DULUTH – Hundreds of Catholic faithful filled the pews of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary on Friday, overflowing into the school across the street for the funeral mass of Bishop Paul Sirba, the beloved local church leader remembered as compassionate, smart and devoted to his diocese.
Sirba, 59, died unexpectedly Sunday, when he suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed outside St. Rose Church in Proctor. His brother, the Rev. Joseph Sirba, said the bishop had a heart condition that required him to get a pacemaker five or six years ago.
Joseph Sirba, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Hinkley, said he knows of a few priests with biological brothers who are bishops.
“But we were the only two I know who served in the same diocese,” he said during the homily at the funeral mass.
“Sometimes when you’re too close to another person you don’t see the things others do until they’re pointed out to you,” Joseph Sirba said of his brother. “When he met people, they could tell that he cared about them.”
Paul Sirba was born in Minneapolis and attended Catholic schools in the Twin Cities area before continuing his studies at the College of St. Thomas and St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1986 and served at St. Olaf in Minneapolis, St. John the Baptist in Savage and Maternity of Mary in St. Paul.
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Sirba bishop in 2009, making him head of the Diocese of Duluth, which now has about 45,000 members in 72 parishes spread across 10 northeastern Minnesota counties.
The bishop’s death comes about six weeks after a federal judge approved a nearly $40 million settlement with survivors of clergy abuse that allows the diocese to emerge from bankruptcy.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who celebrated the mass, mourned the loss of a leader who so clearly dedicated his life to serving his priests and parishioners.
“I see the way in which you pray here together,” Hebda said. “… You know it’s a church that’s healthy. For that, we give thanks to God. We give thanks to God for Bishop Paul, who was a great gift to this church.”
Dozens of uniformed Knights of Columbus — for whom Sirba served as state chaplain — raised their swords as pallbearers carried the bishop’s casket out of the church for the burial at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth. Priests and deacons, many who came from out of town, processed slowly out of the church as the choir sang.
The Rev. James Bissonette, who served as Sirba’s vicar general, has been selected to lead the diocese until the pope appoints a new bishop.