Catholic Herald staff
Forty-nine years old when he was named coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Superior in 1979, Fr. Raphael Michael Fliss would go on to become the longest-serving bishop in diocesan history.
Of Polish, Bohemian and Prussian heritage, Bishop Fliss was born in Milwaukee. His father was an optician, and the future bishop’s three brothers also pursued optometry as a profession.
The future bishop, meanwhile, studied at the Saint Francis Seminary, Milwaukee; Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.; and in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in canon law at Lateran University in 1965.
He was ordained to the archdiocesan priesthood May 26, 1956, following in the footsteps of an uncle ordained for the archdiocese in 1914.
Bishop Fliss’ nephew, Fr. Paul Fliss, pastor of St. Peter Claver, Sheboygan, is the third family member to follow the tradition. Flisses have been serving God and the people of Wisconsin for more than a century, Fr. Fliss observed.
“He comes from a very devout family,” the priest said.
Having priests in the family is an honor for the Flisses; when Bishop Fliss’ mother, Valeria Fliss, was interviewed by the Catholic Herald Citizen in 1979, she commented on her son’s vocation with a Polish saying: “A priest in the home is God in the home!”
Bishop Fliss’ father never witnessed his son’s achievement; he died three months before the ordination.
During his two decades in the archdiocese, the future Bishop Fliss served as a pastor, rector of the cathedral and assistant chancellor. Other posts included working on the tribunal and serving as secretary and master of ceremonies under succeeding archbishops.
With his appointment as coadjutor bishop in the Diocese of Superior, his future was set: The right of succession ensured Bishop Fliss would be ushered in as chief shepherd with the retirement of Bishop George A. Hammes, which took place in 1985.
All told, Bishop Fliss served the diocese for 28 years.
‘A true gentleman’
Fr. Fliss described his uncle as kind, sincere and “a true gentleman” who never spoke a critical word about others – a trait all but lost today, he observed.
“He really was a people person,” the priest added. “What you saw was what you got. He said what he thought, and he was kind and gentle and loving.”
Despite the distance from Superior to Milwaukee, Bishop Fliss was always there for big events and family celebrations, Fr. Fliss said. Nephew and uncle got together for lunch when the bishop was in town.
“He was just a really, really good guy,” the priest added.
When Fr. Fliss traveled to Superior, he and the bishop would visit local tourist sites – the Apostle Islands, waterfalls in the state parks – go on train rides and more.
“We just did the stuff people do,” he added.
When Bishop Fliss was younger, he was a hunting enthusiast, and he remained fond of fishing his whole life. One of Fr. Fliss’ favorite memories of his uncle, whom he called “Fr. Ralph,” took place on a fishing trip to Manitowish Waters.
Fr. Fliss had just graduated eighth grade, and his family and uncle were out on two boats.
“Fr. Ralph and I shared a boat,” he remembers. “For those four, five days of fishing, I had Fr. Ralph to myself.”
As Bishop Fliss grew older, he kept to a schedule of celebrating Mass in the morning, watching the evening news and then eating dinner.
“I think, in a sense, he was kind of a couch potato,” his nephew added. “I know a lot of his evenings were booked and all that. He did like to be at home and relax and pray.”
Fr. Fliss was also honored to be ordained a transitional deacon by his uncle.
“That always was very special,” he added.
In his later years, Bishop Fliss’ short-term memory was flagging, but his nephew still enjoyed visiting him several times a year.
“It was just very good to be with him,” he said. “Pretty good memories.”