A hesitant missionary got a taste of Bolivia and never left

Sid Hastings

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Bishop Morgan Casey, a missionary serving in one of the most remote areas of Bolivia, tells about efforts to reach out to fallen-away and nominal Catholics who have been baptized and never practiced the faith.

People are looking for an invitation to practice their faith, and he and others work to incorporate them in active roles in the Church, he said.

Those efforts have been rewarding, Bishop Casey said, citing some who came back to the Church and were so grateful that they then dedicated themselves to assisting him in helping others. He noted that the previous "wonderful work" of Maryknoll priests left a nucleus of strong, faith-filled people.

As a newly ordained priest, Bishop Casey didn't have any idea that he eventually would go to Bolivia as a missionary for a few years, let alone the 47 years that he has served there.

"That kind of fell out of the sky. Once I went, I thought I would be there five years. I finished those five years, and I wanted to stay. My folks said, 'Fine,'" Bishop Casey recalled.

He stayed another five years, then decided to continue. "And my folks said, 'He won't be coming back," Bishop Casey said in an interview from his brother's home in Herculaneum where he was staying during a visit to St. Louis. On Aug. 19 he celebrated his 50th anniversary in the priesthood at a Mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Brentwood, followed by a reception at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury.

"I've actually been in Bolivia far more time than in the USA," Bishop Casey said in looking back.

The people in the South American nation are "very warm and friendly. They make friendships easily. On the whole, they're very good friends, very simple, usually humble. It's a pleasure to be with them," said Bishop Casey, known as "Luis" to the people in Bolivia.

The native of St. James Parish in Potosi was ordained in 1962. After serving three years as assistant pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brentwood, he answered a request by Cardinal Joseph Ritter for priests to serve in the archdiocesan missions. In 1984 Bishop Casey was appointed auxiliary bishop of La Paz. In 1988 he was appointed bishop of the Vicariate of the Pando, moving into the warm, tropical jungles of Riberalta.

The Pando is in the northeastern corner of Bolivia at the headwaters of the Amazon Basin. It serves about 160,000 people and has a half dozen parishes.

The Latin America Apostolate supports Bishop Casey and the parish and priests at Maria Reina Parish in La Paz through a collection held in early August in parishes. The generosity, Bishop Casey said, "enables us to work with our people there. Our presence is doing a lot of good. The Church is maturing. There's more vocations ... . It fills us with a great deal of hope."

Other donors also help. For example, the new Santa Barbara Chapel within the parish of Maria Reina was built with the help of St. Louis Catholics. Parishioners at St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville were especially generous in contributing to the cause. St. Barnabas Parish in O'Fallon is another parish in the archdiocese that has lent support to the missionaries.

St. Mary Magdalen Parish has had a tithing program throughout Bishop Casey's 47 years in Bolivia.

In his mission work, Bishop Casey was greatly influenced by the late Bishop Andrew B. Schierhoff, his first pastor in Bolivia. Bishop Schierhoff was later named auxiliary bishop of La Paz and then bishop of the Vicariate of the Pando. "He has always been a role model for me. I was called to fill his shoes, so I've followed in his footsteps," Bishop Casey said.

Another priest he has admired is Father David Ratermann, who now is retired and lives at the Regina Cleri residence in Shrewsbury after serving 52 years in Bolivia. Other priests who encouraged Bishop Casey include the late Msgr. Louis Meyer and Msgr. Thomas Durkin.

"I want to give thanks and praise to God for 50 years of ministry He has given me very good years," Bishop Casey said. "I've been very happy and wouldn't change a thing. I've had problems, I'm a sinner like everybody else. The Lord has put up with me and has been with me the whole time. I've enjoyed what I've been doing, and I hope to do it for some years to come."

A pet monkey was a part of his household for a while, but now he just has parrots. Bishop Casey lives in community with about six priests who work in two parishes and in the communities along the rivers. "I share my priesthood with them, and they share their priesthood with me," he said.

SUPPORT THE APOSTOLATE

Anyone wanting to make a donation to the Latin America Apostolate in honor of Bishop Casey’s 50th anniversary of ordination can contribute:

• By check payable to Latin America Apostolate, 20 Archbishop May Drive, St. Louis, MO 63119.

• By credit card by calling Sue Spavale at (314) 792-7662.

For information see stlmissions.org or call (314) 792-7655.

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