June 19, 2015

Joy marks Father Wilmoth’s 50 years as a priest

Father James Wilmoth’s popularity with the students at St. Roch School in Indianapolis is evident during a schoolwide tribute to him in 2010, shortly after he received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

Father James Wilmoth’s popularity with the students at St. Roch School in Indianapolis is evident during a schoolwide tribute to him in 2010, shortly after he received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: Three archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2015. This week, we feature Father James Wilmoth.)

By John Shaughnessy

If you want to create a list of the “Great Stories, Highlights and Memories from the First 50 Years of the Priesthood of Father James Wilmoth,” a good place to start would be with two stories that show the joy, humor, faith and humility that define him.

Father Wilmoth begins smiling and laughing even before he starts the story of why his ordination at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad on May 2, 1965, was delayed.

“We were supposed to be ordained at four in the afternoon,” he says, grinning. “We lined up outside the bishop’s room. But when it got to be four o’clock, Archbishop [Paul C.] Schulte wasn’t there even though I had seen him come in. Father Kenny Sweeney, who had driven the archbishop down there, came out of the room laughing. Archbishop Schulte was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. Father Kenny said the game was in the bottom of the ninth, the game was tied, and the Cardinals had men on second and third base with one out.”

Moments later, Archbishop Schulte walked from the room with a smile after the Cardinals scored the winning run.

“That was OK with me,” says a smiling Father Wilmoth, the longtime pastor of St. Roch Parish and the longtime chaplain of Roncalli High School, both in Indianapolis. “I’m a big baseball fan, too.”

His expression, however, turns serious as he shares another story—the story of how he was able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination after nearly dying earlier this year.

“The celebration was just something,” he says. “We had Mass in the afternoon. Then we went over to Primo’s [banquet hall.] They served 997 people there. It was humbling, overwhelming—just a wonderful experience to see all those people. I was so happy—especially knowing how sick I was in January—that God let me live so long so I could be with all those people. Everything is fine now, but it was touch-and-go in January.

“I had a GI bleed, gastro-intestinal. It was just red blood coming out of me.”

He was rushed into emergency surgery that same night.

“They gave me 14 units of blood. I was in intensive care for a week. I was out of it. I didn’t know how bad it was. The doctors I had were just unbelievable. My prayer of thanksgiving was that I could be here for first Communion, my 50th anniversary, our eighth-grade graduation and Roncalli’s graduation.

“I’m happy to be doing what I love doing. And I’m thankful that God has let me do it.”

While those two stories frame Father Wilmoth’s 50 years as a priest, here is a list of other telling stories, highlights and memories from his priesthood.

A larger than life honor

During his 50 years as a priest, Father Wilmoth has received the Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association and the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest honor. Then there is his most unusual tribute—being celebrated on a billboard at the corner of Hanna Avenue and U.S. 31 in Indianapolis in May of this year.

The billboard featured a picture of a smiling Father Wilmoth in his St. Roch vestments and this note, “50 Years of Service, Congratulations Father Wilmoth!”

“I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless,” he says. “The thing that was so neat is that it was right next to a billboard about the sanctity of life. It showed a baby and said, ‘A baby is a gift.’ ”

A teacher of the message of Christ

Father Wilmoth has always asked to be assigned to a parish that has a school. He views Catholic schools as an essential way to teach children the message of Christ—and “how important the Church is in their lives, and how important they are to the Church.”

At St. Roch School, his tradition is to stand in the parking lot every school morning to greet every student. Many of the children view him as a grandfather figure. Younger children have even been known to call him “God” because he matches the kind, smiling image they have of God.

At Roncalli, his goal was to know the names of each of the 1,200 or so students by their senior year. As he walked along the halls of the high school, students called to him. In private moments, they shared their concerns and problems with him.

At both schools, he could usually be found at games and other extracurricular events.

“That is the thing that has always driven me—to be supportive of young people,” he says, the emotion showing in his voice. “They’re my hope, the hope of our Church.”

His “family” at Roncalli and St. Roch showed their fondness for him when they created a nine-minute-long video—titled “We Love Father Wilmoth”—to cheer him as he battled prostate cancer in 2014.

