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Bernard Hebda takes the reins of the beleaguered Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

ST. PAUL -- As Bernard Hebda assumed the seat of the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Friday, the applause in the cavernous Cathedral of St. Paul rolled on for more than a minute.

Bernard A. Hebda
Bernard A. Hebda gets ready before walking down the aisle. He is installed as the ninth Archbishop of the Archdiocese at a ceremony at The Cathedral of Saint Paul Friday. (JEAN PIERI | PIONEER PRESS)

ST. PAUL -- As Bernard Hebda assumed the seat of the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Friday, the applause in the cavernous Cathedral of St. Paul rolled on for more than a minute.

He’s been heralded as “an answer to prayer” and “a new beginning” for an archdiocese battered by scandal and conflict.

And when he took the red velvet chair of the archbishop that has stood empty for nearly a year, Hebda’s feet didn’t quite reach the floor.

“I consider it a great blessing … that you call me to embrace, rather than resist, the purification that gives us the opportunity to be the church that Christ desires us to be,” Hebda told the audience of 3,000 gathered to hear him speak.

That church is transparent, accountable, collaborative, reconciling and “a field hospital for those in pain.” And as for its new leader:

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“I’m all in,” Hebda said.

A two-hour welcome ceremony and Mass was held for Hebda and attended by hundreds of people who stood on pews, strayed into aisles and filed into metal folding chairs set up as overflow seating for the chance to see him.

“He engages the people and he loves the people,” said Mary Williams of Stillwater. “I haven’t met one person that’s not grateful. I was praying he’d be able to stay.”

Hebda has served the archdiocese as its apostolic administrator since June 15, 2015, after Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned amid bankruptcy proceedings and criminal charges alleging the archdiocese failed to protect children from sexual abuse by a priest.

Hebda was expected to return to Newark, N.J., where he was slated to replace Archbishop John Myers upon his retirement in 2016. Hebda’s appointment in the Twin Cities by Pope Francis came as a profound and pleasant surprise to the local Catholic community.

“There are stories of clergy crying,” said Bill Daly, who has served as an usher in the cathedral for 40 years. “He’s been so well accepted and I think he’s the right guy for the time. … The right shepherd for the time.”

People who have met Hebda, called “Bernie” by many, describe him as gracious, outgoing, intelligent, compassionate and, above all else, humble.

Hebda was the one who pointed out to the audience that he’s not tall enough to both reach the floor and sit comfortably in his official seat at the cathedral. He also admitted that he’s still learning about the region’s people and culture and that he’s never eaten lutefisk, the odiferous codfish traditionally favored by Lutherans of Scandinavian descent.

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He sings along to popular hits on the radio while driving, enjoys John Grisham novels and, when a local church’s priest was sick, willingly filled in with only a few hours notice, archdiocese communications director Tom Halden said.

He also finished his Harvard undergraduate degree in three years, got his law degree at Columbia and left a budding law career for the priesthood. He served on the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, interpreting canon law for 13 years. He also worked as a bishop in Michigan, and as a coadjutor archbishop in New Jersey.

“It’s not hard to get to know him. He’s just so very, very loved. He’s a gift wherever he goes,” said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, O.P., who met Hebda while he was stationed in Michigan.

The procession that preceded the ceremony included more than 30 bishops, 200 members of the clergy and representatives from several catholic organizations. Students from eight local Catholic high schools handed out programs, and more children attended with their parents, sitting on their laps or standing to see the event unfold.

Music was performed by a full choir and chamber orchestra in English, Spanish and Latin. Readings were given in Spanish and Hmong, with American Sign Language interpreters.

Daly called the event one of the biggest and most significant that he’s seen in 40 years of service at the cathedral. It would probably only be second to the visit of a seated pope, which has never occurred.

And through it all, Hebda was beaming.

He only entered the cathedral after knocking on its door a mallet made from the wood of the archdiocese’s first cathedral, a St. Paul log chapel dedicated in 1841.

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The action represented Hebda’s taking possession of the cathedral. But he seemed to be requesting entry more than anything, and thankful to have it given to him.

“We’re blessed to have this glorious cathedral on Summit and Selby, but we can’t ever lose the passion and focus of those pilgrims to the Northland who first brought the faith to Pig’s Eye,” Hebda said, referring to the early name for the 1840s settlement that became St. Paul, when it was renamed by Father Lucien Galtier. “If they, by God’s grace, could build, I’m confident that we, by that same grace, can rebuild.”

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