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Amid Closings Controversy, Szoka Marks First Year as Cardinal

June 28, 1989

DETROIT (AP) _ Even a Roman Catholic cardinal has those moments when he’d trade the management of a 1.5-million-member archdiocese for the tranquility of ministering to a small congregation.

But Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, who has waded into several church disputes since becoming head of the Detroit Archdiocese in 1981, banishes such thoughts quickly.

″I am where I am,″ he said.

Szoka became a priest 35 years ago and started in a small parish, but began climbing the church hierarchy quickly.

This month marks the first anniversary of his installation as a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. It was a year that placed him squarely at odds with some Detroit Catholics for ordering the closure or consolidation of 30 inner-city churches.

Some of those parishes were to go to court today, seeking an injunction to halt the closings.

The brouhaha over church closings wasn’t Szoka’s first challenge.

Early in his tenure in Detroit, where he was named archbishop in 1981, Szoka set out to make the annulment process in Michigan more efficient. He increased staff and introduced computers, shortening the waiting period for an annulment from six years to about nine months.

He faced another challenge in his first year when a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Mary Agnes Mansour, took over as head of the state Department of Social Services. At the time, the agency administered abortions for the poor. Szoka wanted her to resign or publicly oppose abortion. She quit.

Sitting in his modestly decorated downtown office, Szoka quietly justified his decisions and church doctrine.

He expressed dismay over accounts that money alone forced the church closings. Money was a factor, Szoka said, but more important was the dwindling number of parishioners and the inadequate supply of priests.

″It’s not enough just to maintain a church building and slowly watch it die as the people die,″ he said.

He admires the opponents of the closings as deeply dedicated to parish and faith, but sees his task as providing for the whole church.

″It’s always the problem of trying to find the balance of what is for the common good and what is for special interests.″

″I can’t work miracles,″ he said. The church-closing dispute ″has made me accept more clearly that all I can do is the best I can. Accepting that brings a great deal of peace, a great deal of comfort and tranquility to my life.″

Szoka was born Sept. 14, 1927, in Grand Rapids to Casimir Szoka, a Polish immigrant, and Mary Wolgat Szoka. His parents divorced early in his childhood and he was raised in nearby Muskegon.

In the eighth grade, he visited St. Joseph’s seminary in Grand Rapids, expecting to find young men locked in unending study and prayer.

″They were normal boys just like us,″ he said. ″I came home that night, and I remember saying I was going to go to the seminary, and that never changed.″

William Kienzle, a seminary classmate and now a mystery writer in Detroit, said Szoka lived in the library, though Szoka insists he played handball, baseball and track.

Even in seminary, it was clear Szoka would be more than a ″simple parish priest,″ classmate Bill Zuidema recalled.

Out of the seminary, Szoka was appointed associate pastor of St. Francis Parish in the tiny Upper Peninsula town of Manistique. He was secretary to the bishop in Marquette and later chancellor there and in 1971 started a parish in Gaylord.

After becoming Detroit archbishop, he started an annual multimillion-dollar fund-raising drive, Catholic Services Appeal.

Szoka has undergone angioplasty for a narrowed artery, and he conceded that the duties of running a large, diverse diocese are taxing.

Occasionally, he wishes for quieter days.

″But only for a moment,″ he said. ″... I have never refused an assignment, because I still am of the conviction that if an assignment comes from your superiors in the church, it’s coming from God.″

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