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Retired U.S. Catholic bishop succumbs to COVID-19

Archbishop Emeritus Stephen Sulyk
Photo Courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia
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Stephen Sulyk, 95, was metropolitan of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

A retired bishop from Philadelphia is believed to be the first American Catholic bishop to die of COVID-19.

Metropolitan Archbishop Emeritus Stephen Sulyk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia died Monday. He was 95 and had been living in a clergy retirement home in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Late Sunday, Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia sent a message to the priests of the Archeparchy, saying, “A few hours ago Archbishop Stephen was hospitalized. He is presenting the symptoms of COVID-19, and his vital signs are weak. The Archbishop is receiving comfort care. Everything is in the Lord’s hands.”

Chieko Noguchi, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Monday that the USCCB was unaware of any other bishops, active or retired, who had died of COVID-19.

Born October 2, 1924, in Balnica, Poland, Stephen Sulyk came to the United States in 1948, in the midst of a turbulent era in Eastern Europe. He studied at St. Josaphat’s Seminary and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 14, 1952, at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Philadelphia.

He served in parishes in Nebraska, New York, and Ohio, and was Chancery Secretary. From 1957 To 1961, he was pastor of St. Michael’s in Frackville, Pa., where he built, furnished and paid for a new church and parish social hall. As pastor of Assumption Church in Perth Amboy, N.J., he completed a new elementary school, converted the rectory into a convent for nuns, built a new rectory, purchased and landscaped additional parish grounds and renovated the parish church. He also compiled and printed a series of bi-lingual texts for use in liturgical services.

On December 29, 1980, Pope John Paul II appointed him Metropolitan-Archbishop of Philadelphia. He succeeded Metropolitan Myroslav Lubachivsky, who became major archbishop of the Ukraine-based Church.

Archbishop Sulyk was consecrated bishop in Rome on March 1, 1981. He supervised the construction of a new chancery center and bishop’s residence and cathedral rectory. He renovated the sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and landscaped the adjoining grounds. He established the Seminary Endowment Fund to finance the education of seminarians and to provide income for St. Josaphat’s Seminary.

On July 24, 1987, in the waning years of the Cold War, Sulyk delivered an invocation at a Captive Nations Week Address President Ronald W. Reagan delivered at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, D.C.

At the request of the Vatican, Sulyk was involved in sensitive diplomatic talks with members of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Ukraine was becoming an independent nation and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was emerging from its existence as a persecuted catacomb Church. Negotiations involved recovering church property that had been given to the Orthodox Church, said Fr. John Fields, spokesman for the Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

Sulyk served on various committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He was author of a 2003 book I Am With You Always.

On February 27, 2001, Sulyk was succeeded by Archbishop Stefan Soroka as Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia for Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

Funeral arrangements are pending. 

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