When Fr. John Schmitz was ordained a priest on Feb. 17, 1952, Mass was still offered in Latin, ad orientem; women covered their heads in church, priests spent the first few decades of their careers as “assistants,” and the Second Vatican Council would not be convened for another 10 years.
There have been a few changes in the world and in the church since that day – but one thing that has not changed is the dedication Fr. Schmitz shows to his vocation, and the love with which he carries it out.
“It’s been a pleasure,” he said of his priesthood. “Every day is a joy, and there are so many people that you can help.”
Many of those people made the trip this weekend to St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Ripon, where the Christian Women’s Society and Knights of Columbus threw a luncheon in honor of the 65th anniversary of Fr. Schmitz’s ordination.
“He doesn’t stop,” said parishioner Jim Mueller, who has known Fr. Schmitz since 1980. “He’s had a couple health setbacks here and there – his knees – but as soon as they heal up he’s moving again. He plows snow and he helps out different people when they have little projects. He still gets around. I think he drives to Milwaukee at least once a week. At 89 he’s hard to slow down.”
“I’m a farmer – born and raised,” said Fr. Schmitz of his work ethic. His schedule remains busy, even though he will turn 90 in June. The work of a priest is never done, after all – he offers Mass at St. Catherine every Saturday and covers weekday Masses when pastor Fr. Bob Fictum is away. He is active in the parish’s nursing home outreach, takes Communion to the sick every Friday and says Mass twice a month for prisoners in the Dodge County and Red Granite Correctional facilities. He also travels to parishes in the Milwaukee, Madison and even Green Bay dioceses to help out when priests are scarce.
Fr. Schmitz, who grew up in Lannon, Wis., said he began to consider the priesthood when he was in the seventh grade.
“I talked to the parish priest (at his home parish of St. James in Menomonee Falls) and he said, it’s time to go to the seminary. I started out as a junior in high school at St. Francis Minor Seminary, and then covered two more years of high school and two years of college, then went to the major seminary for philosophy two years and theology four years,” recalled Fr. Schmitz. “And then on the day before Thanksgiving in 1951, the rector said, ‘Come here, I’ve got to tell you something.’ He said, ‘When you go home tomorrow, you can tell your folks you’re going to be ordained the seventeenth of February’ – bang! Three of us got pushed ahead and we got started then, and the ordination was right in the chapel at the seminary.”
He was ordained by then-Archbishop Moses Elias Kiley. “I remember we were told, don’t go any faster, slower or louder than the archbishop does, as we concelebrated Mass.”
He reported for his first assignment as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Racine on March 1, 1952. After five years, he moved to Holy Name Church, also in Racine. Both parishes have now merged with other Racine churches to form St. Richard Parish.
In 1964, Fr. Schmitz was assigned to St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc. He came to Ripon in 1970 for his first – and only – assignment as pastor of St. Patrick, which later merged with St. Wenceslaus Parish to form St. Catherine of Siena. He served as pastor for 32 years, becoming a senior priest in 2002.
“In those days, you were an assistant for maybe 20 years or so – I made it in 18!” he said. “Just as we were ordained early, and the need was there. That particular time, the younger priests had to wait so long to become a pastor, they started changing the term of office – and then all of a sudden they were short (of priests). So we were necessary as young priests and we’re necessary as old priests.”
He names the daily offering of Mass as the highlight of his life as a priest, along with administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He still vividly remembers hearing his first Confession the Saturday after his ordination.
“It’s tremendous, how you can help the people and use the power of forgiveness on behalf of families and people who are in need,” he said.
Mueller described Fr. Schmitz as a hardworking, faithful priest with a striking reverence for the Eucharist. “I am thinking that if Fr. Schmitz has his way, he will probably just quietly pass on while he’s offering Mass, somewhere, someday. That’s just part of his nature. I don’t think there are very many days, other than when he’s been in the hospital or something, that he hasn’t offered Mass every day, whether he’s on vacation or not. It’s part of him.”