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In Missouri, a love-in of a sendoff for Law

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/8/1984

PRINGFIELD, Mo. -- He won't arrive until March 22, but Boston's new Catholic archbishop is taking leave this week of the southern Missouri diocese with which he has kept faith for a decade.

More than 500 persons jammed the 350-seat cathedral here Monday night to pray for and with Bishop Bernard F. Law, who had promised to stay with them 10 years -- and did.

It was a big crowd in this stronghold of Baptist and Pentecostal churches where Catholics are less than 5 percent of the population. In Boston, a single parish gathering is often attended by more than double that number.

"This could be a very difficult moment," said Bishop Law, speaking of the measure of sorrow he felt at the end of "an incredibly short and exceedingly happy 10 years."

The eastern half of the diocese held a similar celebration last week in Cape Girardeau, and the bishop's last column was delivered Monday for Friday's issue of the Mirror, the diocesan newspaper.

"To have been a part of this diocese has been a grace," he wrote. "Whatever good I may be able to accomplish anywhere else will have been helped, humanly speaking, by my association with this diocese."

When he arrived here in October 1973, Bishop Law was the fourth bishop in 12 years for the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. "I'll sign a 10-year contract," he told the anxious clergy and laypeople, who saw their diocese used as a stepping stone for bishops who were bound for larger dioceses.

It was a major commitment for a cleric who had headed the national ecumenical office for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and was regarded by many church insiders as a likely future archbishop.

"People here were very insecure," said Nancy McGregor. "Everyone had tongue in cheek after they heard his statement that he would stay here . . . . The attitude was, we'll believe it when we see it."

But their bishop's consistency helped the Catholics of the Springfield- Cape Girardeau diocese to grow, said McGregor, who became an active lay worker during the Law years and now serves as a campus minister at Southwest Missouri State University.

The diocese in southern Missouri numbers 47,608 Catholics, spread over 39 counties. And McGregor commented that "he has spread himself equally in the diocese, among organizations, people and parishes. . . making every place feel so important."

After Monday night's Mass, Bishop Law stayed to the end of the reception, signing autographs, posing for photographs with children and churchworkers, shaking hands and squeezing shoulders.

But the celebration was most like parishioners celebrating their pastor's 25th anniversary of ordination -- or his appointment to a bigger parish.

There were 47 priests, a choir of 30 with trumpets and organ, and a musical ensemble to play at the reception later. While politicians turned out in numbers for Bishop Law's first visit to Boston, the only civic leader at the service in Springfield was the wife of a state representative.

Those present spoke of him as a pastor. "We're losing a man with a great deal of enthusiasm," agreed two men in the gymnasium of Springfield Catholic High School, watching Bishop Law surrounded by a knot of well-wishers, as he was throughout the evening.

"I'll miss him," said Minnie Lee Lemmons, 74, who sat in her wheelchair at the edge of the crowded gym.

"On occasion, he's been my pastor, too," said Rev. Dorsey Levell, the United Methodist minister who heads the local council of churches. "He'd ask me, Dorsey, do you spend enough time with your wife?' And then I'd have to make my confession."

In October, the bishop was asked about rumors that he might go to Boston and replied that "I would pray mightily for anyone who is appointed to that position." On Monday night, Springfield's Catholics did just that, praying that Boston's new archbishop become "a sign of love for all people."

But most of all they were grateful to the pastor who kept his word. "We thank him for staying with us for 10 years," said Rev. Msgr. John H. Westhues of the Priests Senate. "That's what he promised he'd do."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/8/1984.
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