Pittsburgh Capuchin friar named bishop of New Guinea diocese
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A Capuchin friar from Beechview who served as a leader of the Lawrenceville-based religious community has been named bishop of a mountain diocese in Papua New Guinea.
Pope Benedict appointed Bishop-elect Donald Lippert, 54, on Wednesday. He had served since 2007 as a philosophy professor in Papua New Guinea, where the Capuchins have had missions since 1955. The nation is on an island north of Australia.
"He's going to be great for the job over there," said the Rev. John Pfannenstiel, communications director for the Pittsburgh Capuchins, who has known Bishop-elect Lippert for 40 years.
The Diocese of Mendi has about 72,000 Catholics. Its website shows priests celebrating Mass for tribes in feathered headdresses and grass skirts.
That's a far cry from Beechview, where Bishop-elect Lippert grew up attending Mass and school at St. Catherine of Siena. He graduated in 1975 from South Hills Catholic High School, which is now Seton-LaSalle High School in Mt. Lebanon. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, graduating from the former St. Fidelis College in Herman, Butler County, where he joined the Capuchins.
Father Pfannenstiel believes that his call to the Capuchins stemmed from his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.
"He wanted to live simply, and he wanted to help the poor," Father Pfannenstiel said.
His deacon year in Puerto Rico gave him a love for ministry among Latino Catholics. Ordained a priest in 1985, his first post was at Our Lady of Peace in Conway.
In 1989 he went to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart parish in Washington, D.C., working again among Latino Catholics. He distinguished himself during the Cinco de Mayo riot of 1991, Father Pfannenstiel said.
"Don was right in the trenches, trying to get people to safety. He was fearless. There was tear gas and all of that," Father Pfannenstiel said.
The National Guard ended the riot, but the future bishop was appointed to a mayor's task force to address neighborhood issues.
He was later sent to Belgium to earn a master's degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain. He spent eight years on the faculty of Borromeo Seminary in Ohio. In 2002 he returned to Washington as director of the Spanish Catholic Center. In 2004 his fellow Capuchins elected him to their provincial leadership team in Lawrenceville.
"He's a very hard worker, tireless, and rarely takes days off," Father Pfannenstiel said.
"His motto as bishop is going to be 'to think with the church.' He's always thinking, 'How do I, as a priest and as a Catholic, respond to what's going on here?' "
Through his leadership position, he became more acquainted with the mission in Papua New Guinea. In 1955 the friars had been the first missionaries in the remote southern highlands, "where life is in some ways, even now, like it was 35,000 years ago," Father Pfannenstiel said.
But that existence has been thrown into turmoil by the discovery of liquid natural gas on the island. Chinese and Russian drillers poured in, disrupting tribal ways and bringing little economic benefit to the natives, he said. Natives aren't getting well-paying jobs, but the foreigner's money has driven the price of a chicken to nearly $20, Father Pfannenstiel said.
Tribal conflicts have broken out and highlanders are fleeing for the capital of Port Moresby, where they can't find jobs and settle into slums.
During his time in Pittsburgh, the future bishop twice taught for a term at the Catholic seminary in Port Moresby. In 2007 he was assigned there full time. As bishop of the Diocese of Mendi, he succeeds another Capuchin with Pittsburgh ties, Archbishop Stephen Reichert, who was promoted to the church's top post in Papua New Guinea late last year.
"When there were difficulties, the tribes would turn to him as a negotiator because the government was so ineffectual," Father Pfannenstiel said. "The learning curve is going to be pretty steep, especially for how to be present among so many people from so many different tribes. Trying to negotiate peace and reconcile people to one another is going to be even more necessary."
Bishop-elect Lippert's installation is expected in February. Father Pfannenstiel is among several Pittsburgh Capuchins who plan to attend.
First Published November 26, 2011 12:00 am