He asked his mom if he could become Catholic when he was about 7 years old. His grandparents were Catholic and he was drawn to their faith after going to Mass with them every other weekend.

Barb Rowell, a Lutheran, told her son, “No.”

“My mother did not like the idea at first,” said Justin Krenke, 24, the youngest of three children. “She was very much against it, but I am a persistent person. That’s kind of where her and I kind of butt heads a little bit. We’re both very headstrong. We stand our ground and we don’t really move.”

Justin Krenke, 24, who as a baby was baptized Lutheran, converted to Catholicism at age 16 with permission from his mother, Barb Rowell.Krenke continued attending Mass with his grandparents on the weekends he was to stay with his dad, read about the lives of the saints and tried to learn as much about the Catholic faith as he could on his own.

On a day off at the end of his sophomore year at W.E.B. DuBois High School in Milwaukee, he called St. Margaret Mary Parish, the nearest Catholic church to his mother’s home.

“I spoke to a nun there … and asked her how old I needed to be to convert without my parents’ permission,” Krenke said, explaining he told the nun he was going to be 17. “‘That’s plenty old enough,’ she said, “but I do want to talk to your mother.’”

Not just Catholic, but

When Krenke’s mom came home from work, he handed her the nun’s name and number, saying that she wanted to speak with Rowell about him taking RCIA classes to convert.

“I kind of explained that within two years I’m going to be 18 and I’m going to be able to do it on my own anyway, so it’s going to eventually happen, and so that’s when my mom finally – she gave in and kind of realized that this is something that I really do want to do,” said Krenke, who was welcomed into the church during the Easter Vigil Mass, March 22, 2008.

But he didn’t just want to become Catholic.

Krenke’s main motivation to convert to Catholicism was deeper – he wanted to become a priest.

Rowell needed time to warm up to the idea.

“Ever since he was like 3 years old, my son has said, ‘I’m going to grow up and be a priest’ … and that never changed,” Rowell told Catholic Herald’s myFaith in a telephone interview. “He was baptized Lutheran when he was a baby. He converted when he was 16. He would have done it sooner, but that was kind of me.”

Rowell was hoping he would change his mind.

“I was kind of like, ‘Don’t you want to be a minister? You can get married, you can have kids, you know?’ Nope. Nope. Nope. He didn’t want to do that,” she said.

Understanding son’s decision

Rowell said she thought it was meant to be and accepted her son’s decision when he graduated high school, still saying he wanted to become a priest.

And she’s proud of her son, a senior at St. Xavier University in Chicago, who professed first vows Aug. 16 with the Priests of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic religious order of brothers and priests, headquartered in Hales Corners, with ministries in over 40 countries, at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Franklin.

“It took me time, but I mean I understand it now,” Rowell said, noting she cried when he professed his first vows. “I think being a priest of the Sacred Heart, where they do so much charity work and things like that, I think that’s perfect for him versus where he would just be at like a designated church and he would only have a congregation … the missionary work, that’s more him.”

Krenke said the idea of becoming a priest never left him – even when he dated in high school, and when he, for a short period of time, considered a future as a lawyer.

“For other people, I always say that the church leads people to the priesthood. For me, it was really the priesthood led me to the church,” Krenke said. “I knew I wanted to be a priest, that was always my goal, and that’s kind of what drove me to study about Catholicism and study the Catholic church and kind of try to understand what is different about the Catholic priesthood in terms of other pastors and things like that for other churches, and as I kept studying more and more, it just kind of made the passion grow even stronger.”

Attracted to religious community

He knew he wanted to join a religious community, and was in contact with three orders – the Franciscans, Priests of the Sacred Heart Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, provincial superior, left, and Fr. John Czyzynski, celebrate with Justin Krenke who professed first vows with the Priests of the Sacred Heart Aug. 16, at St. Martin of Tours Church, Franklin. (Submitted photos courtesy Priests of the Sacred Heart)Carmelites and Dominicans. But he didn’t hear back from any of them for two or three months as they all switched vocations directors.

“I finally came this far and all of a sudden it’s like I hit a wall again, and I can’t move any further,” Krenke said. “And so I just kind of was like, ‘Well, if this is really what God wants me to do, he’ll send me something,’ and two weeks later I got something from the Priests of the Sacred Heart.”

He filled out the request for more information, and heard back from the order’s vocation director, Sacred Heart Fr. Mark Mastin, who wanted to meet face to face, just a few days later.

“He was just such a personable priest. He was easy to talk to. He made jokes. He and my mom connected very well because they’re both big football fans so they were going on and on about football. … ” Krenke said. “It was a nice feeling to feel like you could actually connect with him outside of him being a priest. You were connecting with him on a personal level.”

