PHOENIX — When now-retired Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was appointed to head the Phoenix Diocese in 2003, he said he didn’t know why he was given the new appointment.
“I think it would be linked with the fact that the Diocese of Wichita is a really good diocese. And because of that, it looks like I’m doing OK as a bishop,” he said at the time in an interview with The Catholic Advance, newspaper of that Kansas diocese he headed.
That humble response is no surprise to some who reflected on Olmsted’s legacy prior to the Aug. 2 installment of Bishop John P. Dolan as the new shepherd of the Phoenix Diocese.
“He is humble, committed to the Lord. It is evidenced in his prayer and the way he walks: He is generous in his own giving and embraces priestly poverty in a way that doesn’t often happen,” said Father Fred Adamson, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Phoenix Diocese.
“He also possesses a clear sense of culture and wisdom; how we are moving through some unique times and how the church is moving through it,” he added.
Maria Chavira, diocesan chancellor, said Olmsted “really is what people say is a servant leader. He is one of the most humble people I have ever met.”
The retired bishop grew up on a farm near the Kansas-Nebraska border with five brothers and sisters. He attended a single-room grade school near Oketo, Kansas, and a small rural high school.
His first contact with Catholic schools came when he entered St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver, where he graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
He was ordained a priest July 2, 1973, for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and joined the Jesus Caritas priestly fraternity shortly thereafter.
After three years as associate pastor at a parish in Lincoln, Olmsted moved to Rome, where he studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University, earning his doctorate in canon law.
He remained there to serve as assistant to the Vatican Secretariat of State under St. John Paul II and assistant spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College.
After returning to the United States, he became involved in parish ministry and then was appointed to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, where he served as dean of personal formation before being named rector.
He was ordained as coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Wichita in 1999. He automatically succeeded Bishop Eugene J. Gerber when he retired in 2001.
When St. John Paul appointed Olmsted to Phoenix in 2003, his predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, was facing charges for fleeing the scene of a fatal car accident and had resigned days after that incident.
Earlier in that year, O’Brien signed an agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office where he admitted to protecting priests accused of sexual indiscretions with children.
In his installation homily, Olmsted said that Christ’s transformative love “impels us to face the scandal of child abuse squarely and to combat it with honesty and determination.”
When he arrived, he chose not to move into the bishop’s house and to let the former bishop stay there. He instead took a room at the rectory at Ss. Simon and Jude, the diocesan cathedral, which allowed him to live with his brother priests.
He also immediately began making personal visits each week to all 90-plus parishes, reassuring pastors and their staffs, as well as the laity, that everything in the Phoenix Diocese would rise above recent scandals. He also wanted to get to know those he would serve and work with.
Olmsted also brought to the diocese a sense of global connection to affairs of the Catholic Church to help the faithful understand why what happens in Phoenix matters beyond its borders.
“He has helped us understand we are part of something much bigger. You’ll notice how often he links what he’s saying to the Holy Father. He has a deep understanding of our relationship and his to the Holy Father,” Adamson told The Catholic Sun, the diocesan news outlet.
During his tenure, Olmsted has delivered several apostolic exhortations, including “Complete My Joy,” to husbands, wife, mothers and fathers; “Veneremur Cernui — Down in Adoration Falling,” to priests, deacons, religious and the lay faithful of the diocese about the Eucharist; and “Into the Breach,” to Catholic men.
His diocesan colleagues describe him as an effective leader because he delegated efficiently but also communicated well while making sure he was kept up to date on everything.
In late 2009, he stood alone under the weight and in the glare of public scrutiny, when he took the reins of a major issue.
That November, an abortion was performed at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix on a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The procedure took place after an 11-member ethics committee authorized it.
“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” the hospital said in its statement.
The ethics panel included Mercy Sister Margaret McBride.
The bishop advised that McBride should be excommunicated, citing canon law which states those who participate in an abortion incur an automatic excommunication. He was supported in his decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.
The bishop later declared St. Joseph Hospital was no longer Catholic, though he returned the Eucharist to the hospital chapel in 2020.
Early in his tenure as bishop of Phoenix, he joined the faithful in sidewalk prayer outside an abortion clinic and took part regularly in vigils for preserving life from the moment of conception. He also spoke out against the death penalty.
Adamson said prayer was at the heart of the bishop’s life, which he spoke about during the news conference at St. Joseph’s Hospital when he was asked to respond to criticism of his decision.
“I really don’t read the blogospheres,” Olmsted told reporters.
“I try to pray each day to find my identity in Jesus Christ,” he said, saying this starts with an hour of daily adoration, more prayers throughout the day and celebration of the Eucharist.
“My identity comes from Christ,” he said, adding that if he is “unfaithful to that, then whether I am looked at one way or another, if I’m given praise or given ridicule — it doesn’t matter.”
But diocesan leaders also pointed out the bishop has revealed his human side with his activities outside the church: He’s a huge sports fan and an avid hiker.
“He never draws attention to himself,” Adamson said.
He feels blessed to have worked with Olmsted, adding that he has “been a wonderful mentor and spiritual father. It’s been a gift.”
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Grant writes for The Catholic Sun, news outlet of the Diocese of Phoenix.