The Rev. George Wertin, a local Catholic priest whose support of gays and lesbians in the church earned him a rebuke from church leaders, died Thursday in Edina. He was 75.
Wertin, a former pastor at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in south Minneapolis, was suffering with Parkinson’s.
During his 13 years at St. Joan of Arc, the parish was in the spotlight for being an advocate in gay and lesbian rights. The church tangled with the archdiocese for several years before it was reprimanded in 2004 for posting Gay Pride material on its website and allowing unordained guests, mostly women, to speak during mass.
Wertin, who retired in 2005, said he was drawn to the priesthood because he wanted to see the Catholic Church change and “become more vital in terms of being a change agent in society.”
And to his parishioners at St. Joan of Arc, Wertin was an inclusive leader.
“[He was] a fantastic proponent of justice and peace,” said Dennis Heaney, communications and development director for St. Joan of Arc. “And equality. Equality was an extremely big issue with him.”
Wertin followed in the footsteps of the Rev. Harvey Egan — “St. Joan of Arc rebel.” While they both weathered rebukes from the Catholic hierarchy, St. Joan of Arc grew during and after their tenure.
St. Joan not only doubled the number of parishioners, but it also increased its social awareness during Wertin’s tenure.
“We are a community that would accept everyone regardless of who they are and where they are — gay, straight, men, women — that was very, very important to George,” Heaney said. “I don’t know if he stood out differently, he just did it with a lot of force and a dynamic personality when it came to those issues.”
After serving at St. Joan of Arc for 13 years, Wertin retired in 2005 amid speculation he was pressured to resign by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“This is a very difficult decision for me,” Wertin said in 2005. “Despite the challenges and controversies — and in part because of them — I have found my ministry among you wonderful parishioners to be fulfilling.”
Gary Schiff, former Minneapolis City Council member, didn’t know Wertin personally but knew of his legacy.
“He was committed to inclusiveness and social justice in a way that, I think, Catholics are now hearing from Rome,” Schiff said. “The welcome that Pope Francis has given to gay and lesbian Catholics in many ways, I think, shows that Father Wertin was a bit ahead of his time.”
Before serving at St. Joan of Arc, Wertin spent four years in Rome during the Catholic Church’s liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He taught at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., and held pastoral positions in North St. Paul and Faribault. The Fargo native was ordained a priest in his hometown in 1963.
At St. Joan of Arc, its website says, Wertin explored ways the church could connect internationally. He was involved in creating a connection with a Christian community in Guatemala. He also led a $1.2 million capital campaign that included remodeling the church’s kitchen and gym and installing an elevator so the building would be handicapped accessible.
Lisa and Keith Kupcho, both from Chanhassen, were parishioners when they met Wertin about 20 years ago. Wertin married three of their kids, baptized their grandchildren and helped with funeral liturgies for their loved ones.
“What was certainly a hallmark of his faith was social justice and inclusiveness,” Lisa Kupcho said. “He wanted the theology of church to meet the world today and to be relevant to everyone in the community.”
She said Wertin was an only child who didn’t have relatives nearby. She and her husband became like caregivers for Wertin during the last few years of his life.
“These last years he was most gracious, most accepting and most appreciative of everything everyone did for him,” she said. “In terms of when you have a progressive illness — it’s not easy.”
A service for Wertin will be held at 5 p.m. Friday at St. Joan of Arc, 4537 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, with burial following at the St. Joan of Arc Memorial Garden.