Fr_Larry_Jonas-003Jesuit Fr. Larry Jonas, 90, remains active as a parish priest. He celebrates Mass daily, hears confessions a few times a week, conducts baptismal preparation classes, serves as spiritual director for the Gesu Vincentians and writes a regular column for the parish bulletin. View or purchase more photos of Fr. Jonas. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)“Outgoing,” “generous” and “jovial” is the way his pastor described 90-year-old Jesuit Fr. Lawrence A. Jonas.

And then Jesuit Fr. Karl Voelker of Milwaukee’s Gesu Parish added, “The best thing is, he’s got self-deprecating humor.”

“Fr. Larry” frequently displayed such humor during a recent interview with your Catholic Herald in the parish center at Gesu, where he’s been an associate pastor since 2001. Reminded that a parish mini-biography mentions he was president of his high school class, Fr. Larry explained, “My buddy used to say he stuffed the ballot boxes for me.”

Questioned about his supposed starring role on the school’s basketball team, Fr. Larry said, “Well, that’s another joke. We were a lousy team. I scored, five, six points a game, tops.”

On the topic of snacks: “I’m a sweets guy. I can’t pass (up) a piece of candy. I won’t buy it, but I’ll eat other people’s.”

On high school football in his native Stevens Point: “I played against (speedy future Hall of Famer) Crazylegs Hirsch; I didn’t tackle him, though.”

On himself: “I’d probably call myself a ham.”

In Fr. Voelker’s assessment of Fr. Larry, there was one other apt adjective: “remarkable.” It is remarkable that a man in his 10th decade remains active as a parish priest – presiding at Mass daily, hearing confessions a few times a week, conducting baptismal preparation classes, serving as spiritual director for the Gesu Vincentians, writing a popular column for the parish bulletin and driving himself the several miles between Gesu and his residence on the St. Camillus Campus in Wauwatosa. About 40 members of the Society of Jesus call St. Camillus home. Unlike many of them, Fr. Larry does not require an assisted living situation. Still, he said in mock exasperation, “the nurses are always trying to bother me” – making sure, for instance, that he takes his prescribed pills.

Fr. Larry’s Gesu assignment is something of a homecoming; he was ordained a priest in the downtown church in 1959. Ordination followed grade school at St. Stephen and public high school at Jacobs, both in Stevens Point; a stint at the old Spencerian College of Business in Milwaukee; and three years with the Army Air Corps, most of it in Nigeria, during World War II.

“I’m almost embarrassed to tell you,” he said when asked for details about his military service. “I was in an office.” More specifically, the business college alumnus was a supply sergeant with the Air Transport Command. The ATC’s job in Nigeria was to ferry supplies to Burma – and infantrymen would joke that ATC stood for “allergic to combat,” Fr. Larry recalled with a smile.

Fr. Larry went from military service to Marquette University.

“When I came to Marquette,” he recalled, “that was a changing moment.”

Fr. Larry majored in accounting, but also took a Latin class when he decided to pursue the priesthood, something he had considered since grade school. Before his university days he’d rejected the vocational call for fear of public speaking. But during a required speech course at MU, he discovered “everybody was as bad as I was” at the podium and the notion he’d never be able to preach sermons disappeared.

Fr. Larry graduated from MU in 1949 and soon entered the Society of Jesus. He’d considered the Pallottines as well, but was unable to find that community’s monastery the day he set out to do so, ending up instead at a convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. That incident, he said, prompted him to say to any Good Shepherd nun he later met, “I almost joined your order!”

As most Jesuits do, Fr. Larry worked in education. With a master’s degree in economics, he taught at Marquette University High School. He served elsewhere as a high school assistant principal and principal and spent a year as Creighton University’s personnel director. But his primary ministry has been parish work. Fr. Larry assisted at parishes on weekends while in education and “did a lot of parish retreats” during more than a decade in retreat work that took him to Hawaii, California and several more mundane locations. In the last 25 years, he has served parishes in South Dakota and Wyoming, in addition to Gesu.

The 10th of 12 children of Polish and German ancestry, Fr. Larry delivered groceries by bicycle and otherwise helped his grocer father as a youngster, earning a quarter a week. “I was a pretty pious guy (even) as a kid,” Fr. Larry said, and that piety appears to have manifested itself in honesty.

He recalled telling his father one week that he’d eaten 19 cents’ worth of candy from the store – prompting his father to deduct that amount from his wage. “My dad must’ve spent a little time in purgatory for that,” Fr. Larry joked as he recalled his six-penny paycheck.

Only one of Fr. Larry’s three brothers and eight sisters – a sister 10 months his junior – survives. She lives in New Berlin and Fr. Larry sees her regularly.

Fr. Larry is, decidedly, the healthier of the siblings. He recalled a blood clot “the first year I was here (at Gesu), but that cleared up.” Fr. Larry walks unaided and as briskly as folks many years his junior. A hearing loop is his only visible concession to age, but he uses it only periodically – for instance, when hearing confessions.

He starts his Gesu workday somewhat later in the morning these days – he summarizes his schedule as “banker’s hours” – but, as his aforementioned duties indicate, Fr. Larry’s plate remains quite full.

Fr. Larry cited celebrating Mass, and the scriptural preparation that precedes the presiding, as his greatest joys as a priest. While he especially appreciates “the kids and the old people,” Fr. Larry labeled himself “a good friend of everybody here.” He delights in walking through Gesu prior to celebrating Mass, greeting the churchgoers. “They call me ‘Mr. Hospitality,’” he said.

On his way out of the parish center after interviewing Fr. Larry, this reporter was stopped by Margi Horner, director of liturgy at Gesu. “Write good things about him,” she said with a smile, “because we love him here.”