ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (OSV News) — Retired Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe died June 3 at age 83 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Archbishop Sheehan shepherded the archdiocese as its 11th archbishop for 22 years, from 1993 to 2015, when he retired at age 75, the age at which canon law requires bishops to submit their resignation to the pope.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, the future archbishop was born July 9, 1939, and was largely raised in Texas. He attended St. John’s High School Seminary and Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. He furthered his studies in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained July 12, 1964, in Rome as a priest of what was then the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth.
Upon his return to Texas, he served as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Parish in Tyler from 1965 to 1968. Returning to Rome, he earned a doctorate in canon law from Pontifical Lateran University in 1971. Then-Father Sheehan served as assistant general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference (NCCB/USCC) from 1971 to 1976, and as rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas from 1976 to 1982. In 1982, he was named pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Grand Prairie, Texas.
On March 25, 1983, St. John Paul II appointed him the founding bishop of the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, which was formed with territory from the Amarillo and San Angelo dioceses.
Ten years later the pope named then-Bishop Sheehan to the Santa Fe Archdiocese initially as its apostolic administrator after former Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with several young women. The pope named Archbishop Sheehan as successor to Archbishop Sanchez three months later.
For six months in 2003, from June to December, Archbishop Sheehan also served as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Phoenix, after Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien resigned and until Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was installed as the new bishop.
The archdiocesan statement on Archbishop Sheehan described his life as “a remarkable journey … during which he selflessly guided countless individuals on their spiritual path and worked tirelessly to uplift the lives of those in need.” It said the prelate was “known for his unwavering faith, compassionate nature and profound wisdom.”
Beyond his pastoral responsibilities, Archbishop Sheehan was committed to social justice and evangelization, and “worked tirelessly to abolish the death penalty in New Mexico.” He championed initiatives aimed at eradicating poverty, promoting equality, and ensuring the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society. He also was actively engaged with interfaith efforts and fostered ecumenical dialogue.
Among some of Archbishop Sheehan’s notable activities in the archdiocese were his appointment of its first full-time coordinator of Native American activities and the launch of the canonization cause of Sister Blandina Segale, a Sister of Charity, who was an Italian missionary working among the poor and migrants in the late 19th century in the territory that became Colorado and New Mexico.
In November 2001 he was elected the secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (the NCCB and USCC were combined in July 2001). During his three-year term as secretary, Archbishop Sheehan shepherded restructuring of the bishops’ conference. Under the reorganization, the conference’s 36 standing committees were reduced to 16, among other changes.
A memorial Mass was offered for Archbishop Sheehan at Immaculate Conception Church in Albuquerque on June 7. The archbishop’s funeral Mass was to be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. on June 9 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. The liturgies will be live streamed, please visit the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Facebook page.