Krenke accepted Fr. Mastin’s invitation to attend a “Come and See” at the Sacred Heart formation house in Chicago, where he learned more about the community’s founder, and what he wanted members of the community to do.

“That’s when I learned that the Priests of the Sacred Heart are really here to work with the poor. One of the things that we always say is that we are called to be prophets of love and servants of reconciliation, so we’re called to go out and work with kind of the people that society has forgotten about. …” Krenke said. “I really wanted to be with an order that was actually with the people; it’s not one of those orders where you’re with the people on Sunday and maybe here and there during the week, but you’re really out there working with the people, working alongside them.”

Candidacy, novitiate and beyond

Impressed by the community’s missions –with HIV/AIDS patients in Mississippi, immigrants in Houston, St. Joseph Indian School in South Dakota – Krenke applied for candidacy a year after graduating high school.
He answered background questions, underwent a psychological test, was interviewed by members of the community, and was accepted by the admission board. After Krenke completed the two-year minimum of candidacy, he sat down with his director to discuss whether he was ready for his novitiate year – where for one year and one day, he didn’t attend school, but took classes with the novice master in the house, and had to spend 22 hours a day at the house. During that time, he learned about the community and the founder to get an understanding of what the members are called to do.

While he was excited to finish the novitiate, he missed it when it ended.

“Novitiate is one of those experiences that you really don’t appreciate it until it’s already passed, and you really don’t see how much you’ve grown until you look back on it,” he said. “But it was a … very good experience, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Making sure

Krenke hopes to profess perpetual vows within about four years. He will continue to profess temporary vows, each year, for a minimum of three years until then.

“That’s to help us really make sure this is where (we) want to be, this is where we’re really called to be because, obviously, the church doesn’t want somebody to just jump into it,” Krenke said. “They really want to make sure the person knows and understands what it is they’re getting themselves into.”

He said he has some of the normal fears – that the people won’t like him, he won’t be able to connect with them, or that he won’t know what to do in a certain ministry – but he’s more excited than worried.

“To really finally just be able to be out there working not just for my religious community, but for the church, to really be out there helping and serving the people, which is what all priests are really called to do, is we’re called to be servants of the servants of God and that’s what I’m really looking forward to,” Krenke said.

Ministry to those with HIV/AIDS

When he professes final vows and is ordained a priest, Krenke hopes to work with the community’s HIV/AIDS ministry, which he experienced over a summer – students in formation are asked to spend two months of summer vacation working at one of the community’s ministry sites.

“That’s something that’s kind of close to my heart because I have an uncle who is HIV-positive … and especially down in the south, there is so much of a stigma around HIV, and around just even talking about sexually transmitted diseases – they don’t really teach about it, they don’t talk about it, so you have so many people who have the disease and they don’t even know until all of a sudden they get really sick, and then they find out that they have it and they’re scared to tell anybody. …” he said. “Right now, we are one of the only groups that’s doing something to help with HIV/AIDS down in that area because there is such a huge stigma around it.”

He’d also like to work with the social offices located in Mississippi, the poorest state, where Sacred Heart Southern Missions has soup kitchens, food pantries, and a new program to teach new, mainly teen, mothers, how to care for their babies.

Family’s support

Rowell said her son will be a great priest, not just because he’s caring, loving and “can talk with anybody about anything,” but because he has had real-life experiences – from his parents’ divorce to his grandfather’s dementia to family illnesses.

“He understands people when they come in and they have problems and the stresses of daily life – he’s experienced that. …” she said, adding that even when she calls to ask him questions, he doesn’t “sugarcoat” answers or tell her what she wants to hear.

Rowell has enjoyed watching her son grow from the 2-year-old who used to hide crackers and Twinkies behind his stuffed animals, always neatly making his bed so she wouldn’t find them, and the little boy whose favorite movie was, “Beauty and the Beast,” to the young man determined to become a priest.

“It’s just, I’m proud to be able to say he’s my son. I mean it’s a joy to see him, to see how he’s changed,” Rowell said. “He’s so caring and so loving and he really takes this serious and he walks around with his head held high, which is great – I think you guys are going to get an awesome priest, I really do. The Catholic Church has got a very good employee.”

Krenke said his family is not only proud, but shocked that there’s going to be a Catholic priest in the family.
“I don’t think that’s anything anybody ever expected to come from our family. …” he said. “They are behind me 100 percent; they’re always asking me questions and wanting to learn more, and it’s a really good experience to kind of help them learn about what it is I’m doing and why I’m doing what I’m doing.”