To be ordained May 20 are (clockwise from upper left) Dcn. Ryan Ackmann, Dcn. Kenneth Anyanwu, Dcn. Michael Courchaine, Dcn. Kevin Tanel and Dcn. Joseph Heit.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee will welcome five new priests at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 20, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee. The following are profiles of the five men who will be ordained to the priesthood.
Dcn. Ryan Ackmann
Dcn. Ryan Ackmann views his future priesthood through the lens of his love of history. He knows that, as a priest of Jesus Christ, his actions will help to define the communities where he will serve, through the grace he imparts to them in the sacraments and the teaching he will offer them on the Christian life.
But he also knows that, in an equally profound way, he will be defined by those communities, both as a priest and as a follower of Christ.
“It’s exciting to know that we’re entering into our own page or chapter of the history of these parishes that we serve,” said Dcn. Ackmann. “But as much as we are helping to write the parish history, they are also helping write our story as well.”
Ackmann’s story began in Pewaukee, growing up in a family where the faith was, as he puts it, “actively lived.” He and his younger brother were surrounded by people who prioritized the practice of their faith. “From grandparents to aunts and uncles, we got to see the faith lived out as kids,” he said. The family attended St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, and Ackmann graduated from the parish school.
His teenage years brought him to Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, where service opportunities would become integral to his spiritual formation.
“They really ingrained in us the idea of ‘being men for others,’” he said. “A lot of what they did really showed the faith in action.” A particularly impactful experience was his Senior Shared Life Project, a capstone to the high school’s community service program. For his Senior Shared Life Project, Ackmann spent two weeks volunteering at a nursing home in Oconomowoc. “There are definitely still memories I carry today,” he said. “It left a lifelong impression.”
Priesthood had been suggested to him at various points in his life, but it was an idea that he said he “left on the back burner” as he headed off to the University of Notre Dame in 2009 to study math and chemistry. Halfway through college, one of his closest friends and roommates began discerning a priestly vocation, which brought the prospect back to the forefront. Ackmann continued with his studies at Notre Dame as a graduate student, receiving his master’s degree in 2014 and moving to Chicago to work as a pension actuary.
It was in Chicago that the call to the priesthood became stronger. “I was at an event at my local parish, and there were some seminarians visiting from Mundelein Seminary,” recalled Ackmann. “We got to talking about, ‘Have you thought about being a priest?’ I realized that was something that hadn’t gone away. I wanted to learn what the next steps were and how to respond to that call. It was a flame that had still been burning all those years.”
He began to participate in discernment retreats offered by the Archdiocese of Chicago and found a discernment group that met on a weekly basis, where priest and seminarian speakers offered a glimpse into the daily life of one pursuing this vocation. As he underwent spiritual direction, Ackmann realized that it was time to take action.
“In spiritual direction, we follow a three-step framework — you’re aware of these spiritual movements, you offer them in prayer to discern what’s going on and then comes the time to take action. Once you take action, you’ll know if you’re on the right path. If you’re on the wrong path, you can take another action,” he said. “So I called Fr. Luke (Strand, then Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee).”
He entered Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in the fall of 2017, and his years there have been a lesson in “navigating change, but trusting in the constancy of the call, and knowing that at various assignments throughout the priesthood, we’re also going to face big changes in environment.”
One particularly impactful period in his formation was the summer of 2018, when Ackmann spent several months in Spain. He spent three weeks living and studying at the Seminari Conciliar de Barcelona followed by three weeks working at a local parish, Santa Agnès in Barcelona. While at the parish, he lived at the rectory, assisted at Mass, ran a summer camp for kids and became close friends with the seminarian who hosted him.
“One goal of mine was to solidify Spanish, and to see it in the day-to-day context of working at a parish,” he said. “It was a very positive experience, a confidence-booster knowing I could handle these tasks in Spanish — not perfectly, but well enough. It led me down the line to doing Hispanic ministry at my teaching parishes.”
