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(Editor’s note: Six archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2008. This week, we feature Fathers Harold Ripperger and William Munshower. We will feature Fathers Herman Lutz and Joseph McNally in an upcoming issue of The Criterion.)
Home from the seminary for the summer, 19-year-old Harold Ripperger sat in his parents’ house and listened as the Major League Baseball scout made him the most tempting offer he had ever heard.
The scout told Ripperger that he had seen him play baseball in Richmond that summer, and the Detroit Tigers officials were interested in talking to him about becoming a professional baseball player.
The more the man talked, the more the idea appealed to Ripperger. He could play the sport he loved, maybe get married and have children, and even possibly get rich pursuing one of his childhood dreams.
Yet there was also this other childhood dream that he had to consider. Ever since he was in the seventh grade, Ripperger had thought about becoming a priest. In fact, he had been attending Saint Meinrad’s high school seminary in St. Meinrad since he graduated from the eighth grade.
As the two dreams pulled at him, Ripperger returned to the seminary and sought the advice of his spiritual director. The director told him, “You’re allowed to leave the seminary, but make sure it’s God’s will and not just what you want.”
The year was 1951, a time when Ripperger prayed and prayed for God’s guidance. Finally, he decided to continue his journey to become a priest. And seven years later, in 1958, he was ordained to the priesthood.
“I thought it was what God wanted me to do,” Father Ripperger recalled recently. “When I look back, I think I was really lucky that God gave me the vocation. Who would have thought that a little old farm boy who moved to Richmond in the sixth grade would have so many contacts with so many people through the years? I got to experience their joys and their sorrows. I was the lucky one to minister to them.”
Now 76, Father Ripperger is celebrating his 50th year as a priest. For the past 19 years, he has served as the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville in the New Albany Deanery. He has also served the archdiocese in the parishes of St. Mary in Greensburg, St. Mary in New Albany, St. Joseph in St. Leon, Holy Guardian Angels in Cedar Grove, St. Rose of Lima in Franklin, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Aurora, and St. Andrew the Apostle and St. Michael the Archangel, both in Indianapolis.
Friends from some of those parishes joined Father Ripperger in May as St. Mary Parish in Lanesville honored him at a dinner. One of the tributes that evening came from Chuck Lynch, the president of the St. Mary Parish Council. Lynch became emotional as he talked about Father Ripperger.
“I broke down,” Lynch recalled. “I told Father, ‘Thank you for giving your life and your service to God. You drew us closer to the Lord, and you drew us closer to each other.’
“That’s so true in our parish. We moved to the parish about 15 years ago. I remember the first time I met him. He seemed so gentle and accepting. There was a warmth there that made me feel that I already belonged. That’s his personality. He’s just refreshing to be around.”
Father Ripperger said he learned that approach as a boy from watching the priests as he attended St. Andrew School in Richmond. He was also influenced by his older brother, Father William Ripperger, who is retired. And he fondly remembers the late Father Robert Borchertmeyer, a friend from his childhood who lived next door in Richmond and shared his love for baseball, God and the priesthood.
He also credits the faith of his parents, William and Hilda Ripperger. They had eight children, including six sons, and they often said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of our boys was called by God to be a priest?”
Father Ripperger answered that call.
“I’ve tried to be just me,” he said. “I have faith in Jesus Christ, I love the Church and I love people. I like to see them smile and I like to smile myself. It’s just been a rewarding life. I’ve had good health, and I’ve had a lot of support from parishioners wherever I went. And I’ve always thanked God for getting paid for praying.”
He’s also thanked God for his friendships with his fellow priests and his ability to share the sacraments with people. Joy fills his voice when he talks about bringing people closer to God through first Communion, confirmation and marriage.
“I’ve crossed my fingers about some marriages, only to learn they’ve been hanging in there after 45 years,” he said. “I also get goose pimples when I think of the times when a man and a woman became husband and wife, and I’ve gotten to see the joy it’s brought to their lives, their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives.”
Father Ripperger has found his own joy in the choice he made long ago.
“If you had the life I had, you would jump at it,” he said. “The priesthood has been a great blessing from God for me. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun. But it’s worth it. To think God would allow me to touch so many lives, through the sacraments, is unbelievable. I don’t deserve it really, but it’s really rewarding, much better than baseball. I don’t play baseball now, but I still pray.”
Parents: William and Hilda (Wissel) Ripperger
Parishes where he grew up: St. Peter Parish in Franklin County, St. Michael Parish in Brookville and St. Andrew Parish in Richmond
Education: Seminary at Saint Meinrad School of Theology. Bachelor of Arts degree in history at Saint Meinrad.
Hobby: Golf. “I’m not as good as I used to be. I don’t have the limberness I used to have. I’m still competitive. I carry a 10 handicap. It used to be three or four.”
Favorite piece of writing: “Something that I really value is the writings of a lady who happened to be my mother. There are 110 pages. She was a teacher, and she loved to write. She reflected upon her background, meeting Dad, having a family and what it meant to her. Those things mean a lot to me. My Mom and I were extra close.” †