May 21, 2010

Benedictine monk finds fulfillment in parish ministry

Benedictine Father Barnabas Gillespie stands in front of the altar at St. Pius V Church in Troy. He serves as the pastor of that parish and St. Michael Parish in Cannelton, and provides sacramental assistance at St. Paul Parish in Tell City and St. Mark Parish in Perry County. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Benedictine Father Barnabas Gillespie stands in front of the altar at St. Pius V Church in Troy. He serves as the pastor of that parish and St. Michael Parish in Cannelton, and provides sacramental assistance at St. Paul Parish in Tell City and St. Mark Parish in Perry County. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: In conjunction with the Year for Priests, The Criterion is publishing a monthly feature titled “Faithful Fathers.” The series will conclude in June. Click here for previous installments in the series)

By Sean Gallagher

TELL CITY—Benedictine Father Barnabas Gillespie is the pastor of St. Michael Parish in Cannelton and St. Pius V Parish in Troy in the Tell City Deanery. He also provides sacramental assistance at St. Paul Parish in Tell City and St. Mark Parish in Perry County.

Father Barnabas, 63, professed vows as a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad in 1973 and was ordained in 1980.

He was born and grew up in Cincinnati in the Cincinnati Archdiocese, and was a member of St. Boniface Parish there.

Planting the seeds of a vocation—Father Barnabas said his parents and his Catholic education planted the seeds of his religious and priestly vocation.

“[My parents] were very faithful,” he said. “My father was especially active. He was active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He was one of the first lay lectors [in the parish]. He was very active in the Knights of Columbus.

“I thought that I got a fine education from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. I remained close to a couple of them until they passed on. [The priesthood] was brought up from time to time, either by a priest or the sisters. Somehow, the seed got planted. And I did the little play-acting priest thing that many of the boys did at that time.”

High school seminary—When he was in the eighth grade, he had a friend who chose to enter a high school seminary operated by Franciscan friars based in Cincinnati.

“I had been thinking about the priesthood,” he said. “Not the diocesan priesthood or the Franciscans or any particular one at that point, but when he mentioned that, I started thinking. I had observed the Franciscans throughout a good part of my grade school [years]. I thought, ‘Well, let’s give it a try.’

“My parents were not terribly happy about it. Not that they were against my being a priest. They thought that I was just too young. Nevertheless, they didn’t stand in my way.”

Challenging times—He graduated from the high school seminary in 1965, then enrolled at a Franciscan college seminary, but discontinued his studies there after his first year.

He then studied education at the University of Cincinnati during the second half of the 1960s. It was a tumultuous time to be a college student, especially in 1968 when riots forced the university to be closed temporarily.

“It was just an absolute [mess],” Father Barnabas said. “It was a disaster of a time to be in college.”

Nevertheless, the idea that he might be called to be a priest persisted.

“It never let go,” Father Barnabas said. “It may have been buried pretty deeply. But it was somehow always there.”

Coming to Saint Meinrad—Father Barnabas had learned about Saint Meinrad Archabbey while he was a student in the Franciscan-run seminaries.

He went on a couple of private retreats there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and felt that God was calling him to monastic life.

“I went with a very good friend of mine from grade school, who was also kind of discerning a vocation to religious life,” Father Barnabas said. “We both decided that we were going to ask to be admitted. He got cold feet and did not. But I went ahead.”

He became a candidate at the monastery in 1971, a novice in 1972, professed first vows in 1973 and professed solemn vows in 1977, 17 years after he began to discern his vocation.

“It was a wonderful day, in many ways a relief to leave behind six years of training, as it were,” Father Barnabas said. “I made solemn vows with eight others [including current Archabbot Justin DuVall].”

Ordination—Father Barnabas was the first priest ordained in the archdiocese by Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara. The liturgy occurred on April 27, 1980, the anniversary of Father Barnabas’ baptism.

“It was just happenstance because the archbishop’s schedule was set by the archbishop,” he said. “But when I realized that, I thought that that was really neat to be ordained on the anniversary of my baptism.”

Parish ministry—For different periods over the past 30 years, Father Barnabas has ministered in a variety of positions at the monastery. But he’s been involved in parish ministry for more than half of that time.

Since 1998, he has ministered as the pastor of St. Michael Parish in Cannelton and St. Pius V Parish in Troy.

“This has been the happiest 12 years of my life,” Father Barnabas said. “I couldn’t have more wonderful people to serve. I just can’t imagine it.

“I see them faithfully living out their call, be it to family life or whatever, and continuing to be active in the Church and realizing that that’s their spiritual home. It’s just been amazing. Anything I’ve asked of these people, they’ve done. There’s not one thing that I’ve asked for in these years that I haven’t gotten.”

Part of that generosity has been elicited through Father Barnabas’ leadership style.

“I work with consensus,” he said. “I just don’t come down and say, ‘This is the way that it’s going to be.’ And the people know that. If we’re going to do something, we get together and we talk about it. Some people have some ideas and others have other ideas. But we come to a consensus.”

More challenging times—During the past 12 years of leading his two parishes, Father Barnabas has endured periods of turmoil in the Church in the United States related to clerical sexual abuse.

Nevertheless, his own faith and vocation have remained firm—something he sees as a blessing from God.

“I’ve never felt abandoned,” Father Barnabas said. “I believe that the Lord is with me, and always has been, in the good times and in the bad times. And I firmly believe that he’ll be with me always. And the people I serve have kind of been the sub-support of that, if you will.”

When he feels most a priest—“I feel most a priest when I am administering the sacraments [and] the Eucharist, above of all, but the rest of them, too,” Father Barnabas said. “But also at times of death and being with the families, not just at the time of the funeral. All of the parishes around here offer a funeral meal. It’s always important for me to be there at that meal just to show that I care.

“I’ve always thought that the major thing that I need to do as a priest is just to care and be kind. And I’ve tried to do that. I think that I’ve been somewhat successful. Otherwise, I still wouldn’t be here after almost 12 years.”

Advice to those considering the priesthood—“I’d just tell them how happy I’ve been in parish life and how good the people have been in so many ways,” Father Barnabas said. “It’s just been a glorious experience for me, a satisfying experience for me.” †

Local site Links: