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The Rev. Al Bitz, pastor at St. James Basilica, stands in the sanctuary of the church he has worked in for 11 years. Bitz plans to retire at the end of June. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Basilica’s Bitz to retire

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After 11 years as pastor at St. James Basilica and 45 years as a priest, the Rev. Al Bitz plans to retire in June.

“It’s been a privilege to serve here,” Bitz said of the basilica and the outlying parishes he serves as pastor.

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His plans include moving to Bismarck, where he will do some part-time work with the University of Mary in sacramental ministry, as well as some development work. Bitz has family in the Bismarck area, he said.

“He's going to be greatly missed. He's been here 11 years, and I think he's brought about many positive additions to the parish,” said Dina Laskowski, chair of the Pastoral Council at St. James. “... he's someone that is truly going to be missed for all of his accomplishments and his brilliant vision.”

A committee will be empowered to decide who will fill the vacancy left behind when Bitz leaves. It will be made up of eight deans — all priests serving as pastors — in the Diocese of Fargo. Bishop John Folda, Diocese of Fargo, too, is involved in the discussion and makes the final decision, Bitz said.

One possibility is that someone who is serving as an associate pastor would move into the position, which could then leave an associate position unfilled. Most likely, the associate would be from a different church, not from the basilica.

And most likely, the committee will choose someone for the position within a month.

Sister Michaeleen Jantzer will also be leaving the parish at that time. Whether she will be replaced, Bitz said, will likely be up to the new pastor. Either way, the parish community will miss her, Bitz said, particularly her ministry to people who are divorced.

Other priests may move between parishes within the Diocese of Fargo at that same time, Bitz said. Usually, priests change congregations after 12 years.

Bitz has been at the basilica for 11 years, and has been eligible for retirement for six.

“I’ve been trying to decide for the last two years, and I would keep putting it off,” said Bitz, who finally made the decision in mid-March.

The Roman Catholic Church has changed quite a bit since Bitz became a priest. He was ordained in 1969, just a few years after the watershed Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, changing many of the church’s practices and customs.

“During those years, there was an openness to trying to see how we could bring the Gospel to the world more effectively,” Bitz said. “There was a great openness to changes and to creativity.”

Ecumenism, or cooperation between different denominations, was also at its height, and Bitz became involved in ecumenism at a local and at a diocese level.

Over time attitudes shifted, and some of the openness to creative solutions in bringing the Gospel to the world seemed to fade, Bitz said.

“And so it’s really changed — because now we have Pope Francis,” Bitz said, noting the new pope seems to have spurred “a greater call for creativity.”

Feeling inspired by that creativity, Bitz felt a strong pull away from retiring, and ended up staying at the basilica a little longer, he said.

Other aspects of the Roman Catholic Church have not changed at all since Bitz became a priest.

“The basic element of baptism as being a pre-eminent call, that hasn’t changed,” said Bitz, calling it the basis for ecumenism, acceptance of each other and for creativity. “If we are all baptized and we are one with each other, how do we express that? And how do we live it out?”

During Bitz’s tenure, St. James Basilica and St. John’s Academy have grown a little bit every year, and they have both continued to reach out to people beyond the Catholic community. Bitz praised the administration at St. John’s and the strong support of the community.

Bitz said he hopes his replacement is a good preacher and presider at Sunday Eucharist, as well as someone who is committed to St. John’s Academy and is good at administration.

“It’s a big challenge,” Bitz said.

One of the challenges, he explained, is to bring ministry to people who are struggling and who are on the margins of society, such as those in the North Dakota State Hospital, the James River Correctional Center and the Stutsman County Correctional Center, as well as people with mental illnesses or disabilities — “not only to serve them, but to let those people serve us.”

Bitz said he would miss helping people who are estranged from the church become “re-membered,” but he won’t miss settling disputes.

And he looks forward to helping out at the University of Mary, while also being able to visit family and attend family events when he wants.

“I’m very happy that the parish here has really grown in its working together, and especially the development of the long-range plans and implementation,” Bitz said.

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at (701) 952-8453

or by email at

klucin@jamestownsun.com

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Kari Lucin
Kari Lucin joined the Jamestown Sun as a staff writer in July 2011. Previously, she worked for about six years at the Daily Globe in Worthington, Minn., as an online content coordinator and staff writer. A graduate of Jackson County Central High School and Augsburg College, she has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English. At the Jamestown Sun, Kari is a general assignment reporter, but most typically covers the Stutsman County Commission and the James River Valley Library System. Find more of her writing at her blog, Oh Look, a Shiny Thing!
(701) 952-8453
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