September 4, 2020

The memories flow from Father Welch’s 50 years as a priest

The longtime former pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis, Father Michael Welch marks his 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese this year. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The longtime former pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis, Father Michael Welch marks his 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese this year. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnesy

Father Michael Welch opens his front door with a smile, flanked by Izzy, the dachshund who is his faithful companion and fearless watchdog.

The 76-year-old priest brought Izzy into his life a year and a half ago, the first dog he’s had since his childhood and one of the two gifts to himself that are immediately noticeable in his home in Avon.

The other is the gleaming baby grand piano that the longtime former pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis bought with his inheritance after the death of his mother—a gift that’s both a reminder of her and a challenge to himself to learn something new in his retirement.

On this day, he’s working on the latest song his instructor has given him to learn—“Memory” from the Broadway musical, Cats.

On this day, the memories are also flowing from his 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese.

Moments of laughter, joy, humility

Father Welch recalls the biblical passage that struck him when he was studying to be a priest, a passage from Micah 6:8 that he has strived to follow in his priesthood: “And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

He laughs as he tells the story of his first Mass after his ordination on June 6, 1970, a Mass when he invited a mentor priest to speak on his behalf: “At a certain point, I’m sitting in the presider’s chair feeling kind of important, and he turns around and looks at me and says, ‘Mike, I want you to know the Church is made up of humans. And humans are sinful. And perhaps you will be one of the biggest sinners of all.’ If you want to feel unimportant, have the person preaching at your first Mass tell you that!”

He talks fondly of his first assignment as a priest, as associate pastor of the former St. Catherine Parish in Indianapolis: “They didn’t know they were mentoring me, but they were. I learned how to relate to people, how not to be judgmental, how to have fun and what was important.”

He shows his love for teamwork and sports when he mentions that during his nine years as vocations director for the archdiocese he formed a basketball team of priests called “The Padres” that toured the archdiocese, playing against men from parishes, in gyms filled with fans.

There’s also a clear tone of love, pride and joy in his voice when he talks about his 31 years as the pastor of St. Christopher.

And his exhilaration shines through when he shares his thoughts about the annual ski trips he makes to New Mexico—for 34 straight years now—trips when he roared down the demanding black-diamond slopes at speeds as high as 58 miles per hour in his younger days, trips when he now savors the presence of God in the silence on the mountains.

Then there is the moment from his priesthood that is as haunting and beautiful as the song “Memory.”

A call from a friend

The moment happened shortly after he retired from active ministry as a priest in 2014 at the age of 70. He received a phone call from Father Noah Casey, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis who had been diagnosed with cancer. When Father Casey asked if he could cover a few Masses for him, Father Welch said yes.

“All of a sudden, I found myself in a situation of helping the people go through Father Noah’s dying process,” he recalls.

“For me, that was such a remarkable thing. People in parishes are remarkable, and Noah was such a tremendous priest. We wanted to do a prayer service when Noah was coming closer and closer to death. We thought Noah wanted to come over for it, but he couldn’t.”

Father Welch became overwhelmed with emotion as he tried to finish the story.

“We worked up a prayer service, the church was full, and the prayer service was broadcast over to Noah. We were hoping Noah could say something back to the people. But he couldn’t. Someone, I think it was a cousin, brought a tape that Noah had made. We listened to the tape. Then the whole community sang ‘An Irish Blessing’ for Noah. And that was probably among the last things he heard.”

Father Welch paused for a moment before adding, “For the next year, I was there at Lourdes, helping a parish work through the death of a beloved pastor as much as I could.”

‘He is so loved by so many’

In his own right, Father Welch was a beloved pastor in his 31 years at St. Christopher.

“He is so loved by so many, and he’s impacted so many lives,” says Katie Patterson, a longtime St. Christopher parishioner who led the parish council at one point during Father Welch’s tenure from 1983 to 2014. She and her husband Jack are also longtime friends of his.

“Jack and I always think of Father Mike when we think of Micah 6:8. That encompasses everything Father Mike has done as a priest and a man.”

