August 17, 2012

Priest finds joy in 50 years of ministry in parishes, hospital

Father David Lawler, left, ritually lays hands upon transitional Deacon Christopher Wadelton on June 27, 2009 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Father Lawler had previously served as pastor of now-Father Wadelton and has influenced his approach to priestly life and ministry. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father David Lawler, left, ritually lays hands upon transitional Deacon Christopher Wadelton on June 27, 2009 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Father Lawler had previously served as pastor of now-Father Wadelton and has influenced his approach to priestly life and ministry. (File photo by Sean Gallagher) Click for a larger version.

(Editor’s note: Four archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2012. This week, we feature Father David Lawler.)

By Sean Gallagher

The joy that Father David Lawler experiences in his vocation continues to grow 50 years after his ordination.

He appreciates the 29 years he has ministered in parishes in Indianapolis and Terre Haute and the 21 in which he served as a hospital chaplain at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

But his time at St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis, where he has served as associate pastor since 2004, is special.

“My last nine years have probably been the very best,” Father Lawler said. “I’ve felt very much affirmed and very much loved.”

It was the love, vitality and encouragement that he saw in young priests assigned to parishes in his hometown of Richmond in the 1940s and 50s that played a significant role in his vocational discernment.

They included Father Ambrose Scheider, an assistant pastor at the time at St. Andrew Parish in Richmond. His own assistant pastors at St. Mary Parish in Richmond, Father Anthony Spicuzza and Father John Schiarra, were especially influential.

“In their own way, they were both really just marvelous young, dynamic priests,” Father Lawler said. “Good, good priests.”

His older brother, Msgr. Richard Lawler, who became a seminarian a few years before he did, was also an influence then and throughout his life as a priest, even after Msgr. Lawler died of cancer in 2001.

“He was a very quiet, gentle man, very kind,” said Father Lawler. “He was good, caring. But he would not have ever said, ‘You ought to be a priest.’ We just didn’t do that in our family.”

Father Lawler’s example helped another archdiocesan priest, Father Christopher Wadelton, to discern his calling.

Father Lawler was his pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis from 1976-83. During that time, Father Wadelton was finishing up grade school and studying as a high school student.

However, it was years later that Father Wadelton recognized his previous pastor’s influence. That came through a controversial stand that Father Lawler took against the fact that there were only white members in the nearby Riviera Club, a swimming and tennis club in Indianapolis.

Many families at Immaculate Heart belonged to the club and opposed his public stand, which included picketing outside of it.

Father Wadelton said that when he later learned how his pastor had “led the charge against that, … it increased my respect for Father Lawler. He was willing to put himself on the line for something that he really believed in.”

Today, Father Wadelton ministers to many Hispanic Catholics as associate pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. He continues to look to Father Lawler for inspiration.

“His example encourages me when I have to face difficult issues in encouraging people to be more accepting of the Hispanic community,” Father Wadelton said. “His example sticks out in my mind.”

In 1983, Father Lawler left Immaculate Heart and began 21 years of ministry as a hospital chaplain at Methodist.

He enjoyed ministering to patients and their families.

“I saw wonderful things happen in the hospital,” he said.

One of his colleagues there was chaplain Gordon Burton, a United Methodist minister. Burton appreciated Father Lawler’s dedication to his ministry.

“There would be times in the off hours where there would be an urgent need for some Catholic ministry, particularly for folks who were from out of town,” Burton said. “We could call Father Lawler in the middle of the night and as long as he was in town, he was always willing to come in and do what was needed.”

Burton said that Father Lawler was a special presence of Christ “just by his responsiveness, whether it was for a specific sacrament or it was simply because a Catholic patient wanted to see a priest.”

Nevertheless, ministering in a hospital, after spending 21 years in parishes, posed difficulties for Father Lawler.

“It was lonesome,” he said. “[The patients] knew that I was the hospital priest who ministered to them. But they either went home or they died. And that was the end of it. You can’t connect with people.”

Although Msgr. Lawler was diagnosed with cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease while his brother was a hospital chaplain, Father Lawler never saw the mixing of his ministry at Methodist and visiting his brother at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis as a burden.

“He was my brother,” Father Lawler said. “I’d see him two or three times a week. He was getting good care. We’d visit, like brothers do. I didn’t see it as a challenge. I was happy to do it.”

When his brother died, Father Lawler naturally experienced a great loss in his life.

“He affected my priesthood all the way along,” Father Lawler said. “Dick was very discerning. He would listen. I would bounce things off of him. I greatly respected what he had to say. So his dying was difficult.”

Father Lawler ended his ministry at Methodist in 2004 and has served at St. Christopher ever since. Earlier this year, the parish hosted a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination.

But, after 50 years of priestly ministry, Father Lawler knows that the praise and gratitude heaped on him extends beyond him.

“You can’t believe the outpouring of affection and love, the wonderful notes and the wonderful things people send to me,” Father Lawler said. “And I’m not naïve. It’s not about David Lawler. It’s the priesthood. People love the priesthood.”

(To learn more about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to

More about Father Lawler

  • Born: March 5, 1936
  • Home parish: St. Mary Parish in Richmond
  • Seminary: high school seminary at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad; college seminary at St. Mary’s Seminary in St. Mary, Ky.; theology at St. Maur Seminary in South Union, Ky.
  • Ordained: May 6, 1962
  • Favorite Bible passage: “At the sight of the crowds, [Jesus’] heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36)
  • Favorite prayer or devotion: Lectio divina
  • Favorite saints: St. Therésè of Lisieux, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Ignatius of Loyola
  • Favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Blessed John Henry Newman
  • Favorite pastime: traveling, reading, listening to classical music

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