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Yes, the church was filled with hundreds of worshippers, who sang with gusto. And the Eucharist was celebrated.
But March 6 was also a night for the members of St. Joseph Parish to show their appreciation for the priests who serve there during this Year for Priests.
The hundreds of people who filled the pews all wore buttons that read in English or Spanish, “We love our priests.”
Father Christopher Craig, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, usually celebrates the Saturday evening Mass by himself.
But on this occasion, he was joined by concelebrants that included retired Franciscan Father Leon Reuter, a son of the parish who is in residence at St. Joseph, and Franciscan Father Tom Fox, who assists in Hispanic ministry there.
Following the Mass, a spaghetti dinner was held in the priests’ honor with approximately 300 people filling the parish’s cafeteria.
“It’s very humbling because we’re used to serving others rather than being served,” Father Craig said. “I’ve really appreciated this being the Year for Priests. Every year, I feel more and more renewed as a priest. It’s a life that I’ve fully embraced. I can’t imagine me doing anything else.”
During the dinner, children representing St. Joseph Parish’s school and religious education program gave gifts to the three priests.
Also on display were photos and information about the 12 resident pastors that the parish has had since 1886.
St. Joseph parishioner Loretta Eckstein, 81, helped put the display together.
“I kind of enjoyed it because I got to look at pictures that I hadn’t looked at for a long time,” Eckstein said. “I remembered all the things that I could remember about all of the priests over the years. It’s wonderful to see them get together like this because it’s been a long time since we’ve let the priests know how much we love them.”
Eckstein has been a member of the parish for 75 years, and has assisted in music ministry there since she was in the seventh grade. As a result, she has worked closely with the many priests who have ministered at St. Joseph since the 1940s.
“They are a big part of my life, a big part,” Eckstein said. “ … I’ve loved my association over the years with all of the priests. They’ve been wonderful, marvelous.”
It has only been during the last decade that a Hispanic ministry outreach has started at St. Joseph Parish. Father Tom has celebrated Mass in Spanish there for the past five years. He expects to end his ministry at the parish later this year.
He praised the evening to honor the priests of the parish.
“I really appreciate it,” Father Tom said. “I think it’s a very good thing for the parish to do. We have to certainly raise the awareness about vocations to the priesthood. … I really am very happy with the participation of the Spanish-speaking community in this event. They’re saying something to me about my years here.”
Father Leon, who often celebrates Mass at the parish when Father Craig is away, said he enjoys being in retirement at the parish and appreciates how the members of the parish value his presence.
“It’s very comfortable, very nice. I love it,” he said. “I always knew that I was appreciated here.”
Leigh Ann Mills, St. Joseph Parish’s business manager, helped organize the Year for Priests event and was pleased by how many people attended.
“It gives me goose bumps,” she said. “I think it says a lot—that we are really, truly blessed that we have the priests that we have.”
Ecsktein said she hopes the event and the appreciation the parish has for its priests might plant seeds for future priestly vocations.
“I hope that, at some point in time, there will be some young person from this parish who looks up to our priests in the present as mentors and says, ‘I think I want to become a priest.’ ”
For his part, Father Craig hopes to show the people he serves how fulfilling the priesthood is.
“I hope, more than anything else, that people come to understand that the priesthood is an excellent life,” he said. “It’s a beautiful life to live for those that are called to that particular vocation.” †