His experience at his teaching parishes of St. Patrick and Our Lady of Guadalupe also has been a high point of his formation — not only have the faithful there now shaped part of Ackmann’s story, but he discovered that previous generations there have shaped his family story as well. He had known that his family had a history on the south side of Milwaukee, but he discovered that his great-great grandparents were actually parishioners. Now he plans to celebrate his Mass of Thanksgiving at Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the same spot where his great-grandmother received her First Communion in the late 19th century.
As he looks ahead to his ordination, Dcn. Ackmann describes a sacred sense of anticipation. “It’s a lot like what we feel as Christians on Holy Saturday,” he said. “We know that Easter is coming tomorrow. Yet the full experience of Easter joy is still ahead of us. We’re in this grand waiting.”
Dcn. Kenneth Anyanwu
Dcn. Kenneth Anyanwu was born and raised in a devout Catholic family in the southeastern part of Nigeria. His parents raised three boys and four girls while very involved in parish life and the sacraments. Anyanwu remembers those days when they used to wake up early each morning to attend daily Masses. His early life revolved around the parish, where he joined the altar servers’ group at a very tender age.
He was so good at serving at the altar that his pastor noticed him and asked him to come and live with him at the rectory. He paid Anyanwu’s school fees throughout his elementary and high school days at the Community School Ogbor Nguru Mbaise and Nguru Secondary School, Eke Nguru Mbaise, both located in the southeastern Nigerian state of Imo.
Anyanwu’s first nudge to join the seminary occurred while living with the pastor.
He was the first person to open the big parish church doors each day, allowing people to come into the church and getting things ready for Mass before the priest arrived. This lifestyle got into him so much that it became the only thing to which he wanted to devote his entire life.
That pastor later recommended Anyanwu to the seminary when he desired to pursue a priestly vocation.
For college, he studied at the Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri, Imo.
Anyanwu’s formation advisor, Fr. Glenn Powers, said, “It is a long road and a number of continents later that we received him for service in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.” Though Fr. Powers has not been alone in this process of formation, he has helped in offering Anyanwu both “the blessing and challenge of bringing all his gifts to bear in a real-life setting that includes a pastor and a people living out their faith, hope and love as church.”
Here in Milwaukee, Anyanwu has had an excellent experience at the seminary, coming to appreciate his studies. No longer intimidated by substantial reading, reading is now a hobby he delights in. The idea of a structured prayer life is another thing he has come to relish at the seminary. Dcn. Anyanwu admits that praying at specific intervals with the seminary community while still maintaining his own prayer life is remarkable and that waking up so early every day to begin the day’s programs and activities occasionally poses a challenge, especially at the peak of the winter season. Dcn. Anyanwu is thankful for the strength the Lord has provided him.
Dcn. Anyanwu says his experience at his teaching parish, Divine Mercy, has been enjoyable. “My teaching parishioners really love their parish and do so much to keep things going. I am amazed and inspired by the fact that people show up for Mass and other programs of the parish, such as the Abide Adoration and devotion to St. Anthony of Padua, in their numbers.”
Looking forward to ordination, Dcn. Anyanwu has tremendous feelings of excitement, delight and enthusiasm. “It’s going to be a great day of joy as we give God all the glory for his marvelous work. It’s going to be a wonderful time, living the life of my dreams, bringing the good news of God’s blessings and peace to his people. I am mostly looking forward to administering the sacraments in an outstanding and spirit-filled manner to the people of God.”
In Dcn. Anyanwu’s recent personal Invitation to the ordination, he quotes Psalm 136:1.
Fr. Powers notes this could just as well describe the motto of his priesthood, where “thankfulness” is at the heart of Eucharist, and a special Year of Eucharistic Revival will help to bolster this as an archdiocese. “A ‘faithful love’ that endures is not something just pleasantly thought about but lived-out in very sacrificial ways as Jesus has shown us on the cross. Such will be (Dcn. Anyanwu’s) calling to follow the Lord; and, be stretched in many ways in service.”
Kate Kelleher Junk
Dcn. Michael Courchaine
Dcn. Michael Courchaine grew up in Lisbon as the second of six children in a “very Catholic family.”
His family demonstrated service and a commitment to Catholic education from the beginning. His father served on the parish council, and his grandmother, father and uncle were on the board of Mercy Academy, where Courchaine and many of his cousins attended. They attended St. John in Monches, now a part of St. Theresa of Calcutta Parish.
