Baptismal water cascades from Fr. Gabriel Rach’s cupped hand as he wets the black hair of 8-week-old Alyse Marie Riecken at Holy Family Church in Fond du Lac.Cradling the baby’s head in his hands, Fr. Rach’s eyes lock on those of Alyse Marie with a love and recognition beyond the typical baptism.
Thirty-eight years ago to the day, Fr. Rach’s birth set in motion his journey from baptism to Holy Orders with his ordination to the priesthood about a year ago.
With the rite of baptism, Alyse Marie takes the first step on her own life’s journey through the sacraments with a special guide – her uncle, Fr. Rach.
The baptism of his niece, coupled with a community celebration of his birthday and celebrating his first Mass at Holy Family, topped an eventful, though temporary, return home for Fr. Rach, the first Fond du Lac native ordained as a priest since 1990.
“It felt wonderful to baptize my niece. She’s a sweet little girl,” Fr. Rach said following the June 23 Mass at which his niece was one of two infants baptized by the priest. “This is the first time I’ve been able to baptize a member of my own family. It certainly was a special moment.”
Ordained a Canon last year
A 1993 graduate of St. Mary’s Springs Academy in Fond du Lac, Fr. Rach, whose birth name is Damian, was ordained Dec. 30, 2012, in Vienna, Austria, taking vows in the Austrian Congregation of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, an ancient order. In particular, Fr. Rach took vows of stability to the 902-year-old Stift Klosterneuburg Abbey, established by St. Leopold just outside Vienna.
“We pray and work together, but our primary work is in parishes,” Fr. Rach said.
According to the congregation’s web- site, newsite.augustiniancanons.org, the order looks after 100 parishes in Austria and South Tyrol, a province in northern Italy.
The congregation also operates parishes in Norway and two in Glen Cove, New York, where Fr. Rach serves as parochial vicar.
Sister surprised by his vocation
Anne Riecken, Fr. Rach’s sister and the mother of Alyse Marie, said her brother showed no interest in the priesthood or any religious vocation as a boy.
“If you would have told me that he would be a priest baptizing my daughter, I would have been shocked,” Riecken said. “It’s been an adjustment for us to call him Gabriel. I love that he is a priest. I have three brothers and I’m glad God got one. It was totally weird to see him in a collar for the first time, but a good kind of weird.”
Fr. Rach’s mother, Chris Rach, said failing to attend Mass each week “was never an option” for her children.
“It was just one of those things we did as a family, but his decision to become a priest was so unexpected, but we are extremely proud of him,” she said.
Ordination ‘almost like a wedding’
She said attending her son’s ordination in Vienna a year ago, along with other family members and friends, “was almost like a wedding.”
“It was like one of your kids getting married. You just can’t believe it’s happening until it’s over and reality sets in. You realize, ‘Oh yes. We do have a priest in the family.’”
Fr. Rach’s decision to become a priest began when he was 30, following four years of studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology under an Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, a career in the military and a stint in the private sector.
He graduated in 1997 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force and stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
After a few years, Fr. Rach entered the private sector where he worked for five years in Indianapolis as a military financial consultant.
“A friend of mine at work, who was not a Catholic, decided she needed to be a better Christian, so she introduced me to the most Catholic person she knew,” Fr. Rach said.
Fr. Rach and his newfound friend attended several Catholic events for young adults and, at one point, started an Indianapolis chapter of Theology on Tap, an international program of lectures and discussions typically held in bars or restaurants and sponsored by Catholic dioceses.
“We started getting more and more into it, but it took a while before I thought being a priest was in the cards for me,” Fr. Rach said. “I have absolutely no idea when I decided being a priest was something I should do, or at least scratch the surface to see if it was my vocation.”
Friendship opened door to vocation
His vocation became clear through a friendship with a priest in Indiana.
“He told me he knew several Americans at the Stift Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria. He told me he was going to join the abbey and thought the lifestyle would be something that would interest me,” Fr. Rach said. “We ended up joining together. The funny thing is, he didn’t finish his novice year. I ended up staying.”
In 2006, Fr. Rach began seminary studies in Rome.
Hundreds of parishioners packed Holy Family Community Church for the June 23 Mass to hear and see Fr. Rach.
Many parishioners went straight from the Mass to a community reception for Fr. Rach, who had attended the ordination of a friend in La Crosse before coming to Fond du Lac.
“It was a big day for the whole family. He’s lived abroad for his entire studies and now he is finally stateside, but he doesn’t get home that often because the life of a priest is demanding,” Anne Riecken said.
Fr. Ryan Pruess, one of three priests to comprise the in solidum team at Holy Family, said it was encouraging “to see the church rally around our priests, especially a newly ordained priest, to support and encourage him.”
“It’s always a gift for a priest to exercise a ministry (such as baptism), but to do it with your family is even more of a personal, touching experience,” he said.
Lay support energizes priest
Fr. Pruess said he was inspired, and hopes other young men and women are inspired, to pursue a religious vocation through Fr. Rach’s words.
“It’s so wonderful to know people are rallying behind you and are so happy to have another priest in their church,” Fr. Rach said. “It gives me a little hope for the future. Young men and women need to be shown the type of energy I’ve been shown. When I was growing up in Fond du Lac and going to Catholic schools for 12 years I don’t remember ever being told I should be a priest or maybe that it was an option. Young people need to see the excitement the laity has for this type of lifestyle. I hope my coming to Fond du Lac inspired some young people to explore a vocation as a priest, sister or nun.”
Different kind of fatherhood
Fr. Rach said he was given the choice of three names when ordained, a tradition among the Canons signifying a leaving the past behind and looking forward to a future with God.
“I was given the choice of Gabriel, Alexander or Cassius. I picked Gabriel because, quite honestly, I love the Annunciation. I think it’s a beautiful name,” Fr. Rach said. “I also thought in an earlier life if I had become a father and had a son I would like to call him Gabriel. Well, I’m a different kind of father now so I took the name.”