Catholic Herald staff
On Aug. 15, the Missionaries of the Precious Blood will celebrate their 200th anniversary. For nearly half that time, priests from the order have been serving in the Diocese of Superior.
Founded by St. Gaspar del Bufalo in Giano, Italy, on Aug. 15, 1815, the order has approximately 500 priests and brothers serving as pastors, preachers, teachers and chaplains in 20 countries.
About 200 priests, brothers and candidates are based in the Cincinnati Province; their motherhouse is the St. Charles Center in Carthagena, Ohio.
The Precious Blood Fathers came to the United States in 1844 at an Ohio bishop’s invitation. Priests were needed to minister to German-speaking immigrants; they established missions and parishes in western Ohio and beyond.
In 1916, discord between the bishop and priests resulted in the order’s arrival in the Diocese of Superior, explained Precious Blood Fr. Leon Flaherty, a Superior native who joined the order in 1955 and was ordained in 1961.
Bishop Joseph Koudelka and Fr. Peter Rice, pastor of the pro-cathedral, were in conflict over World War I at the time. Fr. Rice accused the bishop of unpatriotic behavior and pro-German sentiment; the claim was investigated by the FBI in 1918 and dismissed as ethnic tension.
Fr. Rice was moved from his parish, and Precious Blood Fathers took over the pro-cathedral in 1916.
In 1920, according to diocesan records, Bishop Koudelka agreed to entrust the order with parishes and missions in Sawyer, Bayfield and Ashland counties in perpetuity, and the Precious Blood Fathers returned the pro-cathedral to diocesan priests.
Every parish on Hwy. 13, from Marengo to Medford, had a Precious Blood priest at one time between 1921 and 1999. “Bloody 13” was the road’s nickname, Fr. Flaherty said.
By 1999, the order’s numbers were dwindling, and they ended their ministry in the diocese. Ninety-nine years after the order’s arrival in the Diocese of Superior, only Fr. Flaherty remains.
After years of working in Ohio and Rome, Fr. Flaherty returned to his hometown for a sabbatical in 2000, and Bishop Raphael Fliss invited him to stay. He was associate pastor in his home parish, St. Anthony, Superior, before serving parishes in Woodruff, Lake Tomahawk and Minoqua.
He spent several years as the associate pastor at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, then moved to Indiana to be a senior associate at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Whiting.
Although he “supposedly” retired in 2012, it’s an “active retirement,” Fr. Flaherty confessed.
He continues to help Fr. Andrew Ricci, rector of the cathedral, serve as chaplain for the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers, and help out at St. Scholastica, Duluth, among other projects.
If Fr. Flaherty’s service is one of the order’s lasting legacies in the diocese, their efforts do not go unappreciated. He was named the 2015 recipient of the cathedral’s Lumen Christi award, given to those who “show a willingness to share the light of Christ with others by their lived example.”
An award dinner was hosted in his honor May 22 at UW-Superior.
As the order prepares to commemorate its second century of service, its missionaries continue to bring the Word of God to the margins of society.
Most religious communities last less than 200 years, Fr. Flaherty observed. Getting there “is quite an achievement,” he said.