Courchaine says he owes a lot to his family for showing him how important the faith was to life and points to how impactful family rituals were in fostering his faith. His mother’s extended family was quite large — Easter and Christmas gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins at his grandmother’s house included about 50 people. On regular Sundays, however, much of the family still gathers at that house.
Courchaine attended Brookfield Academy for High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he participated in an “awesome” Newman Center.
At that point, he was unsure if he was called to the priesthood and was discerning if marriage may be his vocation. Though he had met Fr. Luke Strand after his high school graduation and talked to him a couple of times a year, he was starting to feel called to single lay life. He planned to work a secular career and donate extensively to the Church and different charities. He studied actuarial science and interned at United Healthcare in Minnesota, convinced that that was where God wanted him to be.
During his senior year, Courchaine took a moment to breathe as he was ready to go out into the world. He asked, ‘“Is this life everything that I wanted it to be?’ The answer was no, and I looked back — when was I more satisfied with how I was living? My first thoughts brought me back to Mercy Academy.”
That’s when Courchaine started attending daily Mass and bringing his friends. He picked up a rosary for the first time in years and started rereading “The Lives of the Saints.” During that time, he lived off-campus, at a house next to a church. The priest there gave him a passcode to the church. Often, Courchaine would walk over at night and spend some time in prayer. One night, alone in a mostly dark church, he prayed about his future in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He had already accepted a job offer and sought housing in Minneapolis.
“I just felt very quietly in my heart, this sense of ‘I don’t want you to go to that job.’ And it was hard to hear at first. I was so set on all these dreams I had about my life and everything I could do, so I went back (and said), ‘All right, God, I feel like I heard that, but I don’t know much about spirituality. Was that just psychological? Am I just scared? What’s happening?’”
Courchaine went back to the chapel another night. And another. He kept receiving confirmation that this job was not part of God’s plan for him, but he did not have a clear answer for what was. He felt like he was inching closer to receiving an answer when finally, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he heard Jesus say, “Michael, I want you to be my priest.”
He says there was pain at the loss of his former dreams and excitement for the future. Though he had some trepidation about what this new path would look like, he had an overall sense of calm and peace. He knew that was a sign of good discernment. “God wants us to have that joy. That peace.”
Next, Courchaine approached Fr. Strand for an application and joined the seminary.
“God has made it so clear to me — it’s not about you — I’m probably going to be doing way more good than I would have been able to do otherwise. But in everything that I’m going to do, I’ll point people to Jesus and help people along that path to heaven. It’s a very different focus, but a better focus.”
Dcn. Courchaine is so thankful for his teaching parishes of St. Monica (as a seminarian) and St. Eugene (after diaconate ordination). He was blessed to see the examples of many different priests — including then-pastor Fr. Paul Hartmann and then-associate Fr. Jordan Berghouse, current Pastor Fr. Mark Payne and associate Fr. Tonny Kizza.
“It was really good for me to see four very uniquely lived vocations. They all have very different personalities and views and whatever else, but they’re four very holy people. Being directly involved in the parishes through RCIA, the schools, First Communions, Confirmations and Baptisms has been a blessing.
“It’s so important because that’s what we don’t get in the seminary. There are no crying babies, no married couples in the seminary. Being able to get out to the parish and just be back in real life. It’s so good, it’s so important. I’m glad that we have that as part of our formation.”
As Dcn. Courchaine prepares for his ordination, he feels calm, peace and anticipation. During this time of intense prayer and preparation, Dcn. Courchaine is listening for God’s voice at what particular focus God wants him to enter.
Kate Kelleher Junk
Dcn. Joseph Heit
When Dcn. Joseph Heit begins to immerse himself in full-time parish ministry later this summer, he won’t be sailing into uncharted waters.
Dcn. Heit actually has more than a decade of parish ministry under his belt, first from his time at Holy Angels Parish in West Bend, where he oversaw religious formation, and later at St. Jerome in Oconomowoc, where he was the pastoral associate.
It makes for a particularly rich perspective on the beauty of the priesthood and the beauty of lay ministry — and the importance of both working together for the life of the Church.
