This story will be published in the June/July issue of Catholic St. Louis magazine.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson had wanted to become a doctor. Like many childhood dreams, his plans weren’t specific. Maybe he’d be a pediatrician or a surgeon. But he liked medicine, mostly because of a doctor’s ability to bring healing to others.
Looking back, the archbishop sees a connection between his childhood dream and what God eventually called him to — the priesthood. The physician physically heals others, while a priest’s focus is on spiritual healing.
On May 23, Archbishop Carlson marked 50 years as a priest. He recently reflected on how the Lord has called him to his vocation and the opportunities he’s had to serve the Church.
He’s served in a range of positions unparalleled to that of many other priests. He spent the first 14 years as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota. In 1983, at the age of 39, Pope John Paul II tapped him to become an auxiliary bishop for that archdiocese. He’s also been a metropolitan tribunal judge, a vocations director, a chancellor and even a chaplain for a hockey team. He’s faced several significant health challenges, fighting bladder and colon cancer. His role as a bishop has taken him to other dioceses, including Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Saginaw, Michigan; and now St. Louis.
Through it all, the archbishop has maintained the heart of a parish priest with an overwhelming desire to be connected with and serve the people of God.
“Along the way, the Lord has placed some wonderful priests, religious and lay people in my life who have been a wonderful blessing for me,” he said. “I pray in thanksgiving for those who have helped me to be a better person. And along the way, I hope I have helped some people in their lives as well.”
A calling, and a promise
Robert Carlson was born in Minneapolis in 1944 to Robert and Jeanne Carlson. The oldest child and only boy, he had four younger sisters, two of whom died in infancy. His father had served in the Navy and then was an insurance salesman for more than 40 years.
Like many Catholic families, the Carlsons attended Mass and went to confession often. The children attended Catholic schools. Growing up, he had many positive experiences with priests — sometimes they’d come over for dinner, or he would have the chance to go on group outings with them.
“I think that had something to do with me focusing on the priesthood, because we always had priests over at the house,” he said.
His interest in medicine was placed on the back burner when after high school he joined the Christian Brothers. He was with the community only for about six weeks, but the discernment period was invaluable, he noted. He learned there that God was calling him to the priesthood.
“The advantage is when you enter formation, whether it’s as a brother, a priest or woman religious, it gives you a chance to discern. In the process of those six weeks, I really discerned I was being called to the priesthood. I had a great time with the Christian Brothers, but I saw clearly where God wanted me. As a result, when I did go to the seminary, I think I was more focused.”
Robert attended Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary in St. Paul for two years, followed by six years at St. Paul Seminary, also in St. Paul. Archbishop Carlson said his father was surprised by, yet supportive of, his change in plans.
“Before I was ordained, he came up to see me and he said, ‘I want you to know your mother and I support you in your decision,’” he recalled. “But he said, ‘If you get ordained, don’t quit, because you’ll break your mother’s heart.’”
Archbishop Carlson’s younger sister, Cathy Percival, was 12 when he left for the seminary. She recalled their upbringing, along with their other younger sister, Patty Carlson, as an average, middle-class family who was down to earth in all aspects of life.
“You still made your bed and did the chores,” Percival said. “My parents didn’t treat my sister and I any different than Bobby.”
She described her brother as having a keen ability to connect with people — no matter if he was assigned a suburban or an inner-city parish — and someone who is a good speaker. She’s also witnessed her brother as a “man of action,” something they learned from their parents.
“Mom was very prayerful, but she’d always ask him if the local school could use some things, coats and what have you,” Percival recalled. “Patty was a teacher in a poor part of Minneapolis, and Mom would box up things and send them to her.”
Patty Carlson also described her brother’s approachability, adding, “When he’s very giving to the people, he gives in many ways. He thinks of others first — that’s what I’ve seen from him from the time he was a new priest, and all the different roles he’s had. He tries to do his best for others.”
