A chapter of Vatican II-inspired leadership closed Sept. 21 with the death of the longest-serving bishop in the Diocese of Superior’s history.
Bishop Raphael Michael Fliss, with a combined 28 years of service – first as coadjutor bishop and then as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Superior, was laid to rest at noon, Thursday, Oct. 1, at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior.
Approximately 375 people attended the funeral Mass, including Archbishop Jerome Listecki, Archdiocese of Milwaukee; Bishop David Malloy, Diocese of Rockford, Illinois; Bishop Robert Banks, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Green Bay; Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Green Bay; Bishop Peter Christensen, eighth bishop of the Diocese of Superior, now bishop of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho; Bishop Paul Sirba, Diocese of Duluth; and Bishop Bernard Harrington, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota.
Also present were Msgr. Michael Gorman, vicar general of the Diocese of La Crosse, representing Bishop William Callahan, who is currently in Rome for the Synod of Bishops, and Fr. James Lobacz, master of ceremonies for the archbishop of Milwaukee, as well as more than 50 priests and many deacons and religious.
Archbishop Listecki presided at the Mass.
‘The black sheep’
Fr. Jim Tobolski, who became Bishop Fliss’ caretaker after the bishop suffered a stroke three-and-a-half years ago, offered his tribute in the homily.
After the stroke, the bishop moved from his condo in Superior to an assisted living facility on the St. Scholastica campus in Duluth.
“He loved to spend an evening watching Turner Classic Movies,” Fr. Tobolski remembered. The bishop’s favorite actors were Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck.
During that time, the bishop’s memory started to fail.
“There were many fading memories,” the priest added, but Bishop Fliss never grew anxious.
“‘That was a yesterday,’” Bishop Fliss used to tell the priest.
Fr. Tobolski reflected on the bishop’s many yesterdays.
The first joy, the first blessing, was Bishop Fliss’ love of his family, Fr. Tobolski said. He had wonderful parents – Paul and Valeria – and he was proud of his Polish heritage and his 11 nephews and nieces.
His father, an optician who made eyeglasses, inspired the careers of the bishop’s three optometrist brothers. Bishop had a little joke about it, Fr. Tobolski said.
“‘My brothers all became opticians,’” the bishop would say. “‘I was the black sheep of the family. I became a priest.’”
On a more serious note, Bishop Fliss would say his brothers helped people see physically, while he helped them see spiritually.
“You were very dear to him,” Fr. Tobolski told the bishop’s family. “Let us be grateful to God for the yesterday of family.”
Next, Fr. Tobolski touched on Bishop Fliss’ two decades as a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“He had wonderful memories of that time,” the priest said.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1956, soon after his father’s death, the future bishop came to regard Archbishop William Cousins as a father figure.
“In a real way, he loved Archbishop Cousins. He loved to tell stories about him,” Fr. Tobolski added.
When then-Fr. Fliss and the archbishop were out driving – the archbishop always drove – and they got a flat tire, a passer-by offered the archbishop a lift. The priest was left behind.
“‘I never changed a tire in my life,’” Bishop Fliss later told Fr. Tobolski, “‘and the angels helped me through it.’”
Fr. Tobolski also recalled how the bishop had enjoyed living in a mansion in Milwaukee, eating food cooked by talented nuns, playing competitive sports with his brother priests, and more.
“Let us be grateful for the yesterday of his priesthood,” Fr. Tobolski said.
Another of the priest’s memories: “Bishop Fliss loved to travel. His suitcase was always full. He loved to wander and wonder about God’s creation.”
While in Rome earning a doctorate in canon law (a subject the bishop did not much like, according to Fr. Tobolski), the future bishop spent his free time attending the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Those debates and discussions would form the bedrock of his convictions and guide his leadership in the Diocese of Superior.
“He was a bishop of the Second Vatican Council,” the priest said. “He loved good liturgy. He loved quality.”
Fr. Tobolski reviewed some of the highlights of Bishop Fliss’ time serving the Diocese of Superior.
The capstone of his career, the renovation of the cathedral, Fr. Tobolski associated with that love of liturgy and quality.
“This building was transformed,” he said. “It was a little tired looking. It was a little drab.”
“He also offered great support, great leadership,” Fr. Tobolski continued. “He was very kind to the priests of the diocese.”
During his tenure in Superior, Bishop Fliss expanded the roles of women in the local church; grew Catholic Charities into one of the largest in the country; co-founded LARC, an ecumenical Christian covenant; fostered a strong diaconate program; and invited the laity to assume more responsibilities.
“His best joy was to get out of the office and visit parishes,” Fr. Tobolski added.
The bishop loved celebrations of all kinds, the priest said, “and indeed, he loved all of our people and parishes.
“We don’t just look at the past, but also the future,” he continued, “the gift of eternal rest … that is the gift of tomorrow.”
Following the Mass, Fr. Paul Fliss, pastor of St. Peter Claver, Sheboygan, spoke on behalf of the family.
“It’s an honor for me to say a few words in remembrance of Fr. Ralph,” Fr. Fliss began. “That’s what we called him.
“I knew my uncle as a fun uncle who was also the kindest, gentlest person,” he said. “He was always a gentleman in the best sense of the word.”
Bishop Fliss’ uncle was also a priest, ordained in 1914. This year, he said, marks “101 years of continuous priestly and episcopal service from our family to the Catholic Church in Wisconsin.”
A chalice that has been passed down in the family, and is now in Fr. Fliss’ possession, was used in the celebration of the Funeral Mass.
“Fr. Ralph loved both God and church,” he continued, and didn’t change when he was ordained a bishop.
“I know that you all became his family,” he added.
Fr. Jim Powers, diocesan administrator, welcomed attendees to the cathedral and recognized the Diocesan Chorale for their music.
“What a wonderful tribute it is to a wonderful man, a wonderful priest, a wonderful bishop,” he said.
He also thanked the Flisses for the gift of their uncle.
Before the funeral procession left for Bishop Fliss’ interment, Archbishop Listecki spoke briefly of his colleague.
“He was good,” the archbishop commented. “Really, in the truest sense, Bishop Fliss was good. When someone is good, they’re reflecting God’s presence.”
The two knew each other through meetings, and ‘Ralph’ used to tell the then-bishop stories about the characters in the archdiocese.
“He literally knew where the bodies were buried,” added Archbishop Listecki. “Little did I think that I would be one of those characters.
“In a real way, I thank the Diocese of Superior for being his family,” the archbishop added. “He’d be so proud today. Proud of the choir. Proud of the liturgy. Proud of you.
“We believe that Bishop Fliss’ story is not ending here,” he concluded. His spirit is uniting with Christ’s, and “that, my friends, is a story that never ends.”
The Rite of Committal took place immediately after the Mass at Calvary Cemetery, Superior. All were invited to a luncheon in Kress Hall following the funeral.