an estimated 80,000 Catholics in the region.
During the press conference, his predecessor, Bishop Álvaro Corrada presented him with a silver pectoral cross that once belonged to Charles Herzig, the first bishop of the Tyler Diocese who died of cancer in 1991.
Noting Sept. 27 as the feast of the archangels, Strickland called it “the appropriate day for (this) announcement.”
“The archangels are the messengers of God, and it’s a joyful message that we share today,” he said. “In all the years that I’ve been a priest, the joy has always been gathering at the altar of the Lord with you. And that is exactly what I feel this morning: I am celebrating with you the grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. I know it’s a tremendous task that I’m given, but I’m here with family.”
Pausing, he added, “Someone asked me this morning if my family was coming, and honestly, I don’t want to sound like a Hallmark card, but my very first reaction was ‘yes.’ None of you share my DNA, and I very much wish my brother and sisters could be here, but they are very much with us in spirit, and you are my family.”
Later, he thanked the people of the diocese for “molding me into being a priest.”
“Anything I accomplished was by the grace of God and the goodness of the people. I know I keep sounding like a Hallmark card, but that absolutely is a thousandfold the truth,” he said. “You have taught me how to be a priest. I realize how well we know each other ... we have laughed together, we cried together, worked and built and prayed together. As we start a new chapter together, let us pray that we may bring God’s work to completion.”
During the next two months, he will continue to serve as assistant to Bishop Corrada, who holds a dual role as bishop of the Puerto Rican Diocese of Mayagüez and apostolic administrator of the Tyler Diocese. He also will also make use of that time visiting with clergy to get to know the concerns, needs and priorities of them and the communities they serve, he said.
“I’m going to be doing a lot of listening, because I think it’s very important – I’m blessed to know the diocese, but I still have to learn about it, and a whole lot to learn about being a bishop,” he said, then grinned. “If people say, ‘Bishop,’ and I don’t turn around ... it’s going to take me awhile to get used to it. And if I answer the phone, ‘Father Joe,’ I ask for your forgiveness.”
Father Mark Kusmirek, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Jacksonville, one of four Catholic communities in Cherokee County, said he is “absolutely delighted and surprised” about the announcement.
“To keep him in the diocese is tremendous – he knows the diocese and he’s well-loved and respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” the priest said. “One of the greatest positives is his credibility, but also, he knows the diocese and will need little, if any, introductions or learning where parishes are, or even the needs of the diocese. And I can imagine he’s well-respected by bishops in Texas and in the province, as well as by Rome because of their familiarity with him.”
Strickland called on East Texans to be a “people of prayer” as they faced the kind of “things happening that we never dreamed of” that incite fear and worry.
“We need to be a people of prayer, all of us,” he said. “One of the great blessings of Tyler and East Texas is this people of faith, Catholic and non-Catholic, and as people of faith, we are one family.”