The heart of a parish priest
Father Carlson had an unusual start to his priesthood. After his 1970 ordination for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he was assigned to his first parish, St. Raphael in Crystal, Minnesota. He was there with two other priests, helping with Masses and the pastoral needs of the parish. A couple of weeks into his assignment, he celebrated the early weekday Mass. The pastor was to celebrate the next Mass. Afterward, Father Carlson stopped in the rectory and the secretary commented that Monsignor hadn’t yet shown up for Mass. He went to check on him and found his pastor deceased in his bedroom.
“I remember calling the chancery, and I said, ‘This is Father Carlson,’ and the chancellor said, ‘Who?’ I told him what happened and he said, ‘Are you alone? Don’t do anything. Lock the door until the police get there and we’ll send somebody from the chancery.’ Within the first month of my priesthood, we had the archbishop out saying the funeral Mass for my first pastor.”
At his second assignment, St. Margaret Mary in Golden Valley, Minnesota, he became the parish administrator at age 28. It was a sign that bigger things were to come. After a couple of years there, he was appointed as vocations director and vice chancellor for the archdiocese. A year later, his archbishop sent him to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to study canon law.
“I didn’t like canon law, and I told the bishop that,” he said with a smile. “He said, ‘Yeah, well, you’re going to study it.’ I remember my going-away gift was a suitcase. He handed it to me and said — offhandedly — ‘If you don’t pass, don’t come back.’”
It was a true test of obedience. When he returned in 1979, he was appointed chancellor for the archdiocese, also working in the Metropolitan Tribunal. But by 1983, his life had taken another turn when Pope John Paul II named him to become an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the age of 39. He was shocked, but it wasn’t a matter of his young age — he had just never considered the possibility.
“I was pretty speechless,” he said.
A ‘collage of God working through your life’
Archbishop Carlson considers himself a parish priest who happened to become a bishop. Listening to people, opening his heart to the Lord and keeping centered with prayer are some of the things he’s adhered to over the years that have kept him focused on his priesthood.
“It becomes a kind of collage of God working through your life, and it takes a certain centering,” he said, “a powerful listening and opening your heart and soul to the Lord to experience His love in your life. And through that whole process, you listen to the gentle whisperings of the Holy Spirit.”
One of his longtime friends, Msgr. Luis Mesa, has witnessed firsthand the presence of the Holy Spirit in Archbishop Carlson. They met in 1995 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the archbishop served until 2004. Msgr. Mesa was a layperson at the time, a successful businessman who was preparing to retire to his native Colombia. He stopped in Sioux Falls to visit family, and an appointment was made for him to meet then-Bishop Carlson.
“I had just come back from finishing my house in Colombia and I had all kinds of plans,” Msgr. Mesa recalled. “I was telling him all these things, but at the same time, I had a prayer that all the doors I shouldn’t go through be closed, and the door I should go through be opened. As I am showing him all of my accomplishments, he looks at me and says, ‘I don’t think you should do what you’re planning. I think you should come and help me.’”
Not long after, Bishop Carlson approached him again, this time asking him to consider the priesthood. Exactly five years after meeting him for the first time, Msgr. Mesa stood in St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls to be ordained a priest. But the bishop didn’t stop there. He suggested that Msgr. Mesa use his property in Colombia as a place of prayer for peace and to assist the poor. At the time, kidnappings by insurgent groups were common. Msgr. Mesa returned to Colombia in 2005, and eventually the Messengers of Peace religious community was founded, with the guidance and support of then-Bishop Carlson.
Msgr. Mesa said of Archbishop Carlson’s priestly vocation: “He really is a daring person and he challenges you — he challenges you in your faith and vocation, and he challenges you to really listen to what God is saying to you. There have been times I have been resentful or try to reject what he’s told me, but I have realized — no, this is the voice of the Holy Spirit coming through him. There are no airs, just a human being who portrays Christ in the way he lives and he carries himself and how he brings you to Christ.”
Connection of faith
David Steward, founder and chairman of World Wide Technology, met Archbishop Carlson soon after he arrived in St. Louis in 2009. A member of the United Methodist Church, Steward had a few years earlier published a book, Doing Business by the Good Book, which looks at ways of succeeding in business by using the Bible and its lessons as a source of inspiration and guidance.
