HELENA - Bishop George Thomas, a Montana native, is preparing for his departure from the state after nearly 16 years as the Bishop of Helena.
Born in Anaconda and raised in Butte, the bishop said he knew early on he was destined for the clergy.
“I said to my dad as early as the second grade, ‘I think I want to be a priest when I grow up' and I didn’t really waver from that idea,” Thomas said.
But the bishop’s father said he had to go college first, so he did. Thomas attended Carroll College and then the University of Washington, earning both a masters and a doctoral degree.
However, Thomas said his eyes were originally on the priesthood.
“I thought I’d be a country priest with a little white picket fence around the church and a pickup truck and a dog around the back seat and it just didn’t ever pan out,” Thomas said.
Thomas was ordained the bishop of Helena in 2004. During his tenure, he was recognized as an honorary member of the Blackfeet Nation and became the chancellor of his alma mater at Carroll College.
He also oversaw difficult times in the church after accusations of sexual abuse of children in the diocese during the time period of the 1930s to the 1970s came to light.
Thomas said it was the church’s responsibility to the victims to be open and honest about the whole process.
In 2015, the Diocese of Helena posted a list online of every employee accused while working there. All members of the diocese who were accused are now deceased.
“This has been a hidden problem,” Thomas said. “It has been put under the carpet too long. In my opinion, the only way to deal with these kinds of things is to bring them to the light. Healing can take place only in the light and presence of truth.”
The bishop’s willingness to address controversy will be helpful as he enters his new role in Las Vegas, a community he said still has a broken heart over the deadly shooting that has further pushed the conversation around gun control.
“The whole question around access to guns by minors or persons with mental health issues, all that has to be on the table again,” Thomas said.
Many will certainly look to the bishop for guidance in a diocese that is 15 times the size of Helena’s. Thomas said it will be hard to leave.
“It’s hard to leave the family. This is a bittersweet time. Hard to leave all these communities. I love them to pieces. It just started to dawn on me that this is actually happening. So probably when I actually unpack boxes in Las Vegas, I’ll realize I have a new home and I’ll be a visitor when I come back to Montana.”
Thomas will serve as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Helena until May 15.
The diocese college of consultors, which is comprised of local priests, will then have eight days to appoint a diocesan administrator to serve until a new bishop is selected by Pope Francis.