The Archdiocese of Milwaukee will welcome six new priests Saturday, May 21. The ordination will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Here are profiles of the six men who will be ordained.
Dcn. Matthew Ferch
Dcn. Matthew Ferch is the son of two teachers — so after his ordination to the priesthood, he very much sees himself carrying on the family legacy of education.
“It’s one of the marks of the priesthood that I’m supposed to be teaching,” said Dcn. Ferch. “I just feel that I’m teaching in a different way.”
Originally from Wauwatosa, Dcn. Ferch grew up at St. Agnes Parish in Butler, attending school there through eighth grade (his mother, in fact, was his fourth-grade teacher). The family attended Sunday Mass and often went to daily Mass, and his parents imparted a strong Catholic faith to their son. It was “quite the transition,” then, when Dcn. Ferch switched to a public high school after graduating from St. Agnes, finding himself surrounded by people of differing opinions and faiths.
“I realized in high school that I couldn’t take my faith for granted,” he said. “I really needed to study up and know what it is I truly believe.” He found his own ways to quietly evangelize — for example, convincing his school marching band to play “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”
“Especially to my friends who weren’t really practicing, I wanted to be the guy that gives Catholics a good name,” he said.
His Confirmation during junior year of high school was a high point of his adolescence. “It was my own personal Pentecost … it really made me alive in the Spirit, to go forth and teach all nations,” he recalled. Not surprisingly, his pastor encouraged him to consider a priestly vocation and put him in touch with Fr. Luke Strand and the vocations office. At the time, however, Dcn. Ferch was largely uninterested.
“I put it on the back burner, as a safety net,” he said, instead heading to college at St. Norbert in De Pere, where he would graduate with a degree in political science, and theology and religious studies.
“Fr. Luke would call and check in (during college), and it was always at the moments I needed him, too, which was divine providence,” Dcn. Ferch remembered. “Over time, people kept telling me, ‘You’d make a really good priest.’ I kind of started to believe them.”
But he still needed “the final push” to really commit to the seminary, and it came in the form of the Diocese of Green Bay’s annual St. Andrew Dinner. Bishop David Ricken was at the event, which invites young men to come and enjoy fellowship and prayer with priests and seminarians, and he said something that sealed the deal in Dcn. Ferch’s mind.
“He said at the dinner that if you have these stirrings in your heart and you know that God is the one who’s placed them there, you’ve just got to dive for it. You’ve got to go for it,” recalled Dcn. Ferch. “That resonated with me. Later on, I called Fr. Luke and said, `I’m ready for the application.’”
Dcn. Ferch described the ensuing years of formation at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary as a “transformative” period with “a lot of highs and lows.”
“It’s really been a journey of self-acceptance for me,” he said. “My biggest critic is me. I’ve really had to try to temper that and not always try to get myself down, not always be so self-critical, to love myself more and accept that I’m a beloved child of God and own that identity.”
His master’s thesis has focused on the Mass, and in particular the Marian dimension of the liturgy. It’s something he hopes to be able to better evangelize in his priestly ministry.
“Mary serves as the middle woman between us and Christ, with all prayer, but especially the Mass, which is the greatest dimension of prayer,” he said. “We invoke her, we ask her intercession, she brings that to Christ and Christ finds that acceptable and in accordance with his divine will. She has such an important role in the Mass that sometimes I think people misunderstand or don’t think about.”
He is, after all, a teacher at heart.
“Whatever parish I go to, I hope they have great education programs for both kids and adults that I’d be able to help out at,” said Dcn. Ferch, who added that one of the greatest joys of his time at his teaching parish, Blessed Sacrament in Milwaukee, has been in participating in religious education and RCIA. “Even down the line when, God willing, I have my own parish, that’s going to be a priority. In my priesthood, in my ministry, I want to make sure that I’m teaching the faith.”
Dcn. Kevin Harmon
If there’s one thing Dcn. Kevin Harmon has learned how to do, it’s discern a vocation. For years before he ever arrived at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary to pursue formation as a diocesan priest, the California native was chasing a sense of calling that took him down a long, winding road of self-discovery.
