Bishop Nickless' 50th ordination anniversary
Bishop blesses the crowd following his Aug. 4, 2023 anniversary Mass at the Cathedral
Denver Archbishop James Casey ordained Father Walker Nickless at his home parish in Denver.
Then - Msgr. Walker Nickless received great on-the-job experience in administration before being ordained a bishop in January 2006.
Speaking the truth in love for a half century
By DAWN PROSSER
Director of Communications
“Speak the truth in love,” has been the motto of Bishop Walker Nickless since his January 20, 2006, episcopal ordination at Nativity Church in Sioux City. However, the words have guided the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City through the past half-century of priestly ministry.
“I think that subconsciously that was probably what I was trying to do. As a priest, I wanted to be faithful to the church and at the same time, I knew that if you didn’t say it right, nuance it right … it wouldn’t do much. It was always in the back of my mind. When I had to choose a motto when I became bishop, I thought this would be a good one to have, because that’s what a bishop does. That’s what a priest does,” he explained.
Bishop Nickless said the last 50 years of priestly service to the church passed quickly.
“It’s gone very, very fast. When I was a young priest or a young seminarian, I never thought that I’d be here 50 years later talking about that when it seems like I just began,” he said of his impending anniversary.
Always encouraged by his grandmother to consider a priestly vocation, Bishop Nickless said she was not the only one who sensed God’s plans for him.
“She’s the one who told me that when I was born, my mother took me and put me in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother at the hospital, and said, ‘He’s yours,’” the bishop reflected.
Raised by “ordinary” and “hard-working” Catholic parents, the future bishop and his nine siblings attended Mass and Catholic schools. Bishop Nickless said his parents Walker and Margaret Nickless were perfect role models for him, providing the example of devoutly living the Catholic faith.
With the support of family and friends, young Walker Nickless attended St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1969. He then headed to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to complete his studies.
Always close to his family, the young seminarian asked Archbishop James Casey if he could be ordained July 28, 1973, so that his first Mass would include his sister’s first Communion. Although the seminarian’s classmates were ordained at the Denver Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in May, the archbishop suggested Aug. 4, as an alternative ordination date for the future Father Walker Nickless.
“Only then did I realize that was the feast of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. So, I was ordained by myself at my home parish, Blessed Sacrament in eastern Denver. That was nice having my whole family there,” he said, noting his grandparents were also present to witness his priestly ordination.
While still studying in Rome, the Denver seminarian knew that he would be assigned to the diocesan cathedral parish upon his ordination.
“That’s the same church I was baptized in 26 years earlier,” he said, noting the assignment was “a great experience.”
Father Nickless was the youngest of five priests living at the diverse downtown cathedral rectory. He explained he moved into his new home at the end of the week, so his first assignment was to hear confessions on Saturday.
“I went into the confessional, and I was so nervous that when I was done, the penitent said, ‘Well, what’s my penance?’ I forgot to give him a penance,” the bishop said with a laugh.
The cathedral parish was very busy as the five priests covered two hospitals as well as ministry at the church. The newest priest was assigned to youth ministry with the inner-city children, which he enjoyed.
“The cathedral was the best place I could have been. It had everything, (people living in poverty), rich and wealthy people, it had hospitals, nursing homes. It had a youth group, it had religious education. All kinds of things that prepared me. I had more hospital calls and visits in six months than my classmates did in their whole assignments,” the bishop pointed out.
In four years, it was time for the young priest to move on to a new assignment. Father Nickless requested a parish with a school after the positive experience with the cathedral youth group. He was assigned to St. Bernadette Parish in west Denver as a parochial vicar and as an eighth grade teacher.
The parish pastor was an elderly priest originally from Ireland and Father Nickless found the pastor to be “a great role model for me. He prayed all the time.”
“I really enjoyed being at the school and being able to teach and interact with the kids and the teachers,” Bishop Nickless said of his youth-focused ministry at St. Bernadette Parish.
In 1980, Father Nickless was the first diocesan priest to be named pastor of the Shrine of St. Anne Parish in Arvada, Colorado, replacing a team of Claretian priests who had led the parish. The new pastor and his parochial vicars moved into the rectory in June 1980.
“I was 32 years old when I became a pastor for the first time, but I still felt very young. Our young guys now, (sometimes) they’re even younger than that,” Bishop Nickless reflected.
The new pastor was again teaching eighth grade religion and assisting with the youth group as well as the traditional responsibilities of a pastor of a large parish with a school.
“I just loved being a priest and being a pastor,” he said.
On the job training
In 1988, the direction of his ministry changed.
“I was at a clergy meeting for all of the priests in Denver and the archbishop called me aside and said, ‘Walker, I have heard a lot of good things bout you, and even though you’re rather young, I want you to become the vicar for clergy,’” Bishop Nickless said of Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Stafford.
As he enjoyed his parish work, the new vicar for clergy asked to live in a parish rectory. He was assigned to live at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Lakewood. He worked at the chancery and was also able to preside at daily and weekend Masses at the parish.
The bishop admitted he was “scared to death” to work at the chancery in his new role as vicar for clergy.
“Those were very difficult times in the church. That’s when the first allegations of sexual misconduct by the clergy began to appear. No one knew exactly what to do, how to deal with these things. So, I was thrown into the fire right away dealing with that,” he explained.
During that time, the archbishop was elevated to cardinal and left for a new assignment in Rome and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput became Father Nickless’ new shepherd. The new archbishop added vicar general to the vicar for clergy’s responsibilities.
“Those 13 years at the chancery were very difficult,” Bishop Nickless reflected. “I met often with the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators … We were one of the first (dioceses) to make sure that we had background checks on all the priests that would come to serve in the Archdiocese of Denver.”
