July 19, 2019

Father Kirkhoff has exuded ‘gift and grace’ in 50 years as a priest

Father Jerry Kirkhoff baptizes his great-great niece, Grace Kirkhoff, while her godparents—Maryann Kirkhoff and Michael Bower—take part in the sacrament at St. Barnabas Church in Indianapolis on Aug. 18, 2018. (Submitted photo)

Father Jerry Kirkhoff baptizes his great-great niece, Grace Kirkhoff, while her godparents—Maryann Kirkhoff and Michael Bower—take part in the sacrament at St. Barnabas Church in Indianapolis on Aug. 18, 2018. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

If you had to choose just one story to try to capture the approach that Father Jerry Kirkhoff has brought to his 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese, the story about a baby who faced overwhelming odds to live would be a great choice.

The story involves one of the many families that Father Kirkhoff became close to when he was pastor of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis from 1985 to 2002.

Before the birth of the baby, tests revealed that some of his organs were in the wrong places—a heartbreaking reality that would require delicate, major surgery to correct after the baby was born for him to live. A doctor at a Florida hospital was identified as having great success in such operations, so the Indianapolis family arranged for the child to be born there.

Through the entire ordeal, Father Kirkhoff was there for the family, offering his support, prayers and Masses. And right after the boy was born, Father Kirkhoff boarded a plane to Florida to baptize the child.

“My vision of the priesthood is walking with people,” says Father Kirkhoff, who noted that the surgery on the child was successful. “Symbolically speaking, someone has to walk down an alley, and they’re scared. A priest walks with people and tries to aid their faith. I try to accompany people. I try to make the Church a little more human.”

His connection with that family continues as he has presided at three weddings.

“The family sent me a card that said, ‘Your presence in all these situations means a lot to us,’ ” Father Kirkhoff says. “It reminds me—that’s what a priest should do.”

‘He was always there for everybody’

Sharon Wagner finds it hard to choose one favorite story about Father Kirkhoff from the years—2002 to 2010—when he served as the pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis. So the business manager of the parish shares several.

“Father Jerry loved being around the school kids,” Wagner recalls. “Being a humble man, the children were the only ones he would let give him attention on his birthday with singing and cards.

“He often shared with his staff. For no apparent reason, he would walk by and toss a gift card to you. It was a nice show of appreciation. He also slipped my son some cash on his 21st birthday so he could ‘go have a few,’ but told him not to tell his mother.”

That generosity naturally extended to sharing the faith, Wagner says.

“Many years before I knew Father Jerry, my dad had a serious heart attack and needed surgery. Their pastor on the south side was not available. Father Jerry had never met Dad, but he came to the hospital to anoint him and spend some time with him. My dad never forgot ‘that priest.’ He was pleased when he knew I would be working for him some years later.”

Mary Gilmartin worked for him as the parish bookkeeper and accountant during his 17 years as the pastor of St. Jude. She saw how he started the parish festival there, an annual celebration that brought parishioners closer. She saw how the community responded so generously under his direction to building a new church and a new multi-purpose center—a center which is named for him.

She sees it all as a reflection of the way he treats people.

“It didn’t matter what level or what position you had. We were all important to him,” Gilmartin says. “The maintenance man was just as important as the president of the parish council.

“He was always there for everybody. He was so good with people who were sick, and he still is. He was so good with people who lost loved ones, and he still is.”

‘It was all about getting the most out of us’

The story that Richie Conway shares starts with the change he saw when Father Kirkhoff first became pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis in 2010.

“When he first came to our church, we hadn’t had a steady priest in a long time,” says Conway, who is 24. “He never was afraid to do something different when it needed to be done. For him, it was all about getting the most out of us, and us getting the most out of church.”

Just as important, Conway says, Father Kirkhoff strived to help him get the most out of his life and his faith.

“What always stood out to me was all he was doing extra to help me grow in my faith. He was always helping me decide what I was going to do with my life, too. He asked if I wanted to be a priest. I thought about it for a long time. I found out it wasn’t for me. He didn’t get disappointed when I decided to go another route.”

Conway is currently studying to be a doctor, as a student in the School of Osteopathic Medicine at Marian University in Indianapolis.

“He supports me still,” Conway says. “Even today when we go out to lunch or dinner to catch up, he’ll ask about medical school. That is big for me.”

So is the role that faith plays in Conway’s life now at Good Shepherd.

“I’m in charge of the altar servers at my church. He’s why I decided to be more active in church.”

A touch of mischief and an abundance of concern

People who know Father Kirkhoff well smile when they describe him as “a little mischievous,” a description the 75-year-old priest embraces. His eyes even twinkle with a touch of mischief when he shares one of the plans he considered after he was granted permission to officially retire from active ministry in 2014.

“I thought about taking up golf,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write some people’s names on the balls. And then I’m going to hit the hell out of the balls!’ ”

Instead of playing golf, his version of “retirement” includes serving as the director of the archdiocese’s Mission Office and the Society of the Propagation of Faith. He is also the advocate for retired priests. And he has a generous readiness to fill in for his fellow priests when they need help with celebrating Mass and providing other sacramental assistance in parishes.

“I couldn’t retire completely,” he says. “I don’t have many hobbies. If I didn’t come down here [the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis where his office is] four mornings a week, I’d be miserable sitting in my apartment.”

One of the challenges of retirement for him is that he served in parishes with a lot of people—and a lot of interaction—and now, he says, “I feel living alone is harder. I’m no cook so I go out to eat a lot. I see couples over there, and they don’t talk. I’d like to have somebody to talk to.”

Still, he speaks up constantly for the retired priests of the archdiocese. He especially looks out for the older priests, including one in the last stage of his life who has no family members to help him.

“I try to go the distance,” he says. “Toward the end, a lot of priests don’t have a lot of family. I try to focus on them.”

‘Everything we have is gift or grace’

When Father Kirkhoff celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination on Memorial Day with a Mass and a reception at St. Jude, he was touched that about 25 of his fellow archdiocesan priests came to share in his celebration.

One of his good friends, Father John McCaslin, says that people should always remember one special point about Father Kirkhoff.

“At heart, he’s an east side boy from St. Philip Neri Parish. He’s never forgotten his roots.”

Growing up there in the 1940s and 50s, he was part of a parish where faith, family and the work ethic were strong. One of his favorite stories from that time centers around being an altar boy in the eighth grade.

“I served a wedding,” he says with a wide smile. “The groom gave me five dollars. I went home, and my mom asked, ‘Who got married today?’ I said, “I don’t know, but they’re wealthy. They gave me five bucks!’ ”

As he marks the 50th anniversary of his ordination, Father Kirkhoff feels he has been blessed with a different kind of wealth by the life he has lived as a priest.

“It’s been a wonderful 50 years. It’s a time to reflect that everything we have is gift or grace. I’ve had some tough times, but I have no regrets. There’s nothing else I’d like to do.

“If I heard I was going to leave this world at five o’clock today, I’d keep doing what I’m doing until 4:30. And then I’d start praying like mad!”

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

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