July 27, 2007

50 years of devotion

Father Schmidlin’s ministry has touched countless lives

Father Donald Schmidlin shares a fun moment with his great-nephew, Jeremiah Gill, during the celebration of his 50 years as a priest on May 6 at St. Matthew Parish in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Father Donald Schmidlin shares a fun moment with his great-nephew, Jeremiah Gill, during the celebration of his 50 years as a priest on May 6 at St. Matthew Parish in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: Four archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2007. This week, we feature Fathers Donald Schmidlin and Joseph Kern. We will feature Msgr. Bernard Schmitz and Father Joseph Sheets in an upcoming issue of The Criterion.)

By John Shaughnessy

When Father Donald Schmidlin opened the large surprise package, he found a hand-woven hammock from Panama and a letter from a young man wanting to thank the priest for changing his life and his faith.

Michael Chapuran sent the hammock to celebrate Father Schmidlin’s 50 years as a priest, a gift that Chapuran obtained while serving in the Peace Corps in Panama.

Chapuran sent the letter to let Father Schmidlin know the impact he had on him as an Indiana University student attending St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington.

“When I first met you, I was sitting in the very back pew at the quiet 9 p.m. Mass at St. Paul’s in 2002,” Chapuran writes. “You walked up to me and started asking me who I was and where I was from. In 20 years as a Catholic, you were the only priest that I had a conversation with, and I was admittedly nervous. You asked me how school was going and what I was studying. I thought it was just to pass the time before Mass, but to my surprise the next week when I showed up, you remembered my name.”

In the letter, Chapuran recounts how Father Schmidlin became a friend who helped deepen his faith, and how his involvement at St. Paul’s became so important to his life that he proposed to his girlfriend, Angela Adams, by the church’s piano at 1 a.m. this past January.

“Being engaged, I am looking at a lifetime commitment from the first steps, seeing the huge promise to be made without knowing what life will present me with,” he continues. “The very thought humbles me, but then I look at you. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and perseverance to devote yourself to something on faith, and you have done it for 50 years.

“Thanks to your example of faith and dedication, I have grown in my own relationship with God, and I can now share that relationship with Angela. It awes me to think of how many other countless lives you have changed for the better.”

Holding the letter, Father Schmidlin says, “It’s one of the most powerful letters I’ve ever received.”

According to people who know the priest, the letter speaks to the heart of Father Schmidlin, who was ordained on May 3, 1957.

“He’s very spiritual, very caring and sincere,” says Marie Carson, a longtime friend and the business manager at St. Matthew Parish in Indianapolis, one of the many parishes in the archdiocese where Father Schmidlin has served as pastor.

“He was a very good pastor, a very good liturgist and homilist, and a very good one-on-one counselor. A lot of people came to him with their problems. He was very good in crisis situations, very calm.”

She also remembers the special Christmas tradition he had each year of giving small presents to the boys and girls who attended the children’s Mass on Christmas Eve.

“His first Christmas here, he passed out little candy cigars which said, ‘It’s A Boy!’ ” Carson says with a laugh.

“When I was a pastor, I was able to get to the heart of what it means to be a priest,” Father Schmidlin says. “I wanted to be able to concentrate on giving good homilies that would mean something in people’s lives.”

While his personal touch guided his years as a pastor, his sense of compassion marked his years of leading Catholic Charities for the archdiocese from 1962 to 1976.

His dedication to the Church and its faithful hasn’t decreased since he retired in 2001. Since then, he has helped shape the lives and the faiths of college students at Indiana University and Butler University in Indianapolis. He is also the senior priest-in-residence at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. He also serves as the spiritual director for about 30 people.

“It’s so terribly important that a person is able to establish a deeper personal life of faith with someone else, especially if that person represents the Church,” Father Schmidlin says. “I think an awful lot of people today see religion as ‘No, no,’ instead of ‘Yes, yes.’ ”

At 76, even in so-called retirement, Father Schmidlin still has that need to help people embrace the importance of their faith. He appreciates the gift of the hammock, but he hasn’t taken the time to put it up, let alone rest in it.

“I want to fan alive the flame of faith so it burns, to help people discover God as the deepest appeal in them, as what they really want,” he says. “Have I done that? I’m trying. Am I there yet? No. Has God helped me do that for other people? Yes.”

Father Donald Schmidlin

  • Age: 76
  • Parents: Alphonse and Rosalyn (Rettich) Schmidlin
  • Parish where he grew up: St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis
  • Education: Minor seminary at Saint Meinrad School of Theology. Bachelor of arts degree and master of arts degree in philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
  • Hobbies: Reading, crossword puzzles and golf. “I try to play once a week. I’m below average. I feel if I break 100, I’m fortunate.”
  • Favorite Scripture passage: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them” (1 Jn 4:16).
  • Influential piece of writing: “God Is Love,” the first encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI. “I’m just in awe of that document. I believe Pope Benedict wants people to discover the appeal of God. God isn’t someone who condemns them or won’t let them be themselves. He wants us to discover who we really are and be free to do that.”


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