So what did all that time discerning teach him? That the vocation, ultimately, doesn’t really belong to him at all.
“We often talk about ‘my vocation story,’ and it is mine insofar as it was God working in me,” said Dcn. Harmon. “But ultimately, it is God’s and ultimately, it is the Church’s. I am ordained to serve God through the priesthood. This is why I have been called. He wants to ordain me as a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the service of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”
Dcn. Harmon grew up on California’s central coast, “where God has a lot of competition for our attention,” he said. “And for a while, he was losing out on mine.” Raised Catholic, he was an altar server as a child and received all his sacraments of initiation, but participation in spiritual life dropped off after Confirmation. “I was what I think of as the stereotypical problem in the Church,” he said. “I was confirmed and almost immediately stopped going to Mass, stopped practicing the faith. I wasn’t a practicing Catholic for a few years in high school.”
But the end of high school brought a major conversion of heart, beginning with his reading of St. Alphonsus’ “The Glories of Mary.” “That was the beginning of my return into the faith,” he said. He returned to Mass and confession, resumed praying the rosary and chose to attend Marian College in Fond du Lac, where he studied accounting. While reading the sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, he “developed this desire to fully give myself to God,” he said — a desire he later realized could best be manifested through a religious life.
His ensuing discernment included looking into a variety of different religious orders, but with each one he hit what he calls a “glass wall” — a realization that this was not the life, or at least not the community, to which he was being called. “So I sort of gave up, so to speak, on discernment,” he said.
He graduated from college and got a job. “But I couldn’t get rid of the desire to give myself fully to God — to the priesthood,” he said. “Since none of the religious orders in Wisconsin had panned out for me, I looked at the diocesan route. I met with Fr. Ryan Pruess, who put me in touch with the force that is Fr. Luke Strand (then director of vocations). He said, ‘Kevin, you’ve discerned a lot. Maybe the best thing to do is just to take the application, to pray with it, and see what happens.’”
Dcn. Harmon took the advice — and finally, at long last, he felt the kind of peace that assured him he was on the right track. “I never felt any sort of resistance by God,” he said. “I had peace, and things kept falling into place.”
His time in the seminary has reinforced the conviction that he is a steward of his vocation, not its owner.
“I just had to, throughout the process, die to myself — to understand that life is not about me, my vocation is not about me, my service to the Church is not about me. There has to be this gift of myself,” he said.
Along the way, he’s been “adopted” by his teaching parishes, St. Anthony and St. Mary in Menomonee Falls, where he said he is continually “surprised, in a good way, by the people of God.”
His teaching parish has also shown him what an abundance of “good, young families there are in the Milwaukee area who want to grow in their relationship with God, who want to be a part of the Church.”
“It fills your heart with zeal and with pastoral charity and with a desire to more fully live out your vocation,” he said.
Dcn. Harmon jokes that his ordination to the transitional diaconate last spring was “the closest I ever came to publicly fainting due to nerves” — but he said he is feeling none of that anxiety looking ahead to his presbyteral ordination.
It seems after a long journey, he’s finally found the answer he was looking for.
“The spirituality of the diocesan priest in the Roman Rite is to become what we sacrifice on the altar,” he said. “When the priest consecrates the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, he’s consecrating Christ on the cross who poured himself out completely; he gave entirely of himself to God the Father and to the people of God, to his Church. And the priest is called to do the same thing. Celebrating Mass the first time, I’ll lift up the host, I’ll lift up the chalice, knowing that my goal in my spiritual life is to become what I am offering during Mass. And that excites me.”
Dcn. Matthew Kirk
“Matthew, Matthew, I’ve created you for so much more.”
It was a low point during his first year of college, and Matthew Kirk had taken his troubles to the Lord in prayer. This was the response he heard — “a gentle movement of the heart,” as he describes it.
“And I just thought, what does ‘more’ mean?” recalled Kirk.
