November 6, 2015

Vocations Supplement

God’s joy and humor shine through in priest’s life

During recess at St. Vincent de Paul School in Bedford, children surround Father Rick Eldred, the pastor of that parish as well as St. Mary Parish in Mitchell, who has gained popularity with his outgoing personality and his “Popcorn with Padre” movie-hosting sessions at the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

During recess at St. Vincent de Paul School in Bedford, children surround Father Rick Eldred, the pastor of that parish as well as St. Mary Parish in Mitchell, who has gained popularity with his outgoing personality and his “Popcorn with Padre” movie-hosting sessions at the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BEDFORD—The children on the school playground rush to Father Rick Eldred, giving him high fives, fist bumps and hugs.

And whenever he shouts, “One, two three!”, the boys and girls at St. Vincent de Paul School in Bedford respond with a roar, “We’re St. Vincent and proud of it!”

That’s the close bond that the 66-year-old pastor has with the children—a bond that has grown through his occasional movie-hosting sessions at the school, the ever popular “Popcorn with Padre.”

“The kids keep me young,” Father Eldred says, his voice dripping in joy. “Our school symbol is the shamrock, and on last St. Patrick’s Day, I brought in 230 6-inch cookies sprinkled in green in a shamrock shape for the kids and the staff. After the movie, all the kids had green lips, green tongues and sugar highs. They all bounced out of the school that day.”

The memory makes Father Eldred smile widely and laugh softly—the same reactions he shows when he shares his path to becoming a priest. After listening to the story of that journey, there’s a sense that not only Father Eldred has a good sense of joy and humor, so does God.

From the time he graduated from college to his early 40s, he worked in the family business in Terre Haute, running the company’s moving and storage operations. He enjoyed helping with Special Olympics and had served on different parish councils, but he was still confused when he was stopped one day in the early 1990s by Msgr. Lawrence Moran, then the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute.

“He asked me if I thought I’d ever be a priest,” recalls Father Eldred, who is also the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Mitchell. “I asked him, ‘What did I ever say to you to make you ask that question?’

“I told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept inviting me over to his house to discuss it more. As a courtesy, I went with him to a dinner in Indianapolis with the archbishop [Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein]. I didn’t realize it was a dinner for people who had a possible vocation. I’ve told people I was on the menu, but I just didn’t know it.”

Still, he started praying about it. And he had a change of heart when he came across the Bible passage—Matthew 19:16—where a young man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do to gain eternal life.

“Jesus told him, and he went away sad,” Father Eldred says. “I didn’t want to be that way.”

Yet while he continued to move toward a vocation to the priesthood, he hadn’t let anyone in his family know about it.

“No one knew I was considering it,” he says. “I was sitting in my office when over the loudspeaker they said I had a call from Sacred Heart School of Theology and Seminary. Everyone looked at me. I said, ‘Hey, I’m the treasurer. They want a donation.’ I didn’t tell them I was the donation.”

The seminary in Wisconsin wanted him to come that same day, which was the first day of classes.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that. I have a business and houses. How about Wednesday?’ He said, ‘How about Tuesday?’ I took my mom to lunch. On the way back, I told her, ‘I got a call from the seminary, and I’m going to leave in an hour.’ She had been praying on it. I went in my brother’s office and told him the same thing. He said, ‘I’m sure you’ll be good at it.’ ”

Everything went according to plan in seminary until he became a transitional deacon—the last year before his priestly ordination in 1999—and he took a class centered on the Mass.

“That was the first time I thought about having to stand up in front of people and giving homilies. If I had thought about it before becoming a deacon, I would have quit. I didn’t talk until I was 4. When I did start to talk, I had a horrible speech impediment. When I told them about it, they said, ‘Duly noted. Now get with it.’ It’s still there at times, but people say I do a good job of overcoming it.”

People also say he’s a terrific priest and pastor.

“He’s compassionate and enthusiastic, and he’s a great teacher,” says Teresa Underwood, the principal of St. Vincent de Paul School. “The kids love him. At Mass, he always makes a point of saying we’re coming closer to Jesus. It’s really important to him that Catholic education is available.”

As a member of St. Vincent Parish, Underwood also admires the way Father Eldred has connected that parish with nearby St. Mary Parish in Mitchell.

“We’re two separate parishes, but he saw the importance of bringing us together while allowing us to have our own identities,” she says. “We’re the Catholic community of Lawrence County. He’s a unifier.”

He’s also an evangelizer, says Rose Warthen, a longtime friend who first met Father Eldred when he served as the pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville from 2001 to 2005.

“I believe he’s led by the Holy Spirit,” Warthen says. “He’s very upbeat about his faith and evangelizing. And it’s contagious the way he feels about our Catholic faith. He makes you want to be like him in his faith.”

Father Eldred’s journey to the priesthood has been filled with some amazing moments. On his 51st birthday, he and five other priests concelebrated Mass with then-Pope John Paul II at the pope’s summer residence in Italy. He also concelebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at the canonization of St. Theodora Guérin in Rome.

“I’ve experienced things that are just unbelievable,” he says. “You take a little kid from Terre Haute, and he’s celebrating Masses with two popes?! I say, ‘God, why me?’ ”

Still, he regards the everyday moments of being a priest as equally special. He beams when he talks about giving first Communion to children, working with seminarians and providing the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I like to show people that God still loves them,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to get three eucharistic adoration chapels started, too.

“We also have a Christmas in July fund where we collect money for seminarians and retired priests. We send them gift cards. The retired priests are surprised to get a ‘thank you’ from a parish where they were never an active priest. And the seminarians are thankful, too.”

He has also helped to establish Becky’s Place, the Catholic Charities transitional housing site in Bedford for homeless women and children.

For Father Eldred, it’s all a matter of caring for people, especially in those moments where they face physical, emotional and mental problems.

“You see someone with cancer or a 6-year-old with a brace on his leg. Or you’re with a wife and a son in the process of their husband and father dying. You try to be there for them. Sometimes, all you can do is pray and support them. But I’ve seen the power of prayer, too. The greatest gift mankind has is the power of prayer.”

He has seen that power in his life.

“You have your challenges just like anyone does in life, but I really enjoy being a priest,” he says. “The peace and joy as a priest are off the charts. You have this wonderful knowledge of the presence of the Lord in your life.”

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

More about Father Rick Eldred

  • Age: 66
  • Parents: John and Beatrice Eldred (deceased)
  • Education: St. Patrick School in Terre Haute; the former Bishop Paul C. Schulte High School in Terre Haute; Indiana State University in Terre Haute; Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wis.; Sacred Heart School of Theology and Seminary in Hales Corners, Wis.
  • Favorite saint: St. Theodora Guérin
  • Favorite Scripture passage: Matthew 19:16-22
  • Favorite prayer/devotion: Eucharistic adoration, Stations of the Cross
  • Favorite spiritual author: Sister Emmanuel Maillard, member of the French Community of Beatitudes
  • Hobbies: Golf, movies, travel and genealogy

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