November 4, 2022

2022 Vocations Awareness Supplement

At 55, newly ordained Jesuit priest from Richmond ‘never felt closer to Christ’

Newly ordained Richmond native Jesuit Father Joseph Kraemer smiles with his parents Mike and Melanie Kraemer in Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee on June 11. His parents raised him in the former St. Andrew Parish in Richmond, now part of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Mike and Melanie worship. (Submitted photo)

Newly ordained Richmond native Jesuit Father Joseph Kraemer smiles with his parents Mike and Melanie Kraemer in Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee on June 11. His parents raised him in the former St. Andrew Parish in Richmond, now part of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Mike and Melanie worship. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

When a priest of the Divine Word Missionaries visited the former

St. Andrew School in Richmond in the 1970s, young student Joseph Kraemer was intrigued.

“They traveled all around the world, and growing up in a small town, I thought that sounded so good,” says the Richmond native.

He continued to feel a call to the priesthood through his teenage years and beyond.

And he did become a priest—but not until this summer at the age of 55. He was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus (known more commonly as the Jesuits) and now serves in prison ministry in the state of Washington.

How did such an early calling evolve into such a late one?

“I always thought there was plenty of time—until there wasn’t,” says Father Joe, who prefers the informal form of his name.

Following is the story of Father Joe’s vocational journey—with stops in Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles—and the call that almost got away.

‘You’re young now, but keep in touch’

Father Joe was raised in the former St. Andrew Parish in Richmond, now a part of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in the east-central Indiana city, and graduated from its former elementary school, now a part of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School.

“I know that going to Catholic school had everything to do with hearing my call,” says Father Joe. “I was taught by Franciscan nuns, and they were very faithful in having a vocations day every year. That’s when I learned about the Divine Word Missionaries.”

Around the age of 13 or 14, he learned that Xavier University in Cincinnati was a Jesuit school and told his dad he would like to learn about the Jesuits.

“So, my dad took me to talk with them,” Father Joe recalls. “I had a great talk with their vocations director. He said, ‘You’re a little young now, but keep in touch.’

“I didn’t imagine it would be nearly 40 years later.”

Rather than Xavier, Father Joe went to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., majoring in English with an emphasis in Shakespeare. His first job after graduation was with The Shakespeare Theatre at Folger in Washington, D.C.

From there he moved to New York to help develop and run the Playwrights Program at The Juilliard School. For 15 years, he nurtured the talent of young actors and playwrights while simultaneously teaching dramatic writing at New York City’s Barnard College.

It was also while living in the Big Apple that Father Joe sold a show he co-wrote to Warner Bros. Television.

At one point, a friend introduced him to a son of Martin Sheen. The family owned a film production company on the Warner Bros. lot, and soon Father Joe was off to Los Angeles to work as creative director for their company.

It wasn’t long after that when scandal revolving around Charlie Sheen led to the closing of the company.

Father Joe was in his early 40s. Out of work, he frequented Mass celebrated by Jesuit priests at the chapel of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

It was there that he met Jesuit Brother Jim Siwicki—who just happened to be a Jesuit vocations director.

‘The clock had been ticking’

Father Joe recalls Brother Jim’s response upon learning he had considered the priesthood from a young age: “If you’re thinking you’d like to be a priest, this needs to be the year you apply or else start thinking of another way to serve the Church.”

Reflecting on his career to that point, Father Joe says he wasn’t consciously “turning my back” on the call to be a priest.

“When you’re young, you think you have all the time in the world,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll just do this here and that there,’ and all of a sudden 20 years are gone.”

All the while he had remained active in his faith—going to Mass, volunteering with service ministries.

He says he was in his early 40s when he spoke with Brother Jim.

“I thought that was pretty young,” Father Joe says. “But I guess the clock had been ticking all along. Most Jesuits take 10-12 years of formation, and I was already in my early 40s. [Brother Jim] lit a fire under me. There was this sense of, ‘It’s now or never.’ ”

When Father Joe applied to be formed as a priest for the Society of Jesus, it was not pressure from Brother Jim that led him to choose the Jesuit order.

“I associated them with academic success,” he says. “I had done teaching in New York and loved teaching. When I found out the Jesuits are called to teaching, that academic charism appealed to me.”

There was also his chat with the vocation director at Xavier, and his favorite priest growing up was a Jesuit.

But more importantly, says Father Joe, was the exploration he did of various orders by participating in “come-and-see” weekend retreats.

The retreats “give you a sense of what life is like in that order,” he says. “You pray with them, you talk with them, you eat with them, you get to know them.”

During the retreat time he spent with the Jesuits, he found he not only appreciated their academic call and their social justice works, but he felt at home with them.

“They were joyful, funny and had a sense of humor,” Father Joe recalls. “I was able to see these great, normal guys, and they fit my extroverted nature.”

He was accepted to become a novice for the Jesuit’s California Province (now the West Province) in 2013 at the age of 43.

‘I never felt closer to Christ’

Because he already had an undergraduate degree, Father Joe was able to shorten his time in formation.

“I hurried my philosophy degree by doubling up on classes,” he adds. “And I felt consoled at all the different steps in my formation—the philosophy studies, the [pastoral] work, the theology.”

Father Joe was ordained on June 11. He celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Andrew Church of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish on June 28.

“I really enjoyed my formation,” he says. “But I have to say I was excited to be done with formation and get ordained and get busy with the work.”

Father Joe served as a priest for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton temporarily while the parish’s administrator Father Sengole Gnanaraj was on vacation, then began his first assignment as a Jesuit priest—serving in prison ministry in the state of Washington.

“I didn’t expect to end up in prison ministry,” he admits. “It’s been challenging but very graced so far.

“Doing the work I do now, I never felt closer to Christ. It’s hard work … but I always, always find Christ in the sharing they do, in listening with compassion and kindness and trying to bring humor into a dark space. … I definitely find God’s presence in the ministry I’ve been placed in.”

‘Look for those affirmations’

Father Joe has three pieces of advice when it comes to priestly and religious vocations. The first is to do what he did: explore numerous orders.

“I can’t emphasize enough going to meet members from different orders,” he says. “Go to meet with them, talk with them.

“Especially go on ‘come-and-see’ retreats they offer, including diocesan retreats. Nothing gives more information of an order’s charism and the type of people in an order than being with them for a day or two.

“The Holy Spirit can tell you a lot about the feelings you have. If you feel excited, consoled, that can be very telling.”

Second is for those considering a call to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life to ask the thoughts of those who know them well.

“You can think [the decision] is all about you and God, but sometimes it’s the people around you who can guide you,” says Father Joe. “Ask your parents, your friends, relatives you’re close to: ‘Can you see me as a priest?’ It’s good to look for those affirmations from those who know you the best. Always be mindful of those around you and what they see you being called to.”

Father Joe’s final advice regarding vocations revolves around the role of the family.

“I know deep in my heart that I never would have found myself on the road to my vocation if not for my parents,” he says. “Everything I try to do reflects the love they showed me and my two brothers. They took us to church every week, sent us to a Catholic school. They prioritized developing in faith, even having dinner with all of us together, saying grace.

“That sense of community, the need to be in communion, to sit and eat and listen to others—I wouldn’t have learned that any other way.”

Father Joe says the role of the family in developing vocations extends beyond the four walls of the home.

“When I go to speak about vocations, there are usually a lot of grandparents,” he says. He tells them, “Don’t underestimate your power as grandparents to say, ‘I think you’d be a good priest’ ”—even if it takes nearly 40 years for the planted seed to grow. †

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