By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Retired Archbishop Adam Exner, OMI, has died at age 94.
The retired Archbishop of Vancouver (1991-2004) – who also served as Archbishop of Winnipeg (1982-1991) and Bishop of Kamloops (1974-1982) – died Sept. 5, 2023 at his residence in Grayson, Sask. His funeral will be held in Saskatchewan, with details to be announced.
Exner was born on Christmas Eve in 1928 to Austrian immigrants in Killaly, Sask., a tiny village 150 kilometres east of Regina.
He was the youngest of eight children and spoke only German until he started attending the rural one-room school four kilometres away from home. It was said he enjoyed pumping out a tune on an accordion in the evenings, a skill he continued to practise throughout his entire life.
He dropped out of school at age 14 to work on the farm. He went back to school at age 18, completing Grades 9 and 10 at St. Joseph’s College in Yorkton and Grades 11 and 12 at St. Thomas College in Battleford. He realized he wanted to become an Oblate and go on foreign missions, so he studied several languages and completed the Oblate novitiate at St. Norbert’s in Manitoba.
The farm boy from Saskatchewan flew to Rome and earned master’s degrees in philosophy and theology. He was ordained a priest in Italy in 1957.
Fr. Adam Exner returned to Canada and served as a professor, rector, and superior at St. Charles Scholasticate in Battleford, and as a professor in moral theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton.
He lived in seminaries and spent his days teaching or studying, so it surprised and overwhelmed him when, 16 years after his ordination, he was asked to become the Bishop of Kamloops.
Exner packed his bags for B.C., replacing Bishop Michael Alphonsus Harrington who had died in 1973 after serving Kamloops for 20 years. Exner was ordained a bishop by Bishop Henri Legare, OMI, who had incidentally been his childhood catechism teacher.
Bishop Exner faced many challenges in the nearly 120,000 square kilometre diocese of Kamloops, including reaching out to the 30,000 Catholics living in 80 communities across B.C.’s interior with only 27 priests, many of whom were approaching retirement.
In response, he encouraged lay people to find new ways to serve in the many missions, parishes, and schools sprinkled across the diocese. The time was ripe for this strategy; the Second Vatican Council, which placed a renewed emphasis on the role of the laity, had come to a finale nine years before his episcopacy began.
According to Ida Reichardt Osler, quoted in The B.C. Catholic in 1991, on days off, Bishop Exner was known to “go out to one of the local ranches and work all day as a ranch hand.”
After eight years, Bishop Exner received a new assignment: to move eastward several provinces as Archbishop of Winnipeg.
In 1982, Archbishop Exner found himself leading 150,000 Catholics in a 116,400-square kilometre area. He struggled to be present to parishioners living far as 500 kilometres from the city.
Other difficulties included a limited number of priests (only five men were in the seminary) and low archdiocesan funds. Archbishop Exner was known for promoting vocations and launching programs similar to the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Project Advance.
In nine years, Archbishop Exner ordained 15 new priests (with another 14 in progress in the seminary) and negotiated an increase of government funding of Catholic education.
Meanwhile, youth ministry expanded, and with the neighbouring diocese of St. Boniface, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg offered spirituality and theology programs for the lay faithful and launched a permanent diaconate formation program.
In 1991, Archbishop Exner was moving once again. He was called back to B.C., this time to the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Archbishop Exner succeeded the late Archbishop James Carney in an archdiocese that was a “flurry of activity;” at the time: 17 languages were used regularly in various parishes and there could be 14 ongoing building projects at any given time.
He oversaw the expansion of local Catholic education with the founding of Corpus Christi and Redeemer Pacific Colleges, supported life-affirming groups such as B.C.’s Denominational Health Association, spoke publicly against same-sex marriage, and supported Trinity Western University during the legal battle it eventually won against the B.C. College of Teachers.
When passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the Archbishop and other religious leaders supported a statement calling for justice, peace, and solidarity.
In 1988 he launched the Archdiocesan Synod, which made an impact on the Church in Vancouver that is still being felt today.
After serving nearly 30 years as a bishop, Archbishop Exner retired in 2004, having reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops.
From the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB):
As a member of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Exner served as a member of the Episcopal Commission for Theology (1976-1979), the Administrative Board (1977-1981), and the Pastoral Team for Study and Action (1979-1981). He was President of the Department for Theology and Canon Law (1979-1981). He continued to serve the Conference as a regional representative on the Administrative Board (1981-1983). He was a CCCB Delagate to the 6th Ordinary Synod of Bishops on Reconciliation in 1983.
Archbishop Exner also served as a member of the CCCB’s Episcopal Commission for Christian Education (1983-1991), member of the International Commission for Liturgy (1987), member of the national Catholic- Lutheran Dialogue (1987-1989), member of the Episcopal Commission for Social Communications (1989- 1991), member of the Permanent Council (Regional Representative) (1989-1993), member of the Ad hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse (1990-1992), member of the Episcopal Commission for Theology (1991- 1993), member of the Working Group for Residential Schools (1992-1995). While a member of the Programmes and Priorities Committee (1993-1995) he also served a chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Theology (1993-1995). He became member of the Episcopal Commission for Theology (1995-1997) and Chairman of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) (1995- 2000). He served as a member of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops from 1984 to 1990.