This is the third in a series of articles introducing you to the six men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 17, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
After rolling slices of white bread, young Nathaniel Miniatt would cut the slivers into small circles, and place them on a plate. He’d pour grape juice into one of his mother’s fancy wine glasses, grab the family Bible and call the family to “Mass.”
“He would dress as a priest by putting a sheet over himself, and go through the Mass,” said his mother, Rose, in a phone conversation. “He did this for a long time, and in the back of our minds, we thought he might want to become a priest.”
The eldest of 10 childen, Nathaniel was the first to be homeschooled in his Michigan home, and remembered sitting at Mass as a toddler thinking that, one day, he could do what the priest did.
“Certainly, by the time I was 4 years old, I was playing Mass, and would have my family be my congregation,” he said in an email interview. “I would recite as much of the Mass as I could from memory, since I couldn’t read.”
Parish priest is role model
After his first Communion, he regularly served Mass for his parish priest, the late Fr. Marian Lesniak, of St. Joseph Parish in Jackson, Mich. Although, only 7 or 8 years old, Deacon Miniatt believes it was an important step in his journey to priesthood.
“He was my role model priest and remains so to this day,” said Deacon Miniatt. “In many ways, he taught me way back then how to say Mass, and I will be forever grateful for his presence in my life at that time and his encouragement to me. We moved when I was 9 to Wisconsin, and I only saw him a couple more times,” he said, explaining how he corresponded with the priest upon entering the seminary.
“He died a couple of years ago, after 61 years of priesthood,” said Deacon Miniatt. “Though I wish he could vest me on ordination day, I am sure he will be present and looking down from above.”
Fire destroys family barns
Homeschooled until he entered the seminary, Deacon Miniatt’s first semester at St. Joseph Seminary at Loyola University in Chicago was far from ordinary. Within weeks of beginning school in September 2007, a fire destroyed two barns on his parents’ dairy farm in Westford near Beaver Dam, where the family’s parish was St. Katharine Drexel. No one was hurt and there were no livestock casualties, but all of the winter’s feed, some machinery and other equipment was destroyed. Rose admitted they weren’t sure how their son’s seminary studies would be affected.
“We were concerned and didn’t know what to expect or what we were going to do, but I do remember wondering why we had the fire,” admitted Rose. “Nathaniel and his dad and brothers did so much work. They sided the building, put on a new roof and did everything from scratch. After a while, I went from ‘why’ to ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ and tried to make that our mantra. My niece brought up the verse from Job, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return again. Yahweh gave, Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh!’ (Job 1:21). And then, I adopted the saying that ‘all things work together for good.’”
Family helped by generous benefactors
Thanks to generous benefactors, Deacon Miniatt’s education was not interrupted, but Rose remembered the shocked tone in his voice when she called to tell him about the fire.
“When I called, I asked him if he was sitting down and he said that he was on his way to class,” she explained. “I told him that I had news that was not so good. He was shocked, as we all were; but he stayed in school and just kept on keeping on. People read about the fire in the article in the Catholic Herald and they helped out where they could. The diocese has been great, and filled in that year what we weren’t able to pay.”
While Deacon Miniatt admitted he was disheartened after the hard work invested, it didn’t negatively affect his school year.
“I was pretty shocked at first, but our neighbors and many other people were so generous. They came over and helped clean up all the smoking rubble,” he said. “A neighbor who had sold his cows allowed us to use his barn the morning after the fire, and the cows stayed there for a few months. All this meant was that it was not necessary for me to be home during that time, though I did come home on a weekend to check things out and survey the damage. We had so many people give financially to us within a month or two of the fire. It was an amazing witness to the goodness of many people, and the ability that a rural community still has, to be able to come together in time of need.”
Following the fire, the family moved to Cadott, in the LaCrosse Diocese, where they are members of St. Anthony Parish.
“We found a farm up here and moved the cows and machinery with us,” said Rose. “We wanted to be closer to my and my husband Ed’s (Edmond) family, who are both from the area.”
Sent to Rome to study
The past four years, Deacon Miniatt has attended the Pontifical North American College in Rome and while his parents are proud of their son’s accomplishments, they miss not having easy access to him.
“He has done so well in school and received a great education and had his formation in the Eternal City; I mean, what more can you ask?” said Rose. “He does come home in the summer, but we haven’t had him here since 2008 because he has been doing parish work in the summers. This is one of the most wonderful things a parent can want, but the separation is difficult. I know that he won’t be home for Christmases or Easters as he will be in his parish, but those are sacrifices we will all have to make.”
In his ministerial work, Deacon Miniatt has visited the elderly and homebound, assisted at Mass, participated in Bible studies, helped with baptism preparation and worked with youth.
“This past year at the seminary, I have been tutoring a group of students who are in a formation program, taking nine months to learn more about their faith and how to spread the Gospel in their own countries,” he said. “Of course, as a transitional deacon, I have been preaching, leading exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and giving Benediction at a convent of religious sisters and other diaconal ministry as the occasion arises.”
Priesthood is ‘a gift’
The nudge to the priesthood began at an early age, noted Deacon Miniatt, who acknowledged God chooses men with differing backgrounds.
“The Lord has made mysterious choices from day one and the calling of the 12 apostles,” he said. “In the end, the Lord has the same reasons for calling any man to be one of his priests; they are to make him present in the holy Eucharist and feed his holy people with the same, they are to forgive sins in his name, celebrate the other sacraments and give their lives in complete service and love, just as he did for all of us.”
Deacon Miniatt views priesthood as an immense gift.
“I certainly never did anything to ‘earn’ it in any way, nor has any other priest done so. It is nothing other than a completely gratuitous gift,” he said. “I will add, however, that in order to receive this gift, we have to be able to hear our Lord offering it!”
Deacon Miniatt credits his family for helping him form ears to listen to the Lord’s call. Living a Catholic life, praying a daily rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, praying before meals, at bedtime, and eating at least one meal together each day was the foundation needed to be open to religious life.
“We always attended Sunday Mass and sometimes daily Mass as well, especially as I grew older,” he said. “We participated in the First Friday and First Saturday devotions to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary and celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation monthly. For years, I considered none of this to be anything extraordinary; I thought it was what all Catholic families did. In this context of ‘normalcy,’ love and happiness, I was able to hear the voice of God at a very young age.”
Through his seven years in the seminary, Deacon Miniatt has enjoyed unwavering support of family and friends. At the top of the list were always his parents, who have witnessed the metamorphosis of a child into a holy man of God.
“He is such a people person and wants what is best for others,” said Rose. “He can be a good listener when someone needs to talk, and give good advice if people need it. He is very pastoral and has a calming presence. People find him peaceful and are drawn to him, and they find calm, solace and a renewed peace in knowing they can find some way to deal with their issues. It makes me feel good. It is a gift from God. “
After ordination, Deacon Miniatt looks forward to celebrating the Eucharist, and exercising the healing ministry of the priest, through hearing confessions and speaking with authority Jesus’ words of forgiveness and peace, and anointing the sick.
“Through Fr. Marian Lesniak and his kindness and joyful spirit, as well as the seriousness with which he celebrated the liturgy and the respect he quietly commanded of all the altar boys, I learned how to comport myself in the sanctuary, and I am still imbued with that same liturgical sense today,” he explained. “I have found no need to change it. Father deeply respected the Sacred Species and mainly just by example taught us to do so as well. It was during that brief year or year and a half that I was able to serve in the parish that I really began to receive an understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in my heart. I had known it before in my head, but it was only after serving for Fr. Marian that I knew it in my heart in a whole new way.”