August 1, 2014

Father John Geis finds Christ in 50 years of collaborative ministry

Retired Father John Geis preaches a homily on June 8 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Enochsburg during the Mass of Thanksgiving of Father Daniel Bedel, who had been ordained a priest the previous day. Father Geis, ordained a priest 50 years ago, and Father Bedel both grew up in the former St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Retired Father John Geis preaches a homily on June 8 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Enochsburg during the Mass of Thanksgiving of Father Daniel Bedel, who had been ordained a priest the previous day. Father Geis, ordained a priest 50 years ago, and Father Bedel both grew up in the former St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: Several archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2014. This week, we feature Father John Geis.)

By Sean Gallagher

Like many Catholics around the world, Glenn Tebbe has admired the way Pope Francis has shown a personal touch in his pastoral ministry in the 15 months since he was elected bishop of Rome.

But Tebbe, the executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, saw the attractiveness of this style of ministry nearly 40 years ago in the priestly life and ministry of Father John Geis.

At the time, Father Geis was the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg and hired the then-26-year-old Tebbe as the principal of the Batesville Deanery faith community’s school.

“He always responded in a pastoral way, in kindness,” said Tebbe of Father Geis. “He listened well to people. In many respects, what people are finding so positive in Pope Francis, John Francis Geis had the same orientation.

“It wasn’t that he was a big evangelizer. He didn’t have all these programs or anything else. But it was just who he was.”

Father Geis was ordained a priest on May 3, 1964, by Archbishop Paul C. Schulte. Today, he continues to serve the Church in central and southern Indiana as the sacramental minister for St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood and St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon.

Born on Oct. 5, 1935, Father Geis grew up on a farm near Enochsburg and as a member of the former St. John the Evangelist Parish in the southeastern Indiana town.

When he was a student in the parish’s school, he saw the personal touch in the ministry of its pastor, Father Ambrose Schneider, who died in 1991.

“He was a down-to-earth man and was very much involved with people in the parish,” Father Geis said. “He could just pop in [at your home] at any time. You’d talk to him.”

And while he thought as a grade school student of becoming a priest, it took a while for the seeds of his vocation to blossom. After graduating from high school, Father Geis worked for more than two years at Stewart Seeds, a seed corn company in Decatur County.

He expected to be drafted into the armed services and was considering applying for a factory job to earn more money.

“I was sitting at the breakfast table and I told Mom what I was going to do,” Father Geis said. “And she said, ‘Have you thought of the priesthood?’ I looked at her and I could not say ‘No.’ I was really thinking about it.”

He enrolled in 1956 as a college seminarian at the former St. Mary’s College Seminary in St. Mary, Ky. Four years later, he continued his priestly formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

The Second Vatican Council began two years before he was ordained a priest. In the last year of his formation, a seminary professor led him and his fellow transitional deacons in studying the Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which paved the way for the liturgical changes that occurred in the years to come.

One comment by the professor stuck with Father Geis.

“One day, he shoved his chair back, pushed the book forward on his desk and said, ‘Guys, I don’t know exactly what the Church is asking us to do. All I can tell you is this. Don’t be the first one to grab the ball and run with it. And don’t be the last one to come dragging along either,’ ” Father Geis said. “I really used that as a tool to guide me through all the changes that started to take place.”

Another reform that took place in the wake of Vatican II was the increased collaboration of parish priests with parish staff members and parishioners.

Father Geis helped make this reform a reality at St. Mary Parish in Greensburg when he became its pastor in 1973. He served there until 1991.

Tebbe joined St. Mary’s staff as school principal in 1976. He looks back nearly 40 years later with appreciation for the way Father Geis showed confidence in him.

“He gave me the right kind of advice without being bossy,” Tebbe said. “He enabled me to do my job and to learn on the job without being critical, without micromanaging in any way. He put trust in his staff.”

Another staff member that he hired at St. Mary was Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, who served as a pastoral associate in the faith community in the 1980s.

“He sought understanding in all situations,” she said. “I think he also saw the gifts in people and definitely tried to encourage the use of those gifts.”

Hiring a variety of parish staff members with their gifts and expertise not only benefited St. Mary Parish, but Father Geis in his own priestly life and ministry.

“To collaborate like that really built my confidence and my own spirituality,” he said. “That’s why I like so much the current Holy Father. He’s collaborating with people and really doing things for the Church that should be done today.”

The confidence Father Geis gained at St. Mary served as the basis for the leadership he gave to a series of significant projects he oversaw in the 17 years he served as pastor of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County from 1993 until his retirement in 2010.

During that time, the New Albany Deanery faith community renovated its historic church, opened a parish school, built a parish activity center and a new church building.

The last of these initiatives took shape after Father Geis turned 70 when he could have requested to retire. Instead, he agreed to stay on and oversee the $12 million project.

Pat Byrne is a St. Mary-of-the-Knobs parishioner who collaborated with Father Geis in many of these efforts. He saw his former pastor as the lynchpin for them all.

“He really was a critical element, because, in essence, all of those projects required us as a parish to come together and agree to them and support them,” Byrne said. “He had the ability to bring us together and help us to explore these opportunities and to get us to work together.

“Father John took us to another level.”

While Father Geis was an effective leader in brick-and-mortar projects, Byrne said he always kept sight of the spiritual meaning of them all.

“All of our meetings and our decision-making always included prayer,” Byrne said. “He made sure we worked together to listen together to the Holy Spirit.”

Father Geis saw the Spirit at work when a group of about 60 parishioners came together to begin the renovation of the parish’s older church.

“I sat down and broke down in tears,” he said. “It was quite a spiritual experience. I knew that the Holy Spirit wanted this to happen. It was such an uplifting thing to see all the people become a part of what was going on.”

In 2010, Father Geis retired from parish administration. But he has continued to celebrate the sacraments in parishes throughout central and southern Indiana, many near the farmhouse he grew up in as a boy that now serves as his home.

“I’m doing what I was ordained to do,” he said. “It’s a real joy for me to do that.”

Sister Shirley, who is the parish life coordinator in Napoleon and Osgood where Father Geis serves as sacramental minister, sees that joy in his ministry.

“It shows his love of the priesthood,” Sister Shirley said. “He wants to minister until he’s no longer able. He has been an inspiration in my life.”

For his part, Father Geis hopes he can serve as an inspiration for men considering a possible vocation to the priesthood.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world,” he said. “It’s really been a most rewarding life.”

(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to

More about Father John Geis

  • Age: 78
  • Parents: The late Lawrence and Rose (Volk) Geis
  • Childhood parish: St. John the Evangelist in Enochsburg
  • Current residence: Decatur County
  • Seminary: St. Mary’s College Seminary in St. Mary, Ky., and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis
  • Ordained: May 3, 1964
  • Favorite Bible passage: John 6:51 (“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”)
  • Favorite saint: St. John the Apostle
  • Favorite hobby: Fishing
  • Favorite prayer or devotion: The rosary
  • Favorite author: Matthew Kelly

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