Former Austin priest passes away

Published 10:35 am Tuesday, July 5, 2016

By Jerome Christenson, Winona Daily News

For 55 years, Paul Nelson was called Father.

He offered Mass in Latin and in English. Prayed for five popes and five bishops. Baptized more than 2,500 babies, married 1,500 couples, buried 2,000 friends and parishioners, heard 50,000 confessions.

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Rev. Paul Nelson died at his home in Rochester June 25. His funeral was Thursday at St. Pius X Church in Rochester, where he was serving as assistant pastor. He was 81.

Born in Rochester on May 24, 1935, Nelson was the oldest son of Claude and Lenora Nelson. He grew up on a small dairy farm near Simpson in rural Rochester and attended a one-room country elementary school.

Nelson said that had he not become a priest, he likely would have ended up as a veterinarian. “I loved the farm, loved working with the animals, and I stood in awe of the vets when they came out,” Nelson said.

Nelson was introduced to Catholic education as a seventh grader at Lourdes High School in Rochester. He was a junior at Lourdes when he first — rather reluctantly — began to consider the priesthood.

In his memoir, “A Priest From the Prairies of Minnesota,” he wrote of an meeting with his parish priest who suggested he consider entering the seminary after high school.

“I happened to be sweet on a girl in my class at Lourdes at the time,” he wrote, “and the issue of celibacy immediately came to mind. I politely informed Fr. Farrell that I did not think I wanted to be a priest.”

But Farrell was persistent, and in September 1953, Nelson enrolled in Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary at Saint Mary’s University.

Eight years later, he knelt before Bishop Edward Fitzgerald to be ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Winona.

His first assignment was as Assistant Pastor for St. Augustine Parish in Austin, and as a teacher of religion at Pacelli High School. Three years later he was re-assigned to Winona to be the Assistant Diocesan Religious Education Director, Assistant Pastor at St. John’s Parish in Winona, and a part-time religion teacher at Cotter High School.

For the next half-century, Catholic education would play a major role in Nelson’s life and priesthood. He went on to serve as principal at multiple schools, including Cotter, Loyola High School in Mankato, Pacelli High School in Austin, and the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Winona.

“I believe that Catholic schools are a significant force for building and nurturing our Catholic Church.” Nelson said. “Working together to support Catholic schools is key to ensuring our future.”

In the early 1980s, while serving as rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Nelson would play a key role in persuading Winona’s Catholic parishes to consolidate their parish schools to create a single pre-school through high school Catholic school system — Winona Area Catholic Schools.

Nelson’s contributions to Catholic education in Winona was honored by the Catholic Schools Foundation of Winona with the creation of the Father Paul Nelson Legacy Society, to recognize “individuals who have provided for the future of Catholic education in Winona through an estate gift to the Catholic Schools Foundation of Winona “

Still, it was as a priest that Nelson most profoundly touched the people he served.

Serving the people of God throughout the years of change was a joy and privilege, he said. Celebrating the sacraments and being with people at the deepest, most sacred moments in their lives has made his priesthood a joy and honor in whatever capacity he has served.

“Priestly life,” he wrote, “is about leading people into mystery, into sacrament, into word, into community, and into wisdom … This is the spirit that makes Christ live among us.”

The flood of condolences posted on the Macken Funeral Home website in the days following his death attest to the many ways he brought the spirit of Christ to people in the parishes he served.

“I knew Father Paul through AA,” one woman wrote, “One year at a meeting I expressed concern about having enough money to go see my daughter. After the meeting, he came up to me and put money in my hand. It was $60. I have never forgotten that sweet act toward someone he barely knew.”

“Father Paul was the kindest and gentlest of men…” wrote Holly Hengel Palbicki. “He never made judgment and only saw the good in everyone. I will miss him and those piercing blue eyes of his.”

“God bless you Fr. Paul.”

—Distributed by the Associated Press.