As a kid growing up playing baseball, Fr. John Baumgardner used to jokingly tell his family that when he was older and married, he would have nine sons so he could form his own team.
“Then when he got into football, he’d say, I’m going to have 12 boys so I can have a football team,” recalled younger brother Nick Baumgardner.
The family may have figured he was kidding in this particular instance — but between his athletic inclinations and his desire to pursue a career in business, Baumgardner did seem to have his future pretty well mapped out when he graduated Pius XI High School in 2008 and headed to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
But a life-changing spiritual retreat in the middle of his freshman year in college compelled him to re-examine the priorities in his life.
He was a church-going Catholic from a devout family, but “my faith was never something that was my own — something really important to me,” said Fr. Baumgardner.
While on retreat, he spent time meditating on the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ implores his followers to let their light “shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
“In a very particular way, I felt that was directed toward me,” he recalled. “I began experiencing His love in a very personal, profound way that I never experienced before up to that point.”
Over the next eight years, that newfound love would lead Fr. Baumgardner on a journey that took him to major seminary, to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to places like Fatima and Lourdes — and finally, on July 22, to the altar at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, where he was ordained a priest.
“As my spiritual director would say, ‘You’re finished, but now you’re ready to begin,’” he said. “There’s a lot to learn, especially starting off as a ‘baby priest.’ But I think at the same time, one of the graces of seminary is that you continually see God’s providence in hand. You see how He continually provides for all of us in our vocations, whether that’s marriage, religious life or priesthood.”
Fr. Baumgardner was born in Illinois, but his family relocated to Greendale in his early years. The fifth of seven children, he attended St. Alphonsus Grade School and was a “quiet, reflective person,” according to his mother, Mary Baumgardner.
When Fr. Baumgardner was 4 years old, his youngest brother Andy was born with trisomy 8, a genetic disorder that leads to physical and mental disabilities.
Fr. Baumgardner’s pastoral nature was foreshadowed in his care and attention to Andy over the years, said Mary Baumgardner.
“I think there were a lot of times when Andy was very sick that was very stressful for him, worrying about him and things like that,” she said. “There was a time when Andy had a major back surgery; he had to be put into a neck-to-hip cast every day before he could get out of bed, and because of my own back problems I couldn’t help him. I ended up asking John and his other brother to help quite a bit with that. He just is always so calming. Andy has a lot of breathing problems, and for people that have breathing problems, they can panic very easily, and John was always able to keep him very calm. More than that, he was always able to keep me calm.”
“He’s an incredible gift to our family,” said Fr. Baumgardner of his youngest brother. “His path to Heaven is a lot shorter than mine. He’s really an angel.”
And it was being able to minister to Andy in moments of crisis that gave him a desire to “help people, and help them at their deepest level. I never really knew (that would lead to the priesthood), but I think that kind of comes from Andy. With kids with disabilities, you have to kind of go, ‘OK, what’s really going on inside,’ because they’re not always able to talk about it or express themselves.”
The family’s faith, said older sister Jean Hallberg, was part of what helped them through the difficult times, like when Andy had to spend the first 14 months of his life in Children’s Hospital. “It was always part of our family culture,” she said.
“The faith wasn’t just taking us kids to church on Sunday — it was much more than that,” said Nick Baumgardner, who is a third-year seminarian for the archdiocese. “It was something we talked about on a regular basis. From an early age, my parents encouraged us guys to be open to the priesthood — they never pushed it, which I was always really appreciative of, but they always presented it to us as a legitimate option. It was like, marriage, priesthood, religious life — these are all excellent options, and whatever God calls you to, respond.”
But thoughts of the seminary or a serious vocation to the priesthood “was not on my radar whatsoever,” said Fr. Baumgardner.
Instead, he focused on sports. At Pius XI, he played baseball, ran track and was quarterback of the school’s varsity football team.
It was the opportunity to play on the University of St. Thomas football team, in addition to the school’s strong business program, that lured him to the Twin Cities after high school graduation.
“I think he had a lot of hopes and dreams for some of his sporting activities,” said Mary Baumgardner.
But after that spiritual retreat during his freshman year, his family noticed a change in him. He began praying more and soon his Thursday nights were spent in faith-sharing and fellowship at a men’s group for Catholic athletes on campus.
“I remember one of the nights we were talking about vocation, and that was really the first time I’d considered a vocation in the larger sense of the word,” he said. “It was the first time I’d honestly asked God that question — all right, what do you want me to do with my life? It was the first time I was really open to His will in my life. And I remember hearing back … priesthood. My initial response was like, ‘OK, that’s funny. What do you actually want me to do with my life?’”
But no matter how many times he asked, the answer was the same. Since that time, “it just always felt like God slowly, softly called me to the priesthood.”
At Fr. Baumgardner’s ordination on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, Archbishop Jerome Listecki noted how it was not until Christ pronounced the name of his friend and disciple outside the empty tomb that she realized she had encountered the risen Lord.
“John, I know in the deep recesses of your spirit, the same voice called your name,” he said. “It was a call framed in love.”
Hallberg said she was initially shocked to hear that her brother was considering a priestly vocation, but could tell that his instincts were “genuine.”
“When he first brought up the idea, I could tell that it was something that had been sitting with him for a while because he was very nervous about it — but just sounded also really excited,” she said. “Like so many things, when you’re kind of scared about something, it can often be what you’re really looking for. You feel this nervous excitement. Sharing the reality of what you’re called to be in the faith can be really scary, but you know it’s right.”
Fr. Baumgardner entered the university’s St. John Vianney College Seminary in the fall of 2011, graduating in 2012. That fall, he began pre-theology studies at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. For the past four years, he has lived in Rome, studying at the Pontifical North American College (PNAC), specializing in Mariology. During summers at home, he has assisted at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lake Geneva.
During his older brother’s time in the seminary, said Nick Baumgardner, he has observed Fr. Baumgardner grow to be “more and more a man for others.” He lists his brother’s humility, authenticity and sense of generosity as traits that will serve him well in his priestly ministry.
“My brother is very genuine with people,” he said. “People are attracted to that. They’re not necessarily looking for someone who’s perfect but for someone who’s genuine and authentically themselves.”
After spending his first summer as a temporary associate pastor at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and liturgical assistant at the East Side parishes, Fr. Baumgardner will return to the PNAC in September to complete his licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL).
Whatever he will be asked to do following his return to Milwaukee next year, his family knows that he will respond with happy obedience.
“This is John. This is what he’s meant to do,” said Hallberg. “Seeing how happy he is and how comfortable he is in that position confirms to me that it’s right. At the end of the day, he’s always going to be my brother that I can goof off with and go for a run with. But this feels like an extension of the best of who he is.”