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Priest's suicide saddens Fargo diocese

Rev. David Syverson

FARGO - The Fargo Catholic Diocese is reeling from the apparent suicide of a 45-year-old priest on Valentine's Day in the rectory of Nativity Catholic Church.

The Rev. David Syverson was found dead after apparently shooting himself in a guest room of the priest's residence next to the church at 1825 11th St. S., Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said.

In an email message sent to clergy and diocesan staff on Wednesday, Bishop Samuel J. Aquila wrote "with great difficulty and sadness" of the suicide and death of Syverson, who had struggled with and received treatment for alcohol and medication addiction, anxiety and depression, according to a news release that was already prepared when The Forum contacted the diocese on Monday.

Aquila asked clergy and staff to "please pray for all affected by his death, especially his mother and family members."

Syverson was staying at the rectory while attending outpatient treatment, said Vettel, a Nativity parishioner.

No foul play is suspected in Syverson's death, which remains under investigation pending autopsy results, Vettel said.

The discovery of Syverson's body was reported at about 6 p.m. Feb. 14, and it's believed he shot himself about four hours earlier, Vettel said.

Someone in the house heard a noise from the lower level that they thought sounded like something falling, but they didn't go downstairs until later, Vettel said.

Syverson was an avid sportsman who loved hunting, bow hunting and fishing, according to his obituary.

The Rev. Kevin Boucher, pastor at Nativity, referred questions to diocese officials.

Monsignor Joseph Goering, who attended seminary with Syverson for four years, said he encouraged pastors of the parishes Syverson had served to let their people know about his death. An article about Syverson and his obituary also will appear in the diocesan newspaper, the New Earth, he said.

Goering said Syverson is the first priest he's known to die by apparent suicide.

"It happens, but it's rare," he said.

"I imagine the church family is similar to our other families in that we mourn the loss of a brother, and we try to understand ... the things we can do to help people who are struggling to get the help they need and to provide them with hope," Goering said. "And then we entrust them to the mercy of God, because we know the Father in heaven wants each of His sons and daughters saved and healthy more than we can possibly imagine."

Syverson's funeral was Monday at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in Fargo, where he previously served as a priest. He also had served at St. Maurice's in Kindred, St. Patrick's in Wishek, St. Boniface's in Kintyre, St. Philip Neri's in Napoleon, Holy Cross in West Fargo, St. Elizabeth's in Sykeston and most recently at Sacred Heart in Carrington.

Syverson left the Carrington church in summer 2011 to seek treatment, Goering said.

The Forum featured Syverson in a Sept. 14, 2004, column about his path to the priesthood.

Syverson talked about how, as a child growing up in Steele and attending Lutheran church, he wasn't sure of God's existence. He said he was a "good boy" who got good grades and didn't party until he went to North Dakota State University, drank his first beer and became "quite a partier."

After his grades slid and he was put on probation, he buckled down and earned a bachelor's degree in nutrition and food science in 1989. He then went to work for a food company in Beloit, Wis.

Syverson told The Forum that during the Gulf War, he heard about the thousands of Iraqis who died and started thinking about his own mortality and God's existence. He explored a number of world religions, but by October 1992 was tired of reading and talking about them.

"I couldn't see, feel, hear God," he said. "I said to myself, 'I need proof.' "

He said it arrived on Nov. 1, 1992. He was sitting in his bedroom when he turned the lights off and prayed "something like 'Show me,' " he said.

"Immediately I sensed another presence in my room; a living being," he said. "I was filled with a sense of peace and joy. I knew I had experienced God, that I was in His presence."

Syverson joined the Catholic Church in 1993 and began studying for the priesthood the same year at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, graduating in 1995. He earned a master's of divinity degree in St. Louis and was ordained by Bishop James Sullivan on June 5, 1999, at St. Mary's Cathedral in Fargo.

"He loved his faith. He loved the Lord. He loved being humorous about things," Goering said.

The Catholic Church, which at one time denied Christian burials in some suicide cases, has softened its stance in contemporary teachings.

The 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church declares suicide to be "gravely contrary to the just love of self" and "contrary to love for the living God." But it also recognizes that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

"We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives," the Catechism states. "By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives."

Goering said it's a constant struggle striking a balance between recognizing suicide as "a grave offense against life" and the act of someone not in their right mind.

"I think we know better now the sorts of difficulties people can have that reduce their culpability, and that gives us hope, of course," he said.

"This is one of those times when we heavily rely on our faith in the love and mercy in God to bring light into areas of darkness," Goering added. "And we have faith He will. It's difficult, but we have faith He will."