Coffin: New Bishop

Jan 5, 2015

Rome has spoken. Unto Vermont, as the 2014th Christmas season came to pass, has been given a new bishop of Burlington - Christopher Coyne, of greater Boston.

On January 29 the magnificent mighty space of Vermont’s great church building, St. Joseph’s co-cathedral in the North End, will resound with anthems. And bishops, monsignors, parish priests, a cardinal or two, and a thousand Vermont Catholic faithful will assemble for the colorful rights of installation.

Bishop Coyne is not a Vermonter. I would have bet on that, having been an observer of the diocese since hired in 1998 by the bishop’s office to write a history of Vermont Catholicism. After all, Coyne will the 10th bishop of the Burlington Diocese, and only two have been native Vermonters.

The first, John Michaud, had worked in a Burlington waterfront lumberyard as a youth. In 1892 he succeeded Vermont’s first bishop, Louis DeGoesbriand, who led Vermont Catholics for nearly a half century. Degoesbriand was born in Normandy, where many Vermont lads would one day fight Adolph Hitler’s tyranny.

Robert Joyce, born in Proctor, became bishop in 1959. Of a military background, he was notoriously hard to work for and famed for his sudden unannounced inspection visits to local parishes. But Vermonters of all faiths took to the energetic bridge player. His faithful assistant Father Louis Gelineau, Burlington born and now retired there, was thought by some to be Joyce’s logical successor. But Rome spirited him off to Rhode Island, where he became Bishop of Providence.

Indeed, a powerful Rhode Island/Vermont connection has dominated the highest level of the Vermont See for years. Vermont’s last two bishops have been Rhode Islanders, sent from the Providence diocese - Kenneth Angell and Salvatore Motano.

Angell confessed that he wasn’t initially overjoyed at being named our bishop. On his first trip here, years before his installation, stepping onto Vermont soil for the first time, he fell and fractured a leg. Yet he came to love Vermont and spends his retirement here.

So Pope Francis, reformer, has sent to Vermont a new man to lead his faithful in a state where reform happens. We wish him well. And also wish that, one day, a Vermonter might again be chosen.

Not long after John Michaud became bishop, he met a former neighbor on a Burlington street who inquired what he was now doing.

“Bishop of Burlington,” was the reply.

“That’s a damned good job,” said the man, “You better keep it.”