He’s about to find out. Now Dcn. Matthew Kirk, his ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is just days away, where he will “lay down my life on the marble and offer it to God through the bishop,” he said. “Here I am, Lord — I come to do your will.”
Dcn. Kirk grew up in Nashotah and attended St. Charles in Hartland. A defining moment in his spiritual development came when he was a senior at Arrowhead High School, participating in a youth retreat to which he had been invited by a friend. “It was the first time I was like, ‘God’s real,’” he said. “And in this moment I thought, ‘OK, what am I going to do about that?’”
Though it wasn’t a Catholic event, the minister in charge, recalled Dcn. Kirk, gave a beautiful explanation of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. It was a watershed moment in the young man’s life, when the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist finally made sense.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness — that’s what happens at Mass,’” recalled Dcn. Kirk.
His friend’s curiosity about Catholicism at the retreat also spurred Dcn. Kirk to think about his own faith in a way he had not previously done.
“He asked a lot of really good questions I didn’t know the answers to,” he recalled. “I looked them up online, to answer his questions. He pushed me farther in my faith than I ever thought I would go.” After the retreat, he returned to the sacrament of confession for the first time since second grade.
The next year, while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he began taking ownership of his faith, becoming involved at the campus’ St. Paul Catholic Student Center. “I was making that personal choice to go to Mass, encountering the person of Christ in a real way,” he said. It was during that first year at college, discouraged and taking refuge in prayer, that he first heard that quiet invitation: “Matthew, Matthew, I’ve created you for so much more.”
Dcn. Kirk delved into Bible studies, began going on retreats and started to develop a prayer life. He even founded a Catholic fraternity on campus, Phi Kappa Theta, whose house was nicknamed “The Fratican.”
“Slowly, but surely, I started praying more and allowing the Lord to change my heart,” said Dcn. Kirk. “As I was doing that, I just kept on getting this tug toward the priesthood. I was like, ‘I can’t ignore that. I think seminary is the path he’s calling me to move toward.’”
After graduating in 2016, Dcn. Kirk applied and was accepted to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. In the intervening summer, he worked a part-time job at John Deere that he really enjoyed, and when the company offered him a full-time position in the fall, he felt torn. Once again, he took the problem to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
And once again, “the Lord spoke to me in the silence of my heart,” recalled Dcn. Kirk. “‘Matthew, Matthew, do you love me?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, Lord.’ And he said, ‘Then feed my sheep.’ It just reverberated through my heart and my soul.”
He turned down the job offer, and proceeded to the seminary.
Immersed in the daily life of the seminary, with its rhythm of prayer and fellowship of men seeking holiness, Dcn. Kirk’s vocation truly blossomed, he said. “I was surprised that everyone here is normal. You think the seminary is this very weird, mysterious place, but you get here and (it’s) just a bunch of guys trying to be holy,” he said. “That striving for holiness is contagious, and it changes you. The seminary is this place where I learned so much about who I am through learning so much more about others and letting them help me. It’s this community of believers who changes who you are.”
At his teaching parish, St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove, he said he was “awestruck” by the community’s devotion to the Eucharist, most notable in their longstanding practice of perpetual adoration. “Everyone here is just so faithful and they desire to love our Lord,” he said. “The families I met there are so supportive. I spent a lot of time in the school with the kids, and I just learned so much.”
Anticipating his ordination to the priesthood, he said he views it as “a new beginning.”
“I think I’m ready to be surprised, because the Lord always surprises us with gifts we never thought we would see,” he said. “I think I would say I’ve come to a greater understanding of what it means to be made for more.”
Dcn. Tonny Kizza
Dcn. Tonny Kizza used to hear his grandmother, a faithful woman who encouraged him to discern a vocation, praying that God “may give her a priest.”
“But I trust we both didn’t have a clear picture of what this meant,” he said.
For Dcn. Kizza, it has meant studying new languages, getting used to snow and learning to serve a people a world away from his homeland.
“I am excited to do one major task in my first years of my priesthood: ‘to learn to be a priest,’” said Dcn. Kizza. “And I ask God to help me to do it very well.”
