FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Robert Louis Whelan, retired bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, has died in Spokane, Wash.
Whelan, who served in Fairbanks nearly five decades, died Saturday. He was 89.
He served as bishop from 1968-1985, and remained in Fairbanks for another decade directing the House of Prayer, where he led retreats, prayer sessions and workshops.
He left the state in 1995 because of failing health.
The Rev. Richard D. Case, diocesan administrator since the death of Bishop Michael Kaniecki in August 2000, first met Whelan in the early 1970s, often piloting him in small planes to villages scattered throughout the diocese's 409,849 square miles.
''He was very, very pastoral,'' Case said. ''He cared a lot about the people and loved to be with them.''
The Rev. Al Levitre served as a Jesuit volunteer in Fairbanks in the early 1970s during Whelan's tenure. Later Levitre discussed his call to the priesthood with the bishop and received full support. Whelan ordained Levitre to the diaconate in 1979 in Nome, and to the priesthood in Phoenix the following year.
''He wasn't an innovator or visionary -- just a loving, caring individual,'' Levitre told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''He really proclaimed the gospel in the way he conducted himself as bishop. He was not pretentious. He did not lord over his authority. He was compassionate and loving of people -- the ideal of what one would expect from a bishop.''
Case said Whelan was a mix of the old and the new Catholic church.
''He was always willing to listen and very open to people, yet he was a man of the '50s as far as the church was concerned,'' he said. ''He preferred to be in his black cassock when he was with people.''
Bob Mantei was involved in the renovation of the House of Prayer, which Whelan directed for 10 years. Mantei said after he and his wife, Peggy, first came to Fairbanks, she would clean the chancery. One day the vacuum wouldn't work so she approached an elderly man with holes in the elbows of his shirt whom she saw folding clothes and asked for help.
''While he was on the floor taking a look at the vacuum, somebody came in and addressed him as 'bishop.' She was a little shocked he was the bishop,'' Mantei said.
Ordained June 17, 1944, Whelan came to Alaska in 1946. He spent 49 active years in the state serving all three dioceses. A Jesuit priest, he was pastor in Juneau first through 1957 when he was named pastor to the new St. Anthony's parish in Anchorage. In December 1967 he was appointed coadjutor to Bishop Francis D. Gleeson in the Fairbanks diocese. The following February he became bishop.
During the next 16 years, Whelan traveled extensively by plane, boat and snowmachine throughout the widely scattered Indian and Eskimo villages. Fulfilling his bishopric duties, he ordained deacons and priests, conferred the sacrament of Confirmation on many and blessed newly-built churches.
A memorial service was held in Spokane Monday. Whelan's body will be returned to Alaska later this week for funeral services and burial.
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