Steward sent him a copy. The two connected and have maintained a friendship over the years. Steward also has supported a number of Catholic institutions, including Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School and St. Patrick Center. When World Wide Technology opened a new headquarters in 2017, he invited the archbishop to bless the building.
“To me, he represents God’s love and the fruits of the Spirit in his demeanor and the way he responds to others,” Steward said. “The connection of faith is what’s drawn us together … I so admire and respect him.”
Mark Conezimus was living in Denver when then-Bishop Carlson contacted him soon after he arrived in the Diocese of Sioux Falls. The bishop was looking for someone to help manage a foundation started by his predecessor, Bishop Paul Dudley. The Catholic Community Foundation for Eastern South Dakota manages and distribute funds to donor-directed charities.
“We had never met each other,” said Conezimus, who became the foundation’s first full-time director and now serves as president. “You realize looking back that it was the Holy Spirit. He’s a man of great faith and a good leader.”
Personally, Conezimus said he’s witnessed an appreciation within Archbishop Carlson for contemplative prayer and silence, as well as a personal relationship with Christ. “He talks to Him as a friend, and spends a lot of time in dedicated prayer. He’s a man of action and not afraid to make a decision, but he’s a leader who also leads with faith.”
Nancy Werner has known Archbishop Carlson since the mid-1980s, when she was serving as a parish youth minister in a large parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “In those early years, he was ‘the young people’s’ bishop. I invited him to speak to my youth group a few times and we bumped into each other at large national youth events.”
By 1989, Werner was the diocesan director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Sioux Falls. In 1994, Bishop Carlson arrived as the new coadjutor bishop, a role similar to an auxiliary bishop except that he has the right of succession. Werner transitioned out of youth ministry and into serving in a role in the bishop’s administration. When he moved to Saginaw, he invited her there to serve as chancellor; and she joined him again in the same role here in St. Louis.
“I have been fortunate to celebrate the milestones of Archbishop Carlson’s leadership in the Catholic Church for many years,” she said. “While I know he sees himself as a parish priest, who happens to be a bishop, I see him more as a bishop wired like a parish priest. No matter where archbishop has served throughout his 50 years, he has left a lasting impression on people. The trait that has served him very well is his ability to relate to all kinds of people. Those relationships have positioned the Church to be able to impact the community, the region and the country in ways that make a difference.”
Archbishop Carlson now looks forward to his retirement. On June 30, 2019, he submitted his required letter of retirement to Pope Francis on his 75th birthday, and he awaits a response. He reflected on how grateful he’s been to spend the last decade with the people of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
When he arrived here, he said he looked forward to loving the people of St. Louis. “You come to love people by getting to know them,” he said. “And what I have discovered is that the people of faith of St. Louis have very deep roots of faith, which I think speaks very well of Catholic schools, the families they grew up in and the presence of the Church here. That doesn’t make us perfect, but they have deep roots of faith and they’re very generous.
“I have been very blessed to have a wonderful working relationship with the priests and deacons and the strong presence of men and women religious — and the enormous number of laypeople who also have been very supportive.”
Born to Robert and Jeanne Carlson on June 30, 1944, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He attended St. Paul Seminary, earning a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1966 and a master's in divinity in 1976.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He went on to receive a master’s degree in divinity from St. Paul Seminary in 1976 and a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in 1979. He was ordained as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1984.
His parish assignments in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis included:
• Assistant priest, St. Raphael, Crystal 1970-72
• Associate pastor, St. Margaret Mary, Minneapolis 1972-73
• Parochial administrator, St. Margaret Mary, Minneapolis 1973-76
• Parochial administrator, St. Peter, Mendota 1977-79
• Parochial administrator, St. Thomas, Minneapolis 1979-82
• Parochial administrator, St. Peter Claver, St. Paul 1982
• Parochial administrator, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Minneapolis 1982
• Pastor, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Minneapolis 1982-84
• Parochial administrator, St. Michael, Stillwater 1991-92
• He also has served as bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, (1994-2005) and Saginaw, Michigan (2005-09).
• Archbishop Robert J. Carlson was installed as Archbishop of St. Louis on June 10, 2009.