A chaplain of compassion

During his 50 years, Father Wilmoth has served as a chaplain for the Indianapolis Fire Department for 29 years and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department for 19 years, with 11 of those years overlapping.

“I just enjoyed working with the men and women of the fire department. They are heroes. They have a great camaraderie, and they brought me into that camaraderie. If I knew they were fighting a fire, I would go with them.

“I always wore my collar. I represent the Catholic Church, and I’m proud of it. I felt it was a neat thing to be representing the Church in a time of trouble, especially since so many of the people I came in contact with weren’t Catholic.

“I had to give up [being the chaplain of the sheriff’s department.] It was hard. My job was to make notifications if it was a traffic fatality, a suicide or a homicide. My job was to go with the officer to let the family know. It got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so emotional. It tears you up to see the pain.”

A guide for the young searching for God

Father Wilmoth served as a chaplain for college students at the Newman Centers of Butler University and Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis from 1988 to 1997.

“It would be interesting how you’d run into someone on campus, or they’d come to the house and they’d tell you about their search for God,” he says. “I started an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] class at Butler. Every year, I’d have four or five kids come into the Church.”

At 76, Father Wilmoth’s continuing connection to young people shows in a handwritten list taped to a closet door in his office. The list shows the schedule of the 22 weddings he will officiate in 2015.

A friend to people in need

The stories of Father Wilmoth’s humanity are legendary. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, he 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.

Friends note how he has often personally contributed his own money so that children can attend Catholic schools. One friend also mentions that when Father Wilmoth receives money for celebrating a wedding Mass, “it will be in some poor person’s hand for food within 24 hours.”

“The Scripture that has guided me in my life as a priest is, ‘Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me,’ ” Father Wilmoth says, paraphrasing Matthew 25:40.

“My thing is to make Christ visible to people. A lot of people are in need in so many ways—financially, emotionally. That Scripture has guided me in my 50 years. I’m always trying to reach out to people.”

A gardener with a special touch

Father Wilmoth’s special devotion to the Blessed Mother shines through in the grotto honoring Mary just outside his home on the grounds of St. Roch—a grotto where he has planted flowers through the years, and where he comes to talk to her often.

“I sit here and ask her my questions,” he says as he sits on a section of the grotto’s stone wall. “She tells me what to do—and sometimes what not to do.”

His love for gardening also shows in a small card he often gives to people, a card that features a picture of a smiling St. John XXIII on the front and this quote on the back: “We are not on Earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

As he shared that card with a visitor to his home, Father Wilmoth mentioned many of the parishes he has served as a priest through the years—Holy Name of Jesus in Beech Grove, Our Lady of the Greenwood in Greenwood, and St. Roch, St. Michael the Archangel and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, all in Indianapolis.

“All the parishes I’ve been in have helped me create a flourishing garden of life.”

The gifts of life

Father Wilmoth loves to fish. He plays golf. And his fondness for dogs—including his latest, a golden-retriever-and-standard-poodle mix named Annie—shows in the door mat outside his home that notes, “Wipe Your Paws.”

He’s also a big University of Notre Dame fan, but his greatest sports passion is for the Cincinnati Reds.

“I sit and listen to the Reds on the radio every day that I can,” he says.

Still, the highlight of his day is connected to his priesthood.

“Celebrating Mass is the high point of my day. I celebrate Mass every day. When I was in the hospital, my surgeon asked me, ‘What do you miss most about not working?’ I said, ‘Celebrating the Mass.’ ”

When he was released from the hospital after he nearly died earlier this year, Father Wilmoth surprised parishioners the next morning by celebrating Mass—leading them to give him a standing ovation while some cried tears of joy.

A priesthood of joy

If you could sum up Father Wilmoth’s 50 years as a priest in one word, it would be, “joy.”

“I’ve always been happy doing what I do. I’ve always felt that happiness as a priest. I have no regrets. People will say, ‘You always are smiling. What are you up to?’ I tell them, ‘I’m really happy. I really love what I do.’ ”

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

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