Dcn. Kizza was born in the Kingdom of Buganda in Uganda — “the Pearl of Africa,” he said, “and the land of the Ugandan martyrs of Eastern Africa.” The second of six children, he was raised in a devout Catholic home, praying the rosary almost every night as a family. After completing his grade school and secondary schooling, he joined Nkozi Teacher Training College in 2000, where he completed a diploma in secondary education, focusing on history and religious education as his teaching subjects.
Dcn. Kizza completed a bachelor’s degree in social sciences at Kampala University in 2004, and in 2008 joined Uganda Martyrs University for a master of development degree, which he achieved in 2010.
In addition to working as a teacher for a year, Dcn. Kizza spent eight years working as a social worker in hospitals for HIV-positive patients. He is also a founder of JJAJJA’s Care Project, an organization that supports vulnerable children, widows and others living with HIV in Uganda.
In 2014, he returned to university to complete a master of public health, majoring in health promotion. He was one year into this degree when he decided to enter Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
The priesthood had been on Dcn. Kizza’s mind since childhood, he said. “The most significant moment in my life was participating in a Eucharistic procession for the first time,” he said. “When the presider carrying the Lord passed by me, I felt something different and from that time I developed the special desire to become a priest.”
He had previously joined formation in Uganda in 2001, but was unable to complete his philosophical studies. “When I left and started to work, I was surprised how this thought (of the priesthood) persisted,” he said. “I became vigilant in fighting it to go away but I was fighting a losing battle. It continued until I started paying attention in a special way in prayers.” He shared this growing feeling with his friend, Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, who had just been ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Dcn. Kizza had applied for a visa to study in the United States before but had been denied; the only time he was approved was in applying to come to Saint Francis de Sales seminary in 2016. “People might not call it a miracle,” he said. “But I do.” At the seminary, “I have enjoyed the great time to pray together as a community but also the personal prayer time, a time when I am alone with the person (Jesus) I love.” He said he has also enjoyed “the diversity of the seminary community, with people from all over the world with diverse life experiences, yet we are all aiming at one important goal in life: the chaste love for Christ.”
His life at his teaching parishes, the South Shore parishes, “has been great,” said Dcn. Kizza, who recalled that the parishioners have been “mentors” to him, and learning to coordinate all of the Mass times has been a good preparation for a busy parish life in the future. “One Sunday morning, I missed Mass at Immaculate Conception, thinking I was only supposed to deacon at Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Augustine,” he said. “I was supposed to preach at Mass. I don’t know what my pastor did.”
As he looks forward to his life as a priest, Dcn. Kizza will draw on many of his past experiences, especially when he ministered to vulnerable and ill populations.
Working with HIV-positive patients, Dcn. Kizza said that he recognized how “people yearned for my availability or quality time, love, mercy and charity. These are the qualities, gifts I would like to offer and share with the Church.”
It makes one wonder, then, what Dcn. Kizza’s grandmother would think now to see her grandson on the brink of priestly ordination, the young boy moved by the Eucharistic procession now grown to become the man who bears the monstrance itself. “I am excited and scared at the same time as my priestly ordination approaches,” he said, “But in all, I know the Holy Spirit is at work in me. I will receive special graces. I will wake up in the morning as a deacon and go to bed in the evening as a priest. The rest will be history.”
Dcn. Ariel Orozco
In the beginning, Dcn. Ariel Orozco was sure of one thing: he was not worthy.
In fact, it was his constant refrain — when his pastor approached him to become more involved in the liturgy, when he first began to feel the invitation to consider the priesthood, even when he was laying prostrate on the floor of the Cathedral at his ordination to the transitional diaconate. Always, always, there was the question: are you enough?
Dcn. Orozco’s journey began in Modesto, California; the family relocated to his parents’ homeland of Mexico when he was just a few months old. He grew up with two sisters and two brothers, working in his father’s butcher shop until 2006, when, as a teenager, he was sent back to the United States to finish his schooling. He moved in with his aunt on Milwaukee’s south side and attended South Division High School, graduating in 2009.