“I’ve sat on the opposite side. I’ve sat there in staff meetings as a layperson both excited and frustrated about what we’re doing, and if I ever become a pastor, I’ll know that some of the people around the table are frustrated with me,” he said. “I look forward to that unique perspective that I’ll have, of knowing what they feel because I’ve felt it too.”
Heit is originally from the Diocese of Madison, where he grew up three quarters of a mile from St. Patrick Parish in Cottage Grove. “Church was where we put our energy,” he said of his family, which includes one brother and one sister. His mother was his catechist, and in his youth Heit also volunteered with the religious formation program. While “other people were definitely thinking” about the priesthood as a possible calling for him, Heit, at the time, had his sights set on math education. After graduating from Monona Grove High School, he headed to Viterbo University in La Crosse, hoping to become a math teacher for middle or high school.
After a semester, however, Heit said it was clear education was not the path for him. He switched his major to religious studies and philosophy, and throughout the rest of college began to discern a calling to attend seminary following his graduation. But upon graduating from Viterbo in 2006, “I was burned out from academics,” he said. “I just couldn’t sit in another classroom.” He took a job at Holy Angels Parish in West Bend as the Director of Religious Education, intending to take a year off.
“A year turned into two, turned into 12,” said Heit. Eventually he became the Director of Faith Formation at the parish, and he said he has “amazing, fond memories” of his time working there and the people with whom he collaborated. He obtained his master’s degree from the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary in 2016.
After 12 years at Holy Angels, Heit found he had stopped growing professionally. “I struggled with that a lot,” he said. Seeking new challenges, he took a job as the Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Jerome — but quickly found out that God had more growth in mind than Dcn. Heit had bargained for.
Staffing changes meant he was called upon to take over liturgical and pastoral care duties as well, and though it was a daunting prospect, it’s now something that Heit recognizes as a pivotal moment in his vocation story.
“It forced me to do things I never thought I would be good at. I was forced, until I could hire the right people, to take care of pastoral care, do Communion visits, funeral ministry, visit sick people — none of which I thought I would be good at or enjoy,” he said. “I found out not only did I enjoy it, but I loved it.”
But something was missing. “I was happy. I loved the work,” he said. “But every day I was like, there’s something missing here.” It was during another priest’s Mass of Thanksgiving that Dcn. Heit received a very clear message in the depths of his heart: “The Lord said to me, very point-blank: ‘You’re done at St. Jerome’s. I need you to go to seminary.’”
He entered Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in the fall of 2019. Adjusting to a communal living environment certainly wasn’t simple, especially after 13 years of living on his own. “It was just a shock of, ‘OK, this is going to be a very different way of living.’ There are joys with that, and there are struggles with that,” he said. But ultimately, the seminary has provided him with exactly what he was searching for: growth. “It’s been a true blessing to be here, and I’ve grown a lot, more than I ever thought I would.”
At his teaching parish, Christ King in Wauwatosa, Dcn. Heit said the people “have called me to live a holier life. It’s been beautiful there — there is a true sense of faith and love for the Lord.” He enjoyed dipping his toes back into parish life and is looking forward to returning to dive headfirst into the waters of ministry after his ordination.
“I have truly missed it the last four years,” he said. “I want to get back with the people, to the week in and week out of seeing people and walking with them and being with them at their best and worst moments, to be with families preparing for Baptisms, to be with families preparing for funerals, to be Christ for them — and in a new way, a very different way than I was for those 13 years in lay ministry.”
As Dcn. Heit contemplates his future, he understands that, though in some ways a return to parish life is a homecoming, it is also a new beginning. He finally understands what was missing all those years ago.
“I could bring people to Christ, but I couldn’t be Christ for them,” he said. “As a priest, as an alter Christus, I can bring the sacraments. I can bring Christ the healer, Christ the forgiver, I can bring Christ in the Eucharist. I can not only do what I was doing before, but do it in a completely different way, so that people have a completely different experience.”
Dcn. Kevin Tanel
For Dcn. Kevin Tanel, a life of service began early. He grew up in Mukwonago, attending St. Theresa Parish in Eagle, where his mother worked 19 years as Director of Religious Education. He remembers asking her many questions while growing up about why Catholics do certain things and believe what they believe.
