Fr. Mike Hammer, who was widely known for his gregarious nature in 54 years of ministry, passed away June 14. (File photo)

Though his big handlebar mustache was the quintessential tough guy style, Fr. Michael Hammer is remembered for his giant heart.

After serving the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for 54 years — and notably as founder and head of the Catholic AIDS Ministry Office which he then led for 16 years — Fr. Hammer died Wednesday, June 14, at the age of 80.

“If you ever got a Fr. Mike hug, you knew you were hugged,” said Mark Sedarski, a close friend and member of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, where Hammer often helped with Masses. “He was truly a gentle giant with a huge mustache. Fr. Mike was cuddly, gregarious, and just simply a good, kind soul.”

Sedarski said the way the Beaver Dam native lived his priestly life was by celebrating the goodness of a person or occasion. He tried to be Christ to all and often challenged others to do the same.

“Fr. Mike often ignored formalities to get to the heart of the matter with someone or something.  He didn’t want to waste opportunities. His life and ministry were all about engaging people in faith and actions,” he said. “He had a great sense of humor, and he loved good food. He was a great cook; and if you were blessed to attend his many special dinners, you were always in for an outstanding treat of great food and good conversation and much laughter.”

Whether he was at a local restaurant, the Metro Market or the Cathedral Square Farmer’s Market, individuals of all ages were attracted to Fr. Hammer, Sedarski said.

“There was always a crowd gathered around him. He was a magnet,” Sedarski recalled. “While our beliefs on some issues may have been polar opposites, our common faith and charisms were very much aligned. That was Fr. Mike’s mastery, uniting people for the good of the Kingdom of God. I will never forget what I learned from him, and I will forever be grateful for his kindness towards me.”

According to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, “Fr. Hammer possessed a certain flare that made him attractive to a great number of the faithful. In the truest sense like Jesus, he loved them, and they loved him. He was priest, and for this, we will always be grateful to God for his vocation.”

A friend of Fr. Hammer for 33 years, Fr. Tim Kitzke, Rector of the cathedral and Pastor of Three Holy Women, Old St. Mary, Ss. Peter and Paul, and Our Lady of Divine Providence parishes, enjoyed having breakfast with Fr. Hammer every Monday at the Plaza Restaurant on Milwaukee’s East Side.

“It turned into a talk show-type atmosphere,” he said. “People would stop and talk with us as we shared memories or other conversations. Many people would come up to us and remark that visiting with us was just like being on a television talk show without the TV cameras.”

“He had a great ministering mission, and everything he did, he did with great love and service,” Fr. Kitzke said.

In Fr. Hammer’s last days, Fr. Kitzke prayed with him in the hospital and sang the “Salve Regina” to him in his loud singing voice.

“His eyes were closed the whole time I was there, but at the end of the ‘Salve Regina,’ he opened his eyes,” Fr. Kitzke said. “He loved Our Lady so much.”

After Fr. Hammer was ordained in 1969, he served as associate pastor of St. Veronica Parish, Milwaukee, for 10 years.

He then became associate pastor at St. Bernadette Parish, Milwaukee, for four years, and served in several roles at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for many years after that.

In 1994, Fr. Hammer began serving as the coordinator of the archdiocesan AIDS Ministry.

“This ministry focused my view of the Church, deepened my need for prayer and challenged my cock-eyed optimism to move into the unknown,” Fr. Hammer said in a reflection included in his online funeral home obituary. He presided over hundreds of funerals for years before treatments became successful.

He retired from active ministry in 2011 but continued this ministry personally as well as continuing to help celebrate Masses at the Cathedral, Three Holy Women and Old St. Mary’s parishes.

Fr. Hammer said in his reflection that his 54 years of priesthood was an “amazing God-adventure.” In addition to his myriad assignments, Fr. Hammer enjoyed facilitating retreats, assisting with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and serving as celebrant for Sunday Mass on Channel 6 for 10 years.

“To this day, the grace of that experience is how many viewers continue to keep me in their prayers. I encourage you to continue to be good to one another,” he wrote.

A Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Hammer was celebrated at noon Tuesday, June 27, at the Cathedral. A Memorial Mass is set for noon Thursday, June 29, at St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam, following two hours of visitation. Burial was to take place at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Beaver Dam, immediately following the Memorial Mass.