“Something that I really struggled with was finding identity,” said Dcn. Orozco when he recalled this time of his life. “I left my country, my friends, my home behind.” He completed a degree at ITT Tech and later went into the construction business, co-owning a hardwood flooring business with a friend. But it was at St. Adalbert Parish on the south side that he found a true sense of belonging.
“The Mass is the same everywhere you go,” he said. “I really found refuge in the community within St. Adalbert. It was a sense of family, a sense of belonging and also a sense of caring. I felt cared for.”
He was encouraged by his then-pastor Fr. Jose Gonzalez to assist at Mass as a lector and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, an invitation from which Dcn. Orozco demurred until Fr. Gonzalez “insisted.” Eventually, he became involved in a men’s group at the parish and was asked to play the role of Jesus in the live Passion play on Good Friday in 2012. He spent hours meditating on the Gospel passages, “trying to absorb all the words from our Lord,” he said. “It was not just reading the Bible and memorizing it. The question was what did Jesus feel like, what was in his heart? The prayer at the garden, I had to ask myself, was he crying, was he emotional, was he weeping? That kind of became my prayer, this intimate relationship with the Lord, where I really had to not just get to know him but imitate him.”
The three months of practice for the play is where Dcn. Orozco feels “the gift of my vocation really started.” The following day, during the Easter Vigil, as he watched Fr. Gonzalez during the consecration, it dawned on him that “here is another Christ on Earth.”
“This subtle and silent, but really clear voice, says: ‘Would you like to be my priest?’” Dcn. Orozco recalled. “I just remember thinking, I’m making stuff up. I must be crazy. The immediate reaction was rejection.”
But the question persisted. He contacted a priest friend hoping to be discouraged, but instead the friend brought him to meet with Fr. Luke Strand, who was director of vocations at the time. “This priest is telling me all about Fr. Luke. Fr. Luke in my mind is someone who was older, maybe a grumpy man who was going to tell me I was crazy, go home, mind your business. It was the opposite,” said Dcn. Orozco. “He was really young, vibrant and really kind to me. He listened. He said, ‘Ariel, I think you have a vocation.’ He gave me an application right there.”
Dcn. Orozco left the seminary vowing “not to go back again” and shoved the application in a drawer, where it languished for six months. He attended Cor Jesu at St. Robert in Shorewood but only felt more confused. “I was attracted to the beauty of the priesthood and what they do,” he said.
Ultimately, he decided that the only way to be rid of “the thorn in my heart” was to give the seminary a chance. His first year was difficult — he had become accustomed to living on his own terms as an adult and business owner, and submitting to life as a seminarian at St. Joseph’s College Seminary in Chicago was trying. “The priesthood was so far, eight years in the future,” he said. Coming back from his first break, he felt defeated.
“I just remember going down to the chapel, prostrating on the floor, and saying, ‘Lord, I have nothing to give you … all I have is here with me. Take it and do with it as you wish,’” he remembered. He spent three hours in that posture, eventually experiencing “a real sense of consolation.”
“The Lord affirmed my desire to give myself to him,” he said. “‘You are enough.’ Those words always stuck with me. ‘You are enough.’”
He has had plenty of positive experiences since then, especially at his teaching parish, St. Lucy in Racine, and during a stint at the Creighton Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. “You go from, ‘Are you calling me to be a priest, God?’ to ‘What kind of priest are you calling me to be?’” he said. “There is this question, am I worthy to be called to the second step, which is more purified, in a sense, but more concrete — are you calling me to be a good priest, and can I live up to your call?”
Finally, after so many years, he has the answer.
“It’s not until you lay on the floor in the cathedral (at last year’s ordination for transitional diaconate) that you realize, yes, you can do it,” he said. “The Lord affirms again, you are enough. Your ‘yes’ is enough.”
Dcn. Pedro Ruiz
The curriculum vitae of Dcn. Pedro Ruiz reads like that of a policy advisor for the United Nations, or at least that of a celebrated academic in international relations.
