ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The nation’s first Native American bishop died Thursday at a Florida hospital from an undisclosed illness, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup. He was 64.
Donald Pelotte, originally from Waterville, Maine, served for 18 years as bishop of the diocese that covers northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.
The diocese did not release details about Pelotte’s illness. He was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 27.
Pelotte’s time as bishop ended about a year after he suffered severe injuries during an apparent fall in his Gallup home in July 2007. Physicians who examined the bishop contacted the police.
Lee Lamb, a spokesman for the diocese, said Thursday that Pelotte’s death was not related to the fall.
Pelotte was known for his work to build the Catholic Church in Native American communities across the country, developing training programs for deacons and lay ministers who were tribal members.
Monsignor Paul Lenz, a former longtime director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in Washington, D.C., who recommended Pelotte for bishop, recalled a celebration for Pelotte in Gallup.
It was not held in the cathedral, he said, but in a park.
“The people were overjoyed, just unbelievably happy that they could come for the ordination of one of their own,” Lenz said.
Pelotte became the first Native American bishop in 1990. His father was a member of the Abenaki tribe.
Lenz and the Rev. John Hatcher, president of the St. Francis Indian Mission in St. Francis, S.D., both said Pelotte was beloved and respected by tribal members in the United States and Canada.
“He was a wonderfully happy man,” Hatcher said. “To be in his presence was to be happy.”
Pelotte was born April 13, 1945, in Waterville, Maine, and was ordained in 1972.
As the 33-year-old head of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, Pelotte was the youngest leader of a men’s religious community in the United States at the time, the diocese said.
Pelotte ordained his twin brother, the Rev. Dana Pelotte, in 1999, marking the first time where a bishop ordained his twin, Lamb said.
Pelotte retired in April 2008 after the apparent fall in his home. He suffered severe bruising across his chest, arms, knuckles, legs and feet.
Two months later, Pelotte reported intruders in his home, but police officers responding found no one. The bishop told officers one male and three females were running through the home, wearing costumes and masks. He said the intruders were between 3 and 5 feet tall, according to a police report.
A vigil prayer service will be 7 p.m. We0
dnesday at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup. The funeral Mass will be 11 a.m. on Jan. 14. Pelotte will be buried in the cathedral’s crypt.