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The story of the cardinal from Fargo

Among the hallmarks of Pope Francis’ papacy is his proclivity for appointing cardinals from dioceses which have not traditionally been “cardinalate sees.”

Francis’ most recent consistory elevated cardinals “from the peripheries” of East Timor, Mongolia, Paraguay, and Singapore.

But Francis is not the first pope to reach into smaller and lesser-known dioceses to appoint new cardinals.

In fact, Pope John XXIII appointed a cardinal from the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, in 1959.

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Aloisius Muench was born in Milwaukee in 1889. He grew up in a German immigrant family and was ordained a priest in 1913. He then studied in Switzerland before returning to Milwaukee, where he taught at and eventually became rector of the local seminary.

In 1935, Muench was installed as bishop of Fargo. During his time as bishop, he became known for working to alleviate the diocese’s financial challenges, promoting vocations, and encouraging lay involvement in Church life.

“He had a degree in economics. This was back in the ‘30s. He was being assigned to a diocese that was bankrupt, more or less. And within a couple of years, he had turned the thing around. He was very bright that way… ahead of his time. He was thinking about some of these issues as they were coming up,” said Fr. Andrew Jasinski, who served for years as a staff member and formation director at the Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo.

Economics is not a particularly common field of study for a priest, Jasinksi told The Pillar, noting that Muench chose insurance as the subject of his dissertation.

“We’d love to read it, but we've never been able to find the document,” Jasinski said. “It was done in the ‘30s, and he was over in Europe, so we actually wrote them, and they said they had no way of finding it. It's buried some place.”

Known as a prolific author, Muench wrote hundreds of works, including his popular Manifesto on Rural Life. The manifesto focused on applying principles of Catholic social teaching to the challenges facing agrarian communities.

Many of Muench’s works were donated to The Catholic University of America, while his writings that were more specific to Fargo were left in Fargo, originally at the seminary, said Jasinski.

Muench was also known as an avid outdoorsman. He had grown up hunting and fishing in Wisconsin, and he had brought a love for the outdoors with him when he moved to Fargo. When the bishop had his private chapel in Fargo renovated, he had the woodcarver feature a medallion of St. Hubert – the patron of hunters.

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A papal delegate to Germany

Following World War II, Pope Pius XII was looking for someone who could be his representative to Germany. The role was a sensitive one, as it would involve managing the relationship with both the country’s bishops and the post-war government.

“Pope Pius XII had a very strong relationship with the German people because he himself had served there before he was pope. He was nuncio in Munich for a while to the Bavarian government. So he had a very, very personal interest in helping the church in Germany get back on its feet,” Fargo Bishop John Folda told The Pillar.

“Pius XII needed to appoint a new delegate to Germany, both as a representative to the government, but also to the occupying powers, because Germany was still under governance of the allies after the war. And certainly he needed a delegate to the German bishops as well.”

On the recommendation of Archbishop Samuel Stritch of Chicago - who was friends with Muench - the pope appointed Muench to the position.

“His parents were from Germany. So he was perfectly bilingual, English and German,” noted Jasinski.

“He had studied in Europe, but he also was a fluent German speaker. He was American, so he would be able to relate well with the allied governance group or people and forces, etc.,” Folda said.

Initially, the role was intended to be a temporary assignment, so Muench kept his office as Bishop of Fargo, despite the fact that he had to move overseas.

In Germany, Muench worked not only with Church and government officials - he was also known for his closeness to the people, aiding those who were still suffering in the aftermath of the war.

“Germany was just a disaster after the war. It really was shattered, and Bishop Muench led a lot of relief efforts - not just Church things, but simply assisting the people who were homeless and who were trying to put their lives back together,” Folda said,

“He also, of course, was working very closely with the German bishops to try to help them to put their Church structure, the institutions, back together as well.”

“He would go among the people and serve them and really wanted to understand,” Jasinski said. “And it really broke his heart when the rift happened between East and West Germany…It just broke his heart when he would see his people and couldn't really minister them in East Germany. He just loved the people.”

Muench was so successful in his role that Pius XII decided to expand his assignment. In 1951, he appointed him as Nuncio to Germany.

Nuncios are typically archbishops; although Muench did not lead an archdiocese, he was made an archbishop before his assignment as nuncio began.

Still, Muench maintained his role as Bishop of Fargo during this time. He penned a monthly column to members of his diocese back home.

“There was an Auxiliary Bishop here by the name of Bishop [Leo] Dworshak, a priest of the diocese who basically ran things in the absence of Muench,” Folda said.

“The whole time he was apostolic nuncio, he always wanted to come back here to Fargo and serve,” said Jasinski. “So he would always come back and visit, he would make these annual visits back to Fargo.”

Cardinal Muench's galero, in the Fargo cathedral.

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Working at the Vatican

In 1959, one year after becoming pope, Pope St. John XXIII named Muench a cardinal. He also assigned him to a job in the Roman Curia, making him the first U.S. cardinal to work in the Curia.

Muench served on several Vatican congregations. He was most active in the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, which dealt with the relations between the Holy See and foreign nations. The role built on the work he had done as nuncio in Germany.

Muench also worked on the Congregation of Rites, which handled matters relating to divine worship, as well as the Congregation for Religious.

In addition, he helped with planning for the Second Vatican Council.

“He was a very, very hard worker by all accounts and he really was very, very interested in the preparations for the Council,” Folda said.

But the cardinal’s health was declining, and he did not live long enough to see the fruits of those preparations.

Cardinal Muench died February 15, 1962 - just three days shy of his 73rd birthday.

Although Muench finally stepped down as bishop of Fargo when he was appointed cardinal, he maintained his connections to his old diocese, Folda told The Pillar.

“He came back here to visit whenever he could, after he was named a cardinal, he came back here to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a bishop and kind of received a sort of hero's welcome, you might say.”

Jasinski noted that Muench’s galero - the broad-brimmed hat that cardinals used to receive - is on display at the Fargo cathedral.

“Normally, it would be on display in the church where he served in Rome,” Jasinski said. “[But] he always maintained connections back to his diocese.”

“And he was buried here,” Folda added. “His funeral and his burial were here after they had a funeral for him at the Vatican when he had passed away. His desire was to come back to the Diocese of Fargo, and he missed it very much the whole time that he was away.”

The cardinal remains a beloved figure to this day, Folda said, and the local seminary carried his name until its closure.

“He still is remembered and held with deep respect and veneration here in Fargo,” the bishop said.

“I just think he loved being a bishop,” added Jasinski, “and just loved being among the people.”

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Editors' note: A typographical error in this report initially indicated that Cardinal Muench was named a cardinal by Pope John XXII, rather than Pope John XXIII. Please forgive us.