Here, for instance, is a very abbreviated list of highlights from his past studies and work experience: a Ph.D. in economic science, a postgraduate program in diplomacy and international relations, the authorship of seven books on economic science management and international relations, and the publication of more than 30 scientific articles. That’s not even mentioning fluency in Russian, Ukrainian, English, Spanish, Latin and ecclesiastical Slavonic.
While these accomplishments and experiences may have helped form Dcn. Ruiz into the man he is today, he does not regard them as his identity. For him, that is a far simpler matter — and a more important one. “I consider myself a simple and faithful loyal servant of God,” he said.
The son of an engineer and a teacher, Dcn. Ruiz is originally from San Carlos, Cojedas State, Venezuela. “I grew up between a city and family farm,” he explained. The oldest of three children, he is from a mestizo family, which means he has Indigenous, Spanish and African heritage — “of which I feel proud,” he said.
He credits his mother, Maria Concepcion, with instilling in him a desire to live a virtuous and moral life. His father, Pedro Alejandro, “is an example of humility and surrender,” he said. He also cherishes his relationship with “Hermana Hilda,” a woman he calls his “spiritual mother.” “She is like my spiritual director or counselor,” he said. “I can speak openly with her because she is very wise … she is the most faithful person that I have ever met in my life.”
Dcn. Ruiz attended both Catholic schools and military schools before studying international relations at Universidad Central de Venezuela from 1999 to 2003. He then went to Russia to continue his education; the degrees he achieved during his time there include a doctorate in economic science and a postgraduate degree in municipal and state administration. He returned to Venezuela to study public management and later went to Spain for a postgraduate program in diplomacy and international relations; while in Spain, he also studied canon law at the Pontifical University of Salamanca. During his time at Universidad Nacional Experimental de los Llanos Ezequiel Zamora, he was also the director of the International Relations Office, director of the Rector’s Office, and director of Scientific Research, Graduate and Doctoral studies between 2009 and 2016.
Since childhood, he said, he has “had a very beautiful relationship with God, and an amazing communication with Jesus.” Playing at home as a child, he would pretend to be a priest, and felt drawn to religious life and intrigued by spiritual books. Religious artwork and pictures of saints were among his most prized possessions. It was during high school that he felt a particular calling to the priesthood. “It was a big impulse, a falling in love with God, but for different reasons I took another way,” he said. While he was pursuing his studies around the world, “the beautiful call to be a priest” came back to him. When he returned to Venezuela in 2009 to work at the university, “I felt empty in life.” It was during this time that he encountered the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
“It changed my life,” he said, “and I started to experience the fire of the Holy Spirit and the love of God in my life.” He remained active in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, helping to organize prayer groups and retreats and teach the Catechism, while experiencing a growing desire “to surrender my life completely to God’s will.”
“I made the decision to enter the seminary in 2013 after meditation with the Lord and prayers in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” he said. After looking at various seminaries in his own country, he was told that he was too old to enter. “God always knows better, and he had a different plan for me,” he said. In 2015, he got in touch with Fr. Luke Strand, and entered Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in August 2016.
He said that his time at the seminary has been “the most beautiful time of my life.”
“In the beginning, it was a little difficult because I had to learn a new language, and to be in a new culture and environment,” he said. But the seminary community was supportive and welcoming. “They began to be my new family. At the seminary, we pray, we study, but also, we share a lot as brothers: we sometimes cook together, we play sports, we watch movies, we support one another.”
At his teaching parish, St. Joseph in Waukesha, “I have learned a lot not only in pastoral ministry, but also from persons who love so much their community and have a big zeal for the Church. I have learned to be humbler and open to them, and to understand their problems more deeply.”
Looking ahead to his upcoming ordination, Dcn. Ruiz said he knows it will be “the most beautiful and important day of my life.”
“I am very happy and excited for my ordination as a priest,” he said. “I am most looking forward to serving God’s people with love and kindness, in the sacraments at the parish or wherever people are in need.”