Father Nickless’ work placed him in contact with the archdiocesan clergy and personnel board, including “changes and their concerns and complaints.”
“The vicar for clergy was the director of complaints,” the bishop said, noting people complained when under the archbishops’ direction, priests were moved and complained when they wanted their priests to be moved because they did not like them.
Bishop Nickless said the time spent as vicar general and vicar for clergy under two strong diocesan leaders was relevant on-the-job training for what would be his future as shepherd of a small diocese in northwest Iowa.
“That’s where I learned how to run a diocese … it prepared me well for coming here to the Diocese of Sioux City,” he explained. “Both of my bishops that were there and their style of leadership – I’m lucky I had them to help me become a bishop here.”
After the 13-year tenure at the chancery, the now Msgr. Nickless was allowed to return to parish leadership – right at Our Lady of Fatima Parish where he had been living and assisting.
“That was really a good assignment for me. I had three new priests for three years. Every year I got a new parochial vicar to help get started and trained. They were newly ordained priests that were with me and that was a great experience to be with them,” he said of his time at Our Lady of Fatima.
The bishop said he enjoyed all his parish assignments and “I have loved being a pastor and a parochial vicar at all the parishes I was assigned,” he said. “Pastors hear complaints from people, but they also have many, many benefits and bonuses serving the needs of the people in your parishes with the sacraments … there’s nothing better than being a pastor. It’s a wonderful, wonderful calling.”
In 2005, Msgr. Nickless received the call from Rome that he would be ordained a bishop for the Diocese of Sioux City. He was ordained January 2006 by Dubuque Archbishop Jerome Hanus with Archbishop Chaput and his friend and seminary classmate Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, as co-consecrators.
The new bishop jumped into his new role with diocesan strategic planning beginning in 2007, followed by a five-year long-range plan for the reorganization of parishes in 2009. He instituted the annual fifth grade Mass in 2007 so Catholic school students could meet him and experience the Cathedral of the Epiphany. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (The Church is Always in Need of Renewal), his pastoral letter, was published at the end of 2009.
Bishop Nickless adjusted from serving one parish to serving the faithful throughout a diocese. He also realized the importance of his role as leader to his diocesan priests.
“I appreciate that the role of the bishop is to be a teacher, brother and shepherd to all my brother priests,” Bishop Nickless said. “I need to be there to support them, but I also need to be there to challenge them at times. So that’s been a joy, but it’s also been difficult in some situations.”
His said the role as bishop to the laity is to serve as a teacher and a shepherd. His motto to speak the truth in love “has great significance” when ministering to his diocesan lay faithful.
“I want to be faithful to the church’s teaching and I want to be able to teach that to everybody in the diocese,” the bishop said. “Those church teachings sometimes are very difficult and very hard with lots of rules and regulations and things that people don’t understand.”
Shifts in population and church attendance in northwest Iowa and in the country over time have created difficulties for Catholic bishops.
“The challenge that I found here in Sioux City has been the same as other parts of Iowa and the Midwest, and that’s changing demographics. Fewer people, which means we have less people to fill up our parishes ... We also have fewer people going to Mass for various reasons over the years. COVID did not help any, so it’s been hard to get them back,” Bishop Nickless explained.
He noted that encouraging vocations to the priesthood has been a focus throughout his episcopate, and the same shifting demographics have also affected those efforts.
“The other challenge I have here in Sioux City is because of the lack of people and lack of larger families, I have fewer seminarians,” the bishop explained. “That is a real struggle and I’ve tried the whole time I’ve been here to do whatever I can to increase vocations. It’s up to the Lord and all I can do is pray and try to give a good example.”
The trend in a decrease in the numbers of the faithful and prospects for the seminary over many years has led to making unpopular decisions regarding the future of diocesan parishes.
“And of course, because of the changing demographics, parish consolidations and mergers have taken up a lot of time, but all for the good of the priests and the people trying to serve them and trying to keep our priests healthy and fulfilled in their ministry,” the bishop explained.
Inspiration from others
Despite the challenges, bishop said he has enjoyed the encouragement and inspiration from other bishops, clergy, the laity and youth. He said Cardinal Stafford and Archbishop Chaput were encouraging and “were always supportive and always there for me.”
“I’ve been supported by the example of good priests around me and learning some from the bad priests around me and you know that you do not want to be that way in your priesthood because you see how it affects other people,” Bishop Nickless said.
He also noted that his brother priests and older priests have been great role models for him throughout his ministry as “they’ve helped me get to 50 years as a priest because they’ve paved the way before me by their example, their dedication, their commitment.”
“I’ve been inspired by the young priests that I’ve been privileged to ordain here in the Diocese of Sioux City,” Bishop Nickless pointed out. “I’ve been blessed and privileged to ordain 15.”
As the bishop is waiting for the Holy Father to name his replacement so that he can pass the torch to his successor, he has advice for priests in active ministry from his half-century of priestly ministry.
“Be faithful to your promises. Be faithful to what you promise and the Lord will be faithful to you … Teach what the church teaches but do it in love and care for each individual person that you know is going to hear this. So be gentle in that speech, but speak the truth and not be afraid,” Bishop Nickless said, referring to his motto. “You have to be a joyful person … young people, young men need to see priests happy and joyful, not sad.”
Although his successor is yet unnamed, and could be unnamed for many months, he has advice for the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City.
“I would just tell him, let the Lord guide you. Love the Lord and trust in him. And I’ll be around if you need me,” Bishop Nickless said.
From the July 27, 2023 edition of The Lumen