Father Welch was the first person that Jack called when Jack’s father died.

“He’s a great friend with a capital G,” Jack says. “He’s one of those people who brings so much love to everyone else. It’s obvious that he’s been the recipient of a great deal of love in his home life and his religious life, and he brings that to everyone else.”

Father Welch’s approach to celebrating Mass includes going into the congregation before the celebration begins, talking with parishioners and getting them to talk with each other. He also has a gift and a distinctive style as a homilist.

“His stories are so personal, and that’s why people connected with him,” Katie Patterson says. “He is so genuine.”

Father Robert Gilday helped at St. Christopher for 18 years during Father Welch’s tenure there, years during which the two priests shared the same residence. He says there are two qualities that people long for regarding Mass—good music and good homilies—and St. Christopher “certainly had both” during Father Welch’s leadership.

“We drew people from all over,” says Father Gilday, now the pastor of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis. “Many people loved his homilies. His approach was ‘Walk with me. I’ll take you on a journey, and we’ll see where we end up.’ But he did a lot of preparation.

“He was very visionary, too. St. Chris was a forward-looking parish. He was very much a priest of Vatican II. The staff was big. We had a youth minister for high school students and a youth minister for junior high students. He was very much team-oriented. He was very collaborative.”

The parish also became home to a treasure of stunning, faith-related artworks during his leadership—many of them a result of his connections with the nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He also led the effort to build a new church in 1999 to serve the parish’s dramatic growth—a church that had to be rebuilt twice in later years after it was struck first by lightning and then by a fire.

Still, through all the memories of those 31 years, Father Welch focuses on the one element that guided everything for him.

“I thought we celebrated Eucharist extremely well there,” he says. “My theology has told me that if we celebrate Eucharist well and you try to preach according to the Scripture and what’s happening in people’s lives, it’s all going to work.”

‘It’s a gracious gift from God’

Between the occasional barks for attention from Izzy, the memories keep flooding back for Father Welch, who grew up in Holy Family Parish in New Albany, the second of four children of Vince and Roberta Welch.

He recalls his first assignment at St. Catherine’s, where the parish didn’t have a gym, just two basketball goals outside: “So I’d get the guys out there playing basketball and did that at almost any place where I’ve been.”

He smiles when he remembers leading Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh through most of the 1970s and early 1980s. It’s the community where he gave tennis lessons one summer and where he was asked to give the commencement speech at the high school—an honor he also fulfilled twice at Speedway High School during his years at St. Christopher.

He laughs at his first attempts at skiing when he was 38: “I thought this can’t be hard. Well, I spent the week on my butt.”

And he becomes wistful when he thinks aloud of the friends who made that first trip with him, many of them fellow priests who have since died.

He also gets lost in his thoughts for a moment when he looks at the pictures and posters from the Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico that fill a wall of his home.

He lists that ski setting among his three choices when he is asked where he most feels God’s presence in his life.

“I also feel God’s presence anytime I’m doing the sacraments. And then when I’m studying in the morning, just doing quiet prayer. For me, the silence in that is really, really important.”

Father Welch also shares his favorite part of being a priest, beyond celebrating the sacraments and the Eucharist.

“Being with people in the most intimate moments of their lives. You enter into that, and you start to understand their spirituality. And you find their spirituality might be a little bit better than yours. You learn to listen a little more, and then hopefully that listening makes you a better preacher.”

Nearly two hours later, the conversation ends, a conversation marked by memories of joy, humor and love.

On the way to the front door, he stops by a wall to show the artwork that the parishioners of St. Christopher gave him when he retired. It’s a framed picture of Jesus and the woman at the well, a picture that also includes the words of Micah 6:8.

Father Welch looks at the gift lovingly. He views his priesthood of 50 years in the same way.

“It’s a gracious gift from God. A gracious gift from the people who have put up with me and helped me become a better person, a better priest. You can’t be a priest without the people, and the people—the parishioners—are so good, so supportive and so loving. You can’t ask for more than that as a person.” †

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