Eucharistic Congress Marks ‘New Dawn’ in Minnesota Diocese Once Bruised by Scandal

Only a few years after being rocked by a clergy-sex-abuse cover-up, the Diocese of Crookston is embracing its outsize role in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage as a sign of healing and a moment of renewal.

More than 3,500 participants took part in the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress in Bemidji, Minnesota, May 17-18.
More than 3,500 participants took part in the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress in Bemidji, Minnesota, May 17-18. (photo: Courtney Meyer Photography)

This weekend, the eyes of Catholics across the country are on the Diocese of Crookston — but for far different reasons than the last time the rural Minnesota diocese was in the national spotlight.

The local Church of only 35,000 Catholics —the third smallest in the country — has the distinction of kicking off the entire National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, with a two-day Eucharistic conference featuring powerful catechists like Bishop Robert Barron and Father Mike Schmitz, celebratory fireworks over Lake Bemidji, and Pentecost Sunday Mass at the Mississippi River headwaters to start the pilgrimage’s Marian Route.

But only a few years ago, Crookston was embroiled in scandal. In 2017, the diocese’s then-ordinary, Bishop Michael Hoeppner, was accused of covering up clergy sexual abuse. The Vatican launched an investigation into the bishop in 2019, the first in the world to use the new Vos estis lux mundi guidelines. The ordeal fractured the local Church, scandalized the faithful, and eventually led to Bishop Hoeppner’s resignation in 2021.

Hope Bach, a youth minister at Crookston’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the past nine years, remembers that period as one of the darkest in her life, the first time the young Catholic had experienced scandal in the Church up close and personal.

“I was just like, ‘What is everything? What is life? Who is God?’” she told the Register at the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress, held in Bemidji, Minnesota, May 17-18.

But now, Crookston Catholics like Bach see the diocese’s significant role in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage as part of a new beginning for their local Church.

“We’re so much more than those dark times and disappointment,” she said. “We are the Church that is coming alive, that Jesus loves, and that’s how we can define ourselves going forward.”

There were 3,350 people registered to attend the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress, a number equivalent to roughly 10% of the Catholic population of the Diocese of Crookston. Attendees came from elsewhere, including neighboring states like North Dakota, and even Canada, but the majority were from Crookston, as well as the Diocese of Duluth, a co-sponsor of the Eucharistic Congress.

“You can tell that people are experiencing this sense of new life,” Crookston’s Bishop Andrew Cozzens told the Register regarding excitement across the diocese to be serving as the launchpad for the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. “It feels like a new day is dawning.”

Bill Tate, a cathedral parishioner, agreed, describing the experience of gathering with Catholics from across the diocese and beyond around the Eucharist as “awesome.” 

“It’s a moment of renewal for the diocese,” he said.

A Twist of Providence

In fact, in a strange twist of providence, it was the scandal, the investigation, and the ouster of Bishop Hoeppner that has allowed for the sparsely populated diocese tucked in Minnesota’s northwest corner to play such a significant role in the nation’s Eucharistic revival.

Because in Bishop Hoeppner’s place came Bishop Cozzens.

Bishop Cozzens, who had previously been an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was installed as the ordinary of Crookston in December 2021. But about a year earlier, he’d begun a different role as the U.S. bishops’ head of evangelization and catechesis. In that capacity, Bishop Cozzens was also responsible for the National Eucharistic Revival, which started in 2022.

And when the bishop decided to move forward with four cross-country pilgrimage routes from each cardinal direction converging upon the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis this July, he knew his new diocese was going to be a key part of it.

“If we were going to start from the north, well then we had to start from the ‘northland,’” Bishop Cozzens told attendees of the Star of the North conference, referring to the Diocese of Crookston’s nickname.

Without Bishop Cozzens’s presence in Crookston, it’s hard to imagine a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage route passing through — let alone starting in — the low-profile diocese on the Canadian border.

Janelle Gergen, the diocese’s longtime communications director, whom Bishop Cozzens elevated to diocesan chancellor shortly after his arrival, described his appointment to the diocese by Pope Francis as “providential.”

“Crookston has experienced some dark days, and it’s quite profound to now be a beacon of light for the U.S. Church, with Eucharistic renewal launching from our humble northland,” she told the Register.

The Eucharist Heals

Local Catholics hope that the Eucharistic pilgrimage events in Crookston will spur renewal in their diocese. But the Eucharist, the sacrament of charity, has already played an irreplaceable role in the healing the diocese has thus far experienced.

In the diocese’s dark days, Bach says it was frequent trips to the cathedral’s adoration chapel that helped her deepen her faith in Christ alone when diocesan leadership had failed.

“With the Eucharist, this is the one constant that you can always count on,” she said. “Jesus is the constant. It took the non-constancy [of Church leaders] for me to really see that and to know it.”

Bishop Cozzens underscored that the Eucharist is essential to renewing communion in the Church.

“Since the Eucharist makes us the Body of Christ, it also unites the divisions of the Church, which is why it’s so important to have the Eucharist at the heart of the Church, in the heart of the parish,” Bishop Cozzens told the Register.

The Crookston bishop has made it a point to get to all the parishes across the geographically expansive but sparsely populated diocese “as often as I can, just to celebrate the Eucharist and be with the people and to be a healing presence.”

He has also highlighted the healing power of the Eucharist by leading “Mercy Hours” at different parishes across the diocese each month. The evenings are a time of healing for marriage and families, including Eucharistic adoration, a talk by Bishop Cozzens, music and intercessory prayer.

Since the Eucharist is Christ himself, Bishop Cozzens said that Jesus begins to heal people “automatically” when they come before him, especially when they’re disposed through prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation.

“Then all we have to do really is bring people to the Eucharist, and he’ll do the healing that needs to happen,” said the Crookston bishop.

The theme of Eucharistic healing was also threaded throughout the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress.

One speaker, Naomi Ringhand, shared a powerful experience of being consoled by Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration shortly after finding out her father had died of a heart attack 18 months ago.

“Jesus wants to meet you in your sorrow,” said Cassandra Johnson, a Crookston diocesan pastoral worker and co-emcee of the event, after Ringhand’s testimony. “However you come, he’s ready to meet you.” 

A ‘New Dawn’

The road to healing in the Diocese of Crookston is far from over. But local Catholics believe that serving as the starting point of the Eucharistic pilgrimage is both a fruit of the renewal that’s already happened, as well as a potential source for new life still to come.

Bach said that the unity of the local Church was “really evident” at the Star of the North congress in Bemidji.

“We are one body, we are one community, and Jesus is our head,” she said. “Here we are, one family under God.”

Another important marker in that journey of regeneration will be Bishop Cozzen’s pastoral plan for the diocese. The document, which will be published soon, is expected to lay out a vision for renewed Catholic mission and evangelization in northwestern Minnesota.

But for now, Bishop Cozzens and the Catholic faithful of Crookston are embracing their moment of Eucharistic revival, ready to receive whatever gifts the Lord wants to give them through it.

“From the whole experience of this congress and the pilgrimage, there’s going to be a lot of graces that flow out,” said Bishop Cozzens. “We’re just praying that those graces permeate our people and that there is a real renewal here.”