Utah bishop John Wester named to head Santa Fe archdiocese

Bishop John Wester in 2010 (CNS/Bob Roller)

Washington — Pope Francis has accepted the retirement of Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., and named Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City to succeed him.

Sheehan, who has headed the Santa Fe archdiocese since 1993, turned 75 last year, the age at which bishops are required under canon law to submit their resignations to the pope.

A San Francisco native, Wester, 64, has headed the Salt Lake City diocese, which encompasses the entire state of Utah, since 2007.

Bishops who are named to head archdioceses immediately assume the title of archbishop.

He is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on Communications.

The changes were announced Monday in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Wester will be installed in his new post June 4, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.

Sheehan was appointed to the Santa Fe archdiocese initially as its apostolic administrator, when former Archbishop Robert Sanchez resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with several young women. Sheehan was named successor to Sanchez three months later.

He later simultaneously served for six months in his archdiocesan role and as temporary apostolic administrator of the Phoenix diocese, which falls under the church province of Santa Fe. That assignment also was necessitated by a scandal involving the previous head of the diocese, Bishop Thomas O'Brien, who resigned after being charged in a fatal hit-and-run car accident. He later was convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

As a consultant to the USCCB's Committee on Migration and with his role in the pontifical council for migrants, Wester has been active in seeking comprehensive immigration reform, making him a familiar face in dioceses of the southwest. For example, he was among the dozen bishops concelebrating Mass last April along the Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz.

Wester was born Nov. 5, 1950, the eldest of four children of Charles and Helen Wester. He earned degrees from St. Joseph College, the former seminary of the San Francisco archdiocese, as well as St. Patrick College and St. Patrick Seminary, the University of San Francisco and Holy Names College, all in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After his ordination May 15, 1976, for the San Francisco archdiocese, he served as a parish priest, as teacher, campus ministry director and then president of Marin Catholic High School and as assistant superintendent for archdiocesan high schools before becoming administrative assistant to Archbishop John Quinn. Wester was pastor of St. Stephen Parish in San Francisco for four years before becoming vicar for clergy. In 1998, he was made an auxiliary bishop and became vicar general of the archdiocese.

Wester served as apostolic administrator of the San Francisco archdiocese for six months after then-Archbishop William Levada was named in 2005 by Pope Benedict to be prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was named bishop of Salt Lake City in January 2007.

In Utah, Wester was vocal in opposing the state's reinstatement in March of the firing squad as an option for executions. He has been a member of organizations in the state including the Alliance for Unity and the president's advisory board for United Way of Salt Lake City.

His move to the Santa Fe archdiocese will bring him to a slightly larger Catholic population, with about 323,000 over Utah's 250,000, but who represent a much greater proportion of the population. About 9 percent of Utah's population is Catholic, while in the Santa Fe archdiocese, about 25 percent of the population is Catholic.

Sheehan is a native of Wichita, Kan., born July 9, 1939. He was largely raised in Texas and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth on July 12, 1964. He was first made a bishop March 29, 1993, when he was named to head the diocese of Lubbock, Texas.

Among some of Sheehan's more recent notable activities in the archdiocese were his appointment of its first full-time coordinator of Native American activities, a deacon who is from the Acoma Pueblo, and launching the canonization cause of Sister of Charity Blandina Segale. Segale​ was an Italian missionary who worked among the poor and migrants in the late 19th century.

As secretary of the USCCB in 2006, Sheehan shepherded restructuring of the bishops' conference. Under the reorganization, the conference's 36 standing committees were reduced to 16, among other changes.

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