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Father Muench Says...

Called to serve: as Ogdensburg’s first bishop

May 1, 2013

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

I would like to share with you today an outstanding example of devotion and dedication to the priesthood – and to the Diocese of Ogdensburg – our first Bishop, Bishop Edgar P. Wadhams.  I was recently given a wonderful little book about him, “Reminiscences of Bishop Wadhams”, by Rev. C.A.Walworth, written in 1893.  I do remember reading this book in my seminary days and it is truly wonderful.  It describes many incidents in the life of Bishop Wadhams – and also tells us a great deal about his dedication and outstanding faith filled life.

Bishop Wadhams was born in Lewis, New York.  (There is still a historical marker at his boyhood home along Route 9.)  He was raised in the Episcopal Church and entered the seminary to prepare to be an Episcopal priest.  He was ordained an Episcopal deacon and ministered for a time to all of Essex County – especially at the Church of the Cross in Ticonderoga.  I have often visited that Church.

Then Bishop Wadhams went through a conversion to the Catholic Church.  He then entered St. Mary’s Sulpician Seminary in Baltimore now preparing to become ordained a Catholic priest.  I attended that same seminary, as did many other priests of our diocese.

Bishop Wadhams was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Albany – in those days that diocese covered all of the North Country.  He served at the Albany Cathedral,  later becoming the rector of the Cathedral.  Father Walworth tells that he was an excellent preacher, was deeply concerned for the poor and had a delightful sense of humor.

In 1872, the Diocese of Albany was divided forming the new Diocese of Ogdensburg.  Bishop Wadhams was chosen to be the first Bishop of this new diocese. Keeping in mind that this was 1872 – many of his friends were rather worried about his moving from the city to the North Country.  One of his friends supposedly asked him, “How can you leave the great center of life and go away to that barren and trackless region?” Bishop Wadhams responded, “My dear friends that is my native air.  I love those Adirondacks, I love those mountains, those rivers and streams; I love all there is in that territory.  I love to hear the sawmills; they are music to my ears.  Why I was brought up on saw-logs.”

Father Walworth also remembers another time the bishop expressed his readiness to take on this new ministry.  Speaking with a friend, a Professor Carmody, he said, “I know, Carmody, the task I have before me.  I know that country well.  The population is poor and scattered.  It is a land of small settlements and long distances.  The people cannot be reached by railways or stage coaches.  Even good wagon roads are few.  But I’ll tell you what I mean to do.  I shall get a good pony that will carry me anywhere; and you take my word for it, it will not be long before I visit every family and every man and woman, barefooted boy and yellow haired girl in my diocese will know me.  Yes, Sir-ee!”

Father Walworth tells us, “The diocese of Ogdensburg made progress during the nineteen years of Bishop Wadhams’ Episcopate.  New parishes were formed, new churches built, schools were established, priests were added, convents were founded and the Catholic population increased.  Bishop Wadhams looked with joy upon the growth and improvement in his diocese, but he was too truthful and too humble to take all the credit of it himself – he was always careful to give the principal credit to his priests and others who labored with them.”

This little book of Father Walworth is filled with so many more delightful stories about Bishop Wadhams.  He was truly dedicated to his priests and people.  Bishop McQuaid spoke at Bishop Wadhams funeral – he said, “The priests who came to him from different parts of his diocese always found a plate at the table and a room to lodge in.” 

Bishop Wadhams’ dying words are very familiar to us, priests, we have heard them often – “The priests are for the people, not the people for the priests.”

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