How an encounter with Mary set the stage for new Saint Paul-Minneapolis auxiliary bishop’s priesthood

bishop elect father joseph williams saint paul seminary minneapolis saint paul
Fr. Joseph Williams, a 2002 alum of The Saint Paul Seminary, was named the next auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis on Friday, Dec. 10.

During his first year of theology studies at The Saint Paul Seminary, Bishop-elect Joseph Williams had a rose bush growing just outside his room.

That December, with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe approaching, the young seminarian from Stillwater, Minnesota decided to say a novena to her. As time passed, he noticed a single rose continuing to bloom on the bush, even as the throes of a Minnesota winter began to set in.

That gave Williams, today the newly-appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, an idea.

“I told Our Lady ‘if the rose is still blooming on the 12th … I’ll learn Spanish,'” Williams said Friday after being introduced by Archbishop Bernard Hebda at the Cathedral of St. Paul. “It probably wasn’t a miracle, but it was certainly a sign for me that Mary wanted something of me.”

So Williams started teaching himself the language. He also explored the world of Latino ministry, first through a project for his Pastoral Ministry in American Culture class.

What’s followed has been a priesthood full of work with Hispanic Catholics throughout the Land of 10,000 lakes. It’s one of the many experiences he brings to the table in replacing Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who was installed as Bishop of Crookston, Minnesota, earlier this week.

That includes spending the past three years as the archdiocese’s vicar for Latino ministry. Williams is also a member of The Saint Paul Seminary and Saint John Vianney College Seminary board of trustees.

“It was with great joy that I learned of Pope Francis’ appointment of Fr. Joseph Williams as Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis,” Hebda said. “The priests and faithful of the archdiocese should be honored that the Holy Father has chosen a native son, nurtured, nourished and formed in this local Church, to serve as a Successor of the Apostles. His deep faith, pastoral heart, love for Christ and his flock, and impressive natural gifts all suggest that the Lord has long been preparing him to serve as a bishop.”

That preparation began in a home that included eight siblings and a pair of devout parents. Williams’ father, Dr. Gary Williams, worked as an obstetrician, often delivering babies at night then taking all of his older children to daily Mass the following morning.

Bishop-elect Williams shared he has 30 nieces and nephews, 28 of whom live within a mile of his childhood home.

“The family, that school of charity, has prepared me,” Williams said.

Williams was ordained in 2002, at the age of 28, after growing up in Stillwater, attending St. Croix Catholic School and Stillwater High School. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota and in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, then entered the seminary.

In nearly 20 years as a priest, he’s served at five different parishes, most recently St. Stephen and Holy Rosary in Minneapolis. His first parish assignment was the Cathedral, where he founded a “Theology on Tap” program for young adults that continues to this day. He’s also led multiple trips to World Youth Day, including 2019 in Panama.

His Latino Ministry began when he was assigned to Divine Mercy in Faribault, Minnesota, and he has continued similar work at his current parishes. From helping minister to a Faribault community impacted by drug raids to work with immigrants and immigration reform, serving as a shepherd to the Hispanic community has been a central part of his priestly career.

He also helps lead an annual mission trip to Mexico with seminarians from The Saint Paul Seminary.

At the archdiocesan leadership level, Williams previously held the title of coordinator of archdiocesan outreach to persons of disabilities. His brother, Fr. Peter Williams, is pastor of St. Ambrose in Woodbury and a fellow Saint Paul Seminary alum.

Including Bishop-elect Williams, there are now seven current United States bishops who attended The Saint Paul Seminary.

“We at The Saint Paul Seminary couldn’t be more excited for Bishop-elect Williams and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis,” said Fr. Joseph Taphorn, rector of The Saint Paul Seminary. “His leadership and wisdom as a member of our Board of Trustees has been invaluable, and those who knew Fr. Williams during his time as a seminarian aren’t surprised that God would call him to this role. He is another shining example of a joyful, Catholic leader, the kind the Church needs now more than ever.”

When United States papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre called Williams to share the news of his appointment, Williams was standing in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The announcement came Friday, the feast day of Our Lady of Loreto.

“[Mary is] to blame for this, I’ll put it that way,” Williams joked, “but [she] also gives me great confidence.”


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