April 23, 2010

Celebrating a wonderful life: Father James Wilmoth honored for his ministry and commitment to Catholic schools

Students at St. Roch School in Indianapolis rejoice with Father James Wilmoth following a school-wide tribute on April 8 that celebrated their pastor. The school celebration recognized Father Wilmoth’s selection as one of the 10 priests from across the United States who recently received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Students at St. Roch School in Indianapolis rejoice with Father James Wilmoth following a school-wide tribute on April 8 that celebrated their pastor. The school celebration recognized Father Wilmoth’s selection as one of the 10 priests from across the United States who recently received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

His smile bursts into a laugh, and there’s a definite bounce in his step as Father James Wilmoth passes the swings on the playground at St. Roch School in Indianapolis, crosses the parking lot and heads toward the church—all the time sharing the story about “Jesus and the little boy with the lunchbox.”

The story comes from one of those “out-of-the-mouth-of-babes” moments, a moment that occurred during Father Wilmoth’s Holy Week tradition of having one child from each grade share their favorite Bible story during the school Mass.

Ready for her turn, the little girl walked to the front of the church, sat next to Father Wilmoth, and began weaving the wonderful tale of Jesus and the little boy with the lunchbox.

“She talked about how the little boy just had a few fish in his lunchbox,” Father Wilmoth says, his eyes glowing with joy. “And she went on and on, and everybody is following her every word. She told us how Jesus fed everybody lunch from the fish that were in the boy’s lunchbox. It was her way of telling the story of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes.”

The joy continues to beam on the pastor’s face as he enters the church to prepare for another school Mass with the children. After all, in his 45 years in the priesthood, the 70-year-old Father Wilmoth doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked about his favorite part of being a priest.

“It’s celebrating Mass with the kids,” he answers. “They sing. I engage them in the homily. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring the faith to them.”

An honor of a lifetime

That conversation from the school to the church offers a glimpse of a man who has been described by longtime friends as “one of the happiest priests you will ever meet.”

It also helps explain why Father Wilmoth was one of the 10 priests from across the United States who recently received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Beyond that glimpse, there is the larger perspective of a priest who has always asked to be assigned to a parish that has a school.

“Just think if we didn’t have a Catholic school, I wouldn’t have the same opportunity to be with the children, the parents and the families,” he says. “Every day, we’re able to teach them the message of Jesus. We help the kids realize how important the Church is in their lives and how important they are to the Church. Our Catholic schools help our kids learn that, appreciate that and live that.”

And so after he celebrates Mass at 7:15 a.m. on a school day, he takes the shortcut through the parking lot and the playground to team up with St. Roch principal Joseph Hansen to greet every student, starting at 7:45 a.m.

As the parents line up their vehicles to drop off the 255 children who attend the school, Father Wilmoth opens the passenger doors, says hello to each student by name and greets their parent by name, too. He’s there every morning, even in the snow, the rain and the bitter cold.

Shortly after 8 a.m., he’s walking through the school, greeting staff members by name and stopping in classrooms to talk to the children. Sometimes he even delivers the day’s announcements over the public address system, greeting the students with a roaring “Good morning, Rockets!” And he celebrates Mass with the school children every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m.

“He has a great soul,” says Jack Madden, 14, an eighth-grade student. “You can hear him coming down the hallway with his great laugh. He tries his best to get to know everyone. I serve funerals with Father, too. Every funeral, he’ll tell us so much about the person, how he knew them and how great they [were].”

Each morning, Father Wilmoth also drives to nearby Roncalli High School, where he serves as the chaplain, filling his time there talking with the students and celebrating another Mass. For the past year, he has also led the fundraising for a new chapel for the school.

“There are about 1,100 kids at Roncalli, and I know about 600, 700 of them,” he says, almost apologetically. “I don’t know all of the freshmen.” Then he brightens and says, “But I will by the time they’re seniors.”

“He does more before noon than I do all day,” says Mary DeArmond, a teacher at St. Roch School and a longtime friend of Father Wilmoth. “This is his life. The kids give him life. It doesn’t matter if they’re in kindergarten or high school. He loves them. He’s like a kid himself.”

She pauses for a moment and adds, “He’s our heartbeat.”

