“Fearless.” “A rare bird.” And a burr under the saddle of authority. The Rev. Mike Tegeder was all those things, according to those who knew him. Tegeder, 67, who died Saturday after battling lung cancer, was never afraid to speak up or get his hands dirty on behalf of others, whether that meant bucking the Catholic hierarchy or showing up with a trailer to help someone move.
“Mike was one of the most hands-on priests I ever worked with,” said former priest Ed Flahavan, who first met Tegeder in the 1980s when he was a seminarian and volunteer bus driver, transporting special-needs people to and from their group home to parish dances.
Tegeder embodied Pope Francis’ urging that priests must be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep,” said Flahavan. “He wanted the priests to get close to people, to be with the people in their pain and suffering. Mike smelled like the sheep in a very special way.”
Tegeder made headlines in recent years as a vocal critic of former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the church’s attempts to block gay marriage, opposition that threatened Tegeder’s status as priest at his two Minneapolis churches, St. Frances Cabrini and Gichitwaa Kateri. He kept his bus driver’s license up to date in case he was dismissed from the priesthood.
“He used to get under the skin of power people,” said Flahavan. “He was an especially gutsy guy when it came to church reform issues.”
But although Tegeder was a leader and sometimes a lighting rod, he was a humble man who didn’t seek the spotlight, according to those who knew him.
“He dove into some of the most complex, challenging issues, but his motives were pure,” said Brett Feldman, who formed a decadelong friendship with Tegeder through their work on behalf of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota. “A lot of people are drawn to people with connections and power, but Mike was drawn to people who didn’t have the power and stood up for them. He saw inequities in the world and was on a mission to fix them. He was one of the great souls of the earth.”
Tegeder, the eldest of four children, grew up in Brooklyn Center and Golden Valley, biking, fishing, playing Little League Baseball and developing his love for the outdoors. He attended De La Salle High School and later St. John’s University. After working at several jobs, including as a hospital orderly and driving a beer truck, he committed himself to the seminary, according to his brother Tom Tegeder.
“It turned out to be a wonderful choice,” Tom said. “He had a special gift for pastoral ministry. He’d be there at the drop of a hat if a chaplain couldn’t cover a hospital visit, if a funeral director had a need for a priest for a family, or to administer last rites. He was very committed to trying to help people.”
Tegeder also took a hands-on role to provide financial support for his churches and other things he cared about. His fun-loving fundraising efforts included organizing a celebrity wrestling event, riding a hand cart to St. Bonifacius and spending the night in a bell tower. “He was very creative in figuring out ways to raise money for good causes,” said Tom.
Tegeder also was passionate about the outdoors, serving two board terms on the Parks & Trails Council, testifying before the Legislature, and serving four years as council president. He biked to and from his two inner-city churches and was an enthusiastic participant in virtually all outdoor sports — hiking, kayaking, biking, canoeing and cross-country skiing, according to Feldman. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t try and no place he did not want to see. He wanted to see it all, and he wanted other people to see it all.”
After his cancer diagnosis in February, Tegeder was forced to step down from his commitments. He led his final mass at St. Frances Cabrini on Easter Sunday and delivered his final speech to the council in March.
“He was saying goodbye,” said Feldman. To honor Tegeder, the council handed out tokens inviting members to take a loved one on an outdoor recreation experience, give them the token and invite them to do the same. “That was his mission, to connect people to the outdoors,” Feldman said.
Funeral services are pending.