August 10, 2007

A half century of devotion: Two friends celebrate 50 years in the priesthood

(Editor’s note: Four archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2007. This week, we feature Msgr. Bernard Schmitz and Father Joseph Sheets. The Criterion featured Fathers Donald Schmidlin and Joseph Kern in its July 27 issue.)

By Sean Gallagher

Msgr. Bernard Schmitz and Father Joseph Sheets have a lot in common.

This summer, both men celebrated the 50th anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood.

Both served at parishes for long periods. Msgr. Schmitz was the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris for 37 years, while Father Sheets spent 36 years in just two pastoral assignments.

And their history of longstanding tenures parallels the enduring friendship the two 76-year-old priests have shared since they started their journey to the priesthood together as high school freshmen seminarians in 1945.

After 12 years in the seminary together, they continued to spend time together because they served four years as assistant pastors of parishes that were only a short drive apart.

Later, when Msgr. Schmitz and Father Sheets were assigned to parishes that were far away from each other, they would call each other regularly and take vacations together.

Msgr. Schmitz recently said that his friendship with Father Sheets has been “extremely important” over the course of their 60 years of knowing each other.

“He’s always been an inspiration and a solid voice in the midst of a lot of noise,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “Joe always comes up with a good statement that summarizes it all. He’s been a loyal friend, one of the best.”

Father Sheets showed that loyalty soon after he retired in 2001 by celebrating weekend Masses at Msgr. Schmitz’s parishes.

“I was just retired one month when Msgr. Schmitz called me and told me he needed help,” Father Sheets said. “I ended up going there every weekend for the next year.”

Father Sheets said having Msgr. Schmitz as a close friend—who is also a priest—has been important over the years.

“There were questions that would arise that we would check with each other on, and see how one would deal with a situation,” he said. “It’s difficult for a priest to socialize and to share some things of life with anybody else in life except another priest.”

A part of the parish family

Building strong relationships has been important for the two priests in other ways.

Serving as pastor for long periods in one parish gave them the opportunity to become like family to their ­parishioners.

Msgr. Schmitz spent nearly four decades serving the families of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, retiring at the start of July. Other nearby parishes that he served ­simultaneously for periods were St. Nicholas Parish and St. Pius Parish, both in Ripley County, and St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Milan.

“He became a member of the family as much as the head of the parish,” said Walter Eckstein, who was a ­member of St. Anthony Parish for the entirety of Msgr. Schmitz’s tenure.

“He became one of us. He knew us, and he baptized some of the babies. And [then] he baptized their babies.”

People who are like family to each other often show that ­relationship in a special way when illnesses arise.

“He administered the sacraments to the sick and the dying unbelievably[well]. I think he’ll always be known for that,” said Joan Eckstein, Walter Eckstein’s wife, who served as Msgr. Schmitz’s housekeeper and cook for 20 years.

For Msgr. Schmitz, coming quickly to the side of his sick and dying parishioners seemed to be an instinctive part of his priestly life and ministry.

“Part of the family was sick,” he said. “They needed help. It’s a sign that the family is functioning and people are ­taking care of their loved ones, both the clergy and the lay folks.”

Father Sheets served as the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville for 14 years, and as pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour and administrator of Our Lady of Providence Parish in Brownstown for 18 years, a tenure that ended in 2001 when Father Sheets retired.

He said the closeness he had with his parishioners came in the welcome he received from them “not for anything that I have done or I have said, but for the fact that I am a priest.”

Father Sheets also said intimacy was revealed when he welcomed penitents in the confessional.

“Anytime anyone comes to confession, they’re not going to go around and submit their sins to anyone else,” Father Sheets said. “But they’re going to come and sometimes really bear their souls to you.”

There for the long haul

For more than 15 years, the archdiocese has allowed priests to serve as pastor of a parish for a six-year term. That term can then be renewed for another six years.

But when Msgr. Schmitz and Father Sheets were in the seminary, they were told that being a pastor was an open-ended assignment.

“The professors that we had used to say, ‘You’re going to be there for the rest of your life, bud. So remember that, Schmitz,’ ” Msgr. Schmitz recalled.

Thirteen years after he was ordained, Msgr. Schmitz was named pastor of St. Anthony Parish. With the words of his seminary professors perhaps still ringing in his ears, he turned to God.

“I actually said prayers, asking that it [being pastor of St. Anthony] be a lifelong thing for me,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “It pretty well has been because my life doesn’t have that many more years to go.”

Father Sheets recognized that there are potential benefits and pitfalls to having priests stay in a pastoral assignment for a decade or more. But, he said, all things considered, long tenures are better than moving priests in and out of a parish every few years.

“With the priest, he’s the father of the people and the leader of the people,” he said. “And about the time you get to know the people, you’re moving on to learn some more names. I don’t think that’s too good.”

Father Sheets served as Maureen Pesta’s pastor at Our Lady of Providence Parish for almost 20 years.

A lot of things can happen over that course of time to make people cynical in their relationships.

But Pesta saw an admirable consistency over the years in Father Sheets.

“I found him to really be a ­person who tried to live his life according to what he taught,” she said. “Over the years, you really respect and appreciate any ­person—priest or ­whoever they are—who takes that goal seriously, especially in the case of a priest where he is preaching the Gospel.”

Serving as pastor of St. Ambrose Parish for 18 years also allowed Father Sheets to lead many people gently, in ordinary ways, closer to Christ.

One such person was John Brooks, whom Father Sheets welcomed into the full communion of the Church 20 years ago.

For Brooks, his journey to that communion was like a stroll with a friend.

“It wasn’t an epiphany,” Brooks said. “It was just getting to know a good, decent human being and then listening to his homilies on Sunday.”

A humble life

Although Brooks appreciated the effect of Father Sheets’ ministry on his life, he knew he would avoid any praise of his efforts, describing him as

“self-effacing to the extreme.”

And, indeed, Father Sheets humbly hesitated to judge his own growth in faith over the past 50 years, let alone the way he may have led others closer to Christ.

“I tried,” he said. “I hope that things have deepened. I’m not a very good judge on my performance on how much I have improved. I guess I’ll just have to leave that up to the good Lord.”

Msgr. Schmitz, like his friend, Father Sheets, spoke humbly about his need for God’s help when asked to appraise his half century in priestly life and ministry.

“Gratitude to God is a big one,” said Msgr. Schmitz, “because we really mess up if we don’t have him to make us capable of living with other people and putting up with all kinds of situations in life.” †

Msgr. Bernard Schmitz

  • Age: 76
  • Parents: Bernard and Katarina (von Garrell) Schmitz
  • Parish where he grew up: St. Peter Parish in Franklin County
  • Education: Seminary at Saint Meinrad School of Theology
  • Hobbies: golf
  • Most influential book: Bible
  • Favorite Scripture verse: “Bear your share of hardship along with me like a good soldier of Christ Jesus”

    (1 Tm 2:3), which was the basis for Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter’s motto, “Miles Christi sum” (“I am a soldier of Christ”).

Father Joseph Sheets

  • Age: 76
  • Parents: Edward and Kathryn (Burns) Sheets
  • Parish where he grew up: St. Martin of Tours Parish in Martinsville
  • Education: Seminary at Saint Meinrad School of Theology
  • Hobbies: “I like to play golf, but I’m not very good at it. I used to work a lot outside, but I’ve just been kind of slowed down the last couple of three years.”
  • Favorite recent book: Priests for the Third Millennium by Msgr. Timothy Dolan (now archbishop of Milwaukee)
  • Favorite prayers: Prayer before a crucifix, Prayer to St. Joseph, Litany of the Sacred Heart

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