He’s also a priest that parishioners and friends enjoy so much that they unflinchingly and affectionately share humorous stories about his occasional misadventures.

Finding the humanity in each moment

DeArmond shares one of those stories from the summer trips to Minnesota that Father Wilmoth makes with her family—trips during which the priest loves to fish for northern pike and large-mouth bass.

“There was this one morning when no one else was up,” she recalls. “I got this frantic call for help from him. He was hung up on some rocks in a pontoon boat he rented. My husband had to wade up there in water up to his waist to help him.”

DeArmond laughs and then adds, “I think that’s the only time he’s needed help. He’s usually giving it to others.”

The stories of his humanity are legendary.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in August of 2005, Father Wilmoth decided that the money raised from the annual St. Roch School Walk-a-Thon—more than $24,000—would be used to help rebuild two Catholic schools in Louisiana, even though it put a strain on St. Roch’s budget.

“We’ll make it work,” he said. “We’ll find a way.”

Those words define his approach to life, friends say.

“Only God knows how many children have been able to go to a Catholic school because of the money that Father Wilmoth put out from his own pocket,” says Bonnie Schott, a friend whose nine children have attended both St. Roch and Roncalli schools. “And there are thousands more who had lower tuition rates because of the money Father raised.

“He has also funded class field trips, pro-life trips, athletic equipment, shoes, groceries, medical and funeral expenses, and any other need that God presented to Father’s attention. If Father receives a little cash for celebrating a wedding Mass, it will be in some poor person’s hand for food within 24 hours.”

And if he’s needed by someone sick or dying, he has the reputation of being there for them at any hour—similar to the way he was there for people in times of tragedy when he was a chaplain for the Indianapolis Fire Department for 29 years and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department for 17 years.

“I know there were times he had vacations planned—tickets already in hand—and there were calls saying someone was sick in the hospital, and he didn’t want to take the chance that something would happen while he was gone,” says Dick Gallamore, a fourth-grade teacher, youth ministry coordinator and director of religious education at St. Roch Parish. “He’s a priest first. And he’s one of the happiest priests you will ever meet.”

Celebrating a wonderful life

Father Wilmoth’s happiness level kept soaring during a three-day period in early April.

On April 6, he was honored by the National Catholic Educational Association during its annual convention in Minnesota. Then when he returned to Indianapolis on the night of April 7, he was greeted at the airport by a cheering crowd of children, parents, teachers and staff members from St. Roch. And the celebration continued during the afternoon of April 8 with a party at the school for the pastor.

The love fest was a fitting tribute for a priest who always makes time to support and cheer the students at St. Roch and Roncalli schools in their extracurricular activities—being present for everything from athletic contests to show choir performances.

“It’s an opportunity to bring Christ to them in their extracurricular stuff,” says Father Wilmoth, who always wears his priest collar to events because he loves representing the Church in every situation. “And I just enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a schedule buster, but I just enjoy it so much. You just have to work things in. The kids give you so much energy with their smiles, their friendliness and their laughter that you just want to keep doing it.”

He flashes another smile and his eyes dance as he speaks—the joy continuing to flow. He doesn’t need the Distinguished Pastor Award to confirm that joy, but he does cherish the significance of that honor.

“It just means a lot,” he says. “To me, it’s a wonderful recognition of how important our schools are. Think of how Mother Theodore Guérin came here in 1840 and started Catholic schools in Indiana. Think of all the thousands and thousands of people since then who have been a part of this, and how important our Catholic schools are to so many people. And I’m a part of that.”

So he gets ready for another day—a day when he will make the time to celebrate three or more Masses, to welcome children to school, to talk to students about their lives and their concerns, to counsel parishioners through their struggles, to share their joys, to help an engaged couple get ready for their wedding and their marriage, to do all the countless duties that a pastor does to keep a parish alive and thriving.

For Father Wilmoth—who will celebrate his 45th anniversary as a priest on May 2—it’s all part of the wonderful life that God has made possible for him. It’s all part of the wonderful life he always tries to make possible for others.

“It’s fun,” he says, smiling, again. “As long as God will let me do this, I’ll keep doing this. I love what I do. I just do.” †

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