His first memory of a call to the priesthood was as a 3-year-old — “Since I was able to form a memory, (the call has) always been there. It’s taken different forms over my childhood and throughout my young adult life. My understanding of the priesthood has changed quite a bit, (but) I was always deeply attracted to the priesthood.”
When asked what his family did to encourage his future vocation, Dcn. Tanel said, “It doesn’t have to be anything enormous to instill a vocation or a sense of faith in your children. It can just be small things done really well.” As Tanel grew up, his parents nurtured his growing interest in the faith. His mother weaved faith into simple interactions and modeled gratitude — taking time to thank God for the blessings of each day as a family. After his First Communion in the second grade, he approached her to see if they could attend Mass more often than just on Sundays. A daily Mass habit was formed.
At that time, his childhood pastor, Fr. Dennis Ackeret, took an interest in Tanel and his twin brother Andy. Though the boys were not quite old enough, Fr. Ackeret invited them to start serving daily Masses. Fr. Ackeret remembers how the boys would play Mass, using vestments their grandmother had made for them. Even then, Tanel played the part of the priest.
Altar serving stirred up profound feelings of love for Jesus in him. “I remember kneeling there at the moment of consecration, looking up and seeing the Host right in front of me. And this is Jesus. This desire to give my life totally to God, whom I see concealed in this Host, who has given everything for me, this desire welled up within me.” He explains that his second-grade brain could not fully formulate that thought, but from that moment on, the call remained.
Tanel started playing the violin in the fourth grade and played “intensely” through high school, becoming involved with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Still, his hobbies and connections kept pulling him toward faith. He felt drawn to the priesthood. While attending discernment camps and meeting priests and seminarians, including Fr. Luke Strand, Tanel points to a profound experience during adoration. He asked, “Is this what you want for me? I’m willing, but I want to know that it’s from you, because the last thing I want is to be doing this because it’s what I want.”
Fr. Ackeret asked Tanel to serve as the master of ceremonies for Holy Week in high school. As he watched Tanel grow, he had an “inkling” Tanel may be called to the priesthood and encouraged him. Fr. Ackeret said he tried his best to be a good example. Fr. Ackeret believes Dcn. Tanel’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Rosary and his gentle, unassuming nature will be assets to him in his ministry. “I was impressed by him as an individual and was pleased when he talked about going into the seminary.”
Tanel’s seminary experience started earlier than most. After graduating from Mukwonago High School, he immediately enrolled in seminary, attending the St. Joseph College Seminary on the campus of Loyola University Chicago. It differed from the “normal” college student experience, but he believes he was blessed to be in a good community there. He studied philosophy and psychology, graduating in 2019, the seminary college’s last graduating class.
Tanel joined Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
Dcn. Tanel is looking forward to getting out into the world. His unique experience of entering seminary straight from high school means he has been in school for almost his entire life. Still, he points to some of the constant joys in his experience at the seminary. Daily prayer, Masses and a Holy Hour have kept him grounded, especially in challenging moments.
The blessing of fraternity with his brother seminarians has been another joy. Living in a community of men with a common goal — not just the priesthood, but their relationship with the Lord — has resulted in deep friendships.
Dcn. Tanel’s teaching parish was St. Francis Borgia in Cedarburg. He calls the experience “overwhelmingly positive.” The parishioners have been incredibly supportive, and Tanel was impressed by how much they appreciate their priests and those in formation. (Pastor) Fr. Patrick Burns acted as a mentor, modeling servant leadership. Dcn. Tanel was struck by his humility, holiness and ability to do simple things well. He aspires to be like that.
Dcn. Tanel is excited to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to hear confessions. He believes the Lord has called him to be a vessel of mercy. “Our world desperately needs to know that the Lord loves them. That Jesus has come to save them.” He is awed and humbled by the incredible gift it is to be able to stand in the person of Christ and administer the sacraments. He says it is “not something that I deserve to be a part of, but nonetheless the Lord has called me and chosen me to be that vessel of grace and mercy.”
Kate Kelleher Junk