Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where on earth is Bishop Wingle?

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Where on earth is Bishop Wingle? Posted By GRANT LAFLECHE , STANDARD STAFF
Updated 22 minutes ago

Eganville is a study in contradiction. It's the kind of place where residents leave their cars unattended with the doors unlocked and the windows down without a worry. Farmers who have worked the land for generations know their neighbours like family.

Other residents who live and work there couldn't give you directions if you paid them. A significant number of the town's 1,300 residents -- a population so small the label "town" seems a bit grandiose -- turn over fairly regularly. They leave, only to be replaced by newcomers.

It's a farming community, but one marked by several fallow fields dotted with dandelions.

Traditional faith matters and the silhouettes of the old mainline churches from Catholic to Lutheran dominate the town-scape. Yet some of the churches are marked with unique, angular steeples that reflect more of a jazz architecture vibe than the mood of somber religion.

Eganville, two hours west of Ottawa, is a quiet, still place where life seems simple. But that quiet does little to hide the trauma suffered by the local Catholic church. One of its priests is facing sexual abuse charges, leaving his replacement to pick up the pieces.

However, silence is what defines the crisis facing another Catholic priest from Eganville.

Bishop James Wingle, former head of Niagara's Catholic community, is one of the town's favourite sons. Born and raised on a farm tucked away behind a wall of evergreens, he grew up to become an influential bishop who has the ear of popes.

"Father Jim," as he is known in town, left his Niagara post without warning in April. In a short letter to the diocese, Wingle said he no longer had the stamina for the job, and was resigning for a period of personal reflection and prayer. What led to his decision has never been disclosed.

Officials at the local diocese say they were not told and Niagara priests are very reluctant to speak about Wingle on the record. Some recently spoke to other media outlets about Wingle, but when contacted by The Standard this week said they would be better off not commenting.

Even in Wingle's homtown, where his sister Margaret Morris still lives on the family farm with her husband, the wall of silence remains. Morris declined to speak about her brother. The only person who can speak about James Wingle, she says, is James Wingle.

"Whenever the bishop decides to make a statement, if you are an honourable person he might talk to you," Morris said, rebuffing an interview request. "I won't say anything about him right now."


To Morris' unending chagrin, however, silence has not stopped rumours. In online forums where friends and foes of the Catholic church snipe at each other, Wingle has become a subject of fascination. Cloaked in the anonymity the web provides, some claim he is in drastically poor health. Others say he has been seen in Jerusalem. All of it is unconfirmed.

With no one who knows anything about Wingle talking, the closest thing to an explanation for what happened comes from the Eganville Leader, a weekly newspaper and the alpha-male of news in the town and surrounding county.

On April 14, the Leader ran a story about Wingle's unexpected resignation.

Based largely on what had already been reported by other media, including The Standard, the story by co-publisher and editor Gerald Tracey contains a brief peek behind the curtain of silence around Wingle.

"Family members told the Leader in recent weeks that Bishop Wingle, 63, has been dealing with several health issues, some of them brought on they believe due to a busy and hectic schedule." Tracey wrote.

Tracey says he didn't know the specific nature of those health issues.

Health problems, whatever they are, might explain Wingle's admitted lack of stamina and would undoubtably be part of a very difficult year for Wingle's family.

In February, his sister's son, David Morris, was killed in a vicious car accident near Alberta. His car collided head-on with a dump truck and exploded.

Wingle reportedly took his nephew's death exceptionally hard. The grieving family only buried David Morris in Eganville two weeks ago.

Although Wingle's presence could be felt during the funeral -- he wrote what some in town called a moving homily -- the bishop was conspicuous by his absence.

Even staff at St. James the Less Catholic Church in Eganville have no information on Wingle's whereabouts, other than to say they haven't see him. However, given that a former priest at the church is facing trial on four sex abuse charges, the fate of Wingle is not their top priority.

Tracey said despite Wingle's deep connection to Eganville, the town is as in the dark as everyone else. If Wingle has ever returned since his resignation, Tracey is not aware of it.

"He is deeply respected in this community, particularly by Catholics," he says.

Although Wingle's career as a priest keeps him travelling and serving communities outside of his own, he never forgot his roots.

Tracey points to a story in the Leader's archives as an example. In 1980, long before Wingle achieved his current rank, a local woman received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, a papal medal awarded to lay members of the church.

Wingle was studying in Rome at the time, but arranged for the woman to come to the Vatican for an audience with the pope, John Paul II, Tracey says.

Yet, despite his deep connection to the town, Catholics in Eganville -- like those in Niagara -- wait for Wingle to break his silence and explain why he left the job he spent his career building for.

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