January 13, 2012

Religious Vocations Supplement

From Sudan to Richmond, priest gives thanks for his vocation

Father Todd Riebe speaks on Aug. 17, 2011, at St. Andrew Church in Richmond to archdiocesan seminarians who were on a pilgrimage to the three parishes in the eastern Indiana city. Father Riebe is the pastor of the Richmond Catholic Community made up of the parishes of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Todd Riebe speaks on Aug. 17, 2011, at St. Andrew Church in Richmond to archdiocesan seminarians who were on a pilgrimage to the three parishes in the eastern Indiana city. Father Riebe is the pastor of the Richmond Catholic Community made up of the parishes of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

One day in 1991, Father Todd Riebe was walking with some friends along a dusty street in Juba in southern Sudan.

Their quiet stroll was brought to a sudden halt when artillery shells began exploding all around them. Juba had been a frequent target in a decades-long civil war in Sudan.

“It was right there [where we were],” Father Riebe said. “In fact, the person right next to me was killed.

“I can remember, as this was all happening, laying there and saying, ‘This is it,’ and thanking God. It had been such a good life. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Then it all ended and you went to see who was alive and who wasn’t.”

At the time, Father Riebe, who grew up as a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Terre Haute, was a member of the Comboni Missionaries religious order and was ministering in Juba as a high school principal.

Two years later, the Sudanese government expelled him and the other members of his order in the country.

He returned home to Terre Haute for a sabbatical and soon began assisting at St. Patrick Parish. In early 1995, he was asked to lead the parishes of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary in Richmond, and has ministered there ever since. He became a priest of the archdiocese in 2000.

Although a world away in many ways from his pastoral experience in Richmond, Father Riebe said the eight years that he spent in Sudan prepared him well for parish ministry in the archdiocese.

While he saw extreme material poverty in war-torn Juba, he saw a spiritual richness in the people who lived there.

“The Sudanese helped me. They’re people of such deep faith,” Father Riebe said. “We missionaries would lament that this [poverty and war] were unjust, that this was terrible. And they would witness to us that with faith comes the patience that we don’t necessarily have. [They would say,] ‘In the end, God will make all things right.’ ”

On the other hand, after he came home to Terre Haute, Father Riebe gained a new appreciation of the spiritual poverty of so many Americans.

“I realized that while here there is an affluence of material goods, there is a poverty here that is as deep as the [material] poverty in Africa,” he said. “And, in one sense, it’s harder because it’s the poverty of spirit. All these things have made us strangers to ourselves.”

When he arrived in Richmond, Father Riebe saw great spiritual riches in the three parishes there. But their members often kept their heritage to themselves, according to lifelong St. Andrew parishioner and current deacon candidate Frank Roberts.

“In the past, each parish was jealously involved in protecting its identity and its independence from the other parishes,” said Roberts, 73. “But [Father Riebe] led and completed the joining of the three into the Richmond Catholic Community.

“That, in and of itself, has been such a blessing to us because we work on many common projects.”

The founding of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond, which opened in 2002, has been the largest among these projects, one that both needed the three parishes to come together and nurtured the bonds among them.

One of the main tasks to make the high school a possibility was to renovate an old school building on the St. Andrew Parish campus.

“In an earlier time, that would have been nuts,” Father Riebe said. “That would have been St. Andrew’s problem, not [the other parishes’] problem.”

But with his help and that of many Catholics in Richmond, it succeeded.

“We were investing in the Richmond Catholic Community,” he said. “We were investing in the future. And to have a mission and be hoping for the future was exactly what we needed to become stronger and to grow together.”

While Father Riebe is quick to spread the credit around to many other people for bringing the parishes together and in the founding of the high school, Roberts said his pastor’s holiness has had a real and lasting effect on the Richmond Catholic Community.

“He is probably the most saintly man I’ve ever known,” Roberts said. “He is just absolutely tireless in his dedication to the Church, in living the word that he preaches. He’s one of these people who can walk into a room and, with his smile, light up the whole room. His enthusiasm is unending.”

Father Riebe’s dedication to his priestly life and ministry have also nurtured vocations in other people.

Father Jeremy Gries, administrator of St. Mary Parish in Rushville, spent the summer of 2006 ministering in the Richmond Catholic Community as a seminarian. At the time, he was unsure if the priesthood and parish ministry were really where God was calling him in his life.

“I came back after that summer largely thinking that, ‘Yeah, God’s calling me to this,’ ” Father Gries said. “And I think Father Todd played a big role in that, helping me to see that parish life is not only a good and joyous life, but it’s a life that God had called me to. It was an important summer for me.”

Franciscan Sister Maria Kolbe Elstro recalls Father Riebe’s first day ministering in the Richmond Catholic Community.

On that day in 1995, she was a fourth-grade student in a religious education program there. She and her class were doing jumping jacks because they had not memorized the beatitudes. Father Riebe stopped in the classroom to see what all the noise was about.

“He just sat down and taught us the beatitudes in a way that the children would understand,” Sister Maria Kolbe said. “He’s always been a person who’s gone the extra mile.”

She experienced this in a special way in 2009 shortly before she entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, Ind., as a postulant.

Her sister had just given birth to a baby boy that was ill and had to be rushed to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

“Father Todd came out all the way from Richmond at midnight to baptize him,” said Sister Maria Kolbe, who is now a novice in her community. “He stayed until 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning and then drove back and said five Masses.”

Such dedication to his vocation influenced her own calling.

“The way he gives [of himself] has taught me that we need to fully give of ourselves as priests or as religious,” she said.

And the way that her longtime pastor helped lead three parishes into one community of faith led her to understand the give and take of life in a religious community.

“For me, the Richmond Catholic Community is like a big family,” Sister Maria Kolbe said. “And so if I were to come home, it’s just like a big family reunion. Father Todd is basically the father figure.”

Gratitude and awe are at the heart of Father Riebe’s thoughts about his life as a priest—whether it is in Richmond or far away in Sudan.

“It is a wonderful life. It is an amazing life. I love being a priest,” Father Riebe said. “Even there, if it had ended that day, that was my thought—thank you, God.”

(To learn more about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.)

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