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Most Rev. Joseph M. Breitenbeck

Deceased: 2005-03-12


Seminary Graduation Year: 1942

Bishop Joseph M. Breitenbeck, D.D., Eighth Bishop of Grand Rapids, passed away Saturday, March 12, 2005. Joseph Matthew Breitenbeck was born in Detroit, Mich. on August 3, 1914 to Matthew and Mary Breitenbeck. The middle child in a family of seven children, he attended Holy Redeemer parish grade and high school, and studied pre-law at the University of Detroit. He is survived by one sister, Ann Terese Breitenbeck of Illinois.

Although accepted into law school, Bishop Breitenbeck’s career path took an unexpected turn after talking to a priest who suggested he investigate the priesthood. “I made an appointment and went out to the seminary the next weekend,” Bishop Breitenbeck said in a 1996 interview. “I found the priest and we talked. On September 13, 1935, I entered Sacred Heart Seminary and I never looked back.” He graduated from Sacred Heart with a bachelor’s degree in theological studies in 1938 and continued his education at North American College and Gregorian University in Rome from 1938 to 1940. In 1942, Bishop Breitenbeck earned his master’s degree in sacred theology from Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He was ordained May 20, 1942 in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit. After five years of service in the Archdiocese of Detroit, he returned to Rome to study canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University. He returned to Detroit after earning his degree in 1949. When in Rome in 1965, Bishop Breitenbeck learned he would be appointed auxiliary bishop in Detroit. He was consecrated as bishop on December 20, 1965. Four years later, he was installed as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids. He served as diocesan bishop from 1969 – 1989.

Throughout his nearly 20-year tenure as bishop, Bishop Breitenbeck served as a strong leader and guided the Diocese of Grand Rapids through many changes following the Second Vatican Council. When Michigan’s Catholic population boomed in the 1970s, Bishop guided the formation of the dioceses of Gaylord and Kalamazoo from the 29-county Diocese of Grand Rapids. In addition, he oversaw the launch of seven new parishes, including Prince of Peace-Muskegon; Our Lady of the Lake-Holland; St. Dominic-Grand Rapids; Holy Family-Caledonia; Our Lady of Consolation-Rockford; Christ the King-Howard City; and St. Agnes-Marion. Bishop Breitenbeck also helped establish the Deposit & Loan Cooperative Investment Program, which allowed parishes to borrow money from diocesan funds at a lower interest rate, and supported the Michigan Catholic Conference’s efforts to provide retirement benefits for priests and laity. In addition, he established regular changes and appointments of pastors and oversaw one of the renovations of the Cathedral of St. Andrew. Bishop also founded Madonna House, and expanded Villa Elizabeth, Villa Maria housing, Richter Place and Catholic Central High School. A man who dedicated his time and talent to activities outside the diocese and the Church, he was active in the Old Newsboys, Rotary Club, United Way, Urban League and Economic Club. Bishop Breitenbeck also invested time in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which he served as chair of the Liaison Committee for Major Superiors of Women; as member of the Committee for Latin America; as member of the Committee for Canonical Affairs; and as Episcopal Advisor for the National Catholic Laymen’s Retreat Conference. In addition, Bishop served as a member of the North American College in Belgium’s board of directors and as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Conference. Following his retirement, Bishop resided in Parnell, until he moved to St. Ann’s Home in northwest Grand Rapids two-and-one-half years ago.

The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Thursday 11:00 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Cathedral where visitation will be Tuesday 4:30 to 6 p.m. and 8 to 9 p.m., Wednesday 1 to 9 p.m., where a Vigil Service will be held Wednesday at 7 p.m. Interment Resurrection Cemetery. The family has requested, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to St. Ann’s Home, 2161 Leonard NW, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504. ARSULOWICZ BROTHERS MORTUARIES, INC.

Published in the Grand Rapids Press on 3/14/2005.