The Rev. James Habiger advocated on behalf of the poor and marginalized both as a priest and lobbyist.
The Rev. James Habiger, who lobbied for social justice on behalf of Minnesota Catholics, died of lung and heart disease Oct. 9 at Carondelet Village in St. Paul. He was 85.
As a lobbyist for the Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC) from 1980 to 1995, Habiger "maintained positive, healthy relationships with everyone in the Legislature," said the Rev. John Malone, vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas.
"Even when they had disagreements, he was adamant that they, we, are all in this together, working for a better community. He was not political in a political-party way, but rather in the old-fashioned sense of being able to work out compromises that satisfied everyone."
Habiger was born in Harvey, N.D., said his cousin Lynne Schriver-Sheedy of Vadnais Heights. When he was 2, his father died, and his mother moved him and his two siblings to Owatonna, Minn., to be closer to her relatives.
Early on, he felt a calling to be a priest, his cousin said. He graduated from St. John's Preparatory School in Collegeville, Minn.; St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and was ordained in 1951 in Winona, Minn.
In the decade that followed, Habiger served parishes in Austin, Winona and Rochester. In 1960, he became superintendent of education for the Winona diocese, a position he held until 1976, when he was named priest at St. Francis of Assisi in Rochester.
Habiger moved to St. Paul in 1980 to become the MCC's lobbyist, a job he held for 15 years. He also worked as a priest at several Twin Cities parishes and at the University of St. Thomas, where he lived, and as chaplain in the Legislature. He was also a pioneer in interfaith efforts in Minnesota.
Lobbying was ideal work for Habiger because it allowed him to advocate on behalf of the poor on health care and education issues, said those who knew him.
He "will continue to be an inspiration to many social justice advocates," Jason Adkins, current MCC director, said in a statement. "... it was [his] committee testimony that finally elicited the votes to pass [1992's MinnesotaCare] legislation, providing health insurance for low-income Minnesotans."
Toby Pearson, a longtime friend, said Habiger's wisdom and kindness were priceless in good times and bad. The priest helped Pearson land his first job, baptized his two daughters, presided at his first marriage, comforted him when his first wife was killed in a 2003 plane crash in northern Minnesota, and presided at his second marriage.
Habiger "had a great, full laugh and was quick to share a joke, but if you were grieving, he knew how to just be present with you," Pearson said.
He was a lot of fun, too, "never shy about sharing a martini over lunch, and just last year, I took him golfing and he got a birdie, which he would want everyone to know."
Professionally, Pearson said, Habiger was "a man of high integrity who was always looking out for the poor, trying to get them health insurance and health care and affordable housing and better lives."
Malone met Habiger when both were vying for the MCC lobbyist job. "He beat me out for that job, and then we became good friends," Malone said. "He was a man high on life, very cheerful and happy; I called him 'the laughing monsignor.'"
Habiger "left everyone he met with the notion that there was a hopeful future, that there was no problem in their individual or community lives that could not be solved," Malone said. "In the same vein, he and I would often sit at lunch and talk about the way things are changing in the church, and he always ended on a positive note. He firmly believed in the power and holiness of God's people."
Among Habiger's survivors are his sister, Jean Habiger Mathews of Owatonna. Services have been held, and he was laid to rest in a country cemetery near Owatonna.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290