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Shown at a previous parish in Bloomington, the Rev. Mike Tegeder serves in Minneapolis.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Tevlin: Priest won't be silenced in marriage debate, for now

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • October 9, 2012 - 10:54 PM

On the day the Catholic hierarchy once again told the Rev. Mike Tegeder that they weren't interested in his opinion, the gadfly priest was the last one to leave the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri, a Catholic church off Lake Street.

It had been an emotional day, and Tegeder's temperament ranged from table-pounding anger to tears. Earlier in the day, the Minnesota Catholic Conference held a seminar to spell out how Canada's less restrictive laws on gay marriage had corrupted that country. The church has been the major proponent of a proposed state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man, one woman. Tegeder has been an unapologetic opponent of the church's stance.

Like other priests, Tegeder had been invited to the event. Unlike other priests, he was given a warning: Sit where we tell you to. Don't ask questions. Don't disturb.

The Catholic Conference ended the warning letter with the words "Best wishes," to which Tegeder responded: "You obviously do not mean to send me your best wishes. In fact, you want me to go quietly away with your demeaning E-mail."

Tegeder was not allowed to sit in the main part of the hall, but was relegated to a "detention pen" where he could be seen but not heard.

Tegeder, 64, is a solidly built man with grayish-white hair that reaches his shoulders. He has a booming voice, a theatrical flair and a dexterous command of the language, which includes the occasional expletive. During an interview, he wore a coat and vest bought at a secondhand store, and a rainbow button that said, "There's a place for you at Cabrini."

Tegeder began to talk about how his views on homosexuality had evolved, but when he got to a story about seeing two "sweet, sweet" men being taunted, and how he'd heard about "fag bashing" when he was a teen, he began to cry.

Then Tegeder's voice sharpened. "If you can't stand up for what you believe, you are not a minister, you are not a priest," he said. "I don't do it in the pulpit, but I continue to speak out, continue to have a conscience."

The hierarchy's demand that priests who disagree with its stance on marriage remain silent "compromises every priest's conscience in the diocese. It shows a real lack of leadership, a moral bankruptcy," Tegeder continued, shaking his head.

Archbishop John Nienstedt "is saying he knows what's best for Minnesota," Tegeder said. "Well, he just got here. He's in over his head. We don't deserve him, and he doesn't deserve us."

He added: "I pray for him every day."

Not long ago, Tegeder was pastor of St. Edward's Church, a large, wealthy Bloomington congregation, a plum job befitting a priest of 34 years. But there, he also publicly disagreed with the hierarchy.

So now he pastors at two poor, demanding inner-city churches, Gichitwaa Kateri and St. Francis Cabrini. On Sundays, he does a 9 a.m. mass, then bikes 5 miles for a 10:30 mass. His duties include tending to addicts and the destitute and burying suicide and murder victims -- sometimes literally.

When one poor family couldn't afford a burial, Tegeder drove the wooden casket to the reservation and helped lower it into the ground, then jumped in to nail it shut.

"That is Mike at his best," said Ed Flahavan, a former priest who admires Tegeder's courage. "What has stood out is his love for people on the margins."

Flahavan believes that moving Tegeder to Gichitwaa Kateri "solved Nienstedt's problems. It's a difficult spot to fill."

Which may explain why Tegeder hasn't been removed, despite several warnings. "I work hard and they know it," Tegeder said. "I put out a lot of fires."

One parishioner who followed Tegeder from Bloomington to his new church is John Judd. "I'm a believer," said Judd. "He talks like Christ did. He stands for his beliefs, and he comes armed with the facts."

If Gichitwaa Kateri is Tegeder's gulag, he has embraced it. Tegeder showed me the Indian lodge built of branches, where a bearskin guards the Eucharist. "This is a beautiful ministry," he said, smiling broadly.

Will it last?

"I'm a good poker player," said Tegeder.

"But I don't need to prove anything. If [Nienstedt] wants to throw me out, I'm fine with it."

"The intensity of his determination I think is very praiseworthy," said Flahavan. "He's ratcheting it up. A lot of current priests believe he's on the right track, but some think he may have gone too far. Some say he's difficult to work with, which means he's sometimes out there alone."

Flahavan compared the struggle of priests like Tegeder to that of Sir Thomas More, "weighing the promise to obedience against wondering when to cross the line."

I asked Tegeder if he had a Plan B. At first he said no. But just before he got ready to bike through the cold to his home in Richfield, he pulled out his driver's license.

It showed that he has kept his permit to drive a bus up to date, just in case.

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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