The Second Time Around

"Delayed" vocation to the priesthood offers fulfillment

Psychologist. Accountant. Lawyer. Data processing consultant. Restaurant supply company owner. Computer programmer. Management consultant. Architect.

Those are the jobs that people such as Al Backmann, Bob Stone and Joe Gannon held for years. They found satisfaction and fulfillment in their careers. They raised families. They got involved in their communities.

And they decided to become priests.

Single, widowed and divorced, they span the gamut of life experiences. They ranged in age from late 20s to late 50s when they entered the seminary and began a new life dedicated to serving God and the Catholic Church.

And while each will say he is fully "at peace" with his decision, more than one will note that it surprised him because of its totality and, in some ways, its finality.

"My career goal was typical," said Paul Treacy, 35, who worked 12 years for the St. Paul Companies after graduating from St. Thomas in 1988. "I wanted to do well in my career, get married and have kids. If you would have asked me five years ago about going into the seminary, I would have said, ‘What are you, nuts?’ "

The phenomenon is called "delayed" or "later" vocations, and it is just that — a phenomenon. Whereas seminaries a generation or two ago were filled almost entirely with young men in their early 20s, seminaries today are populated by men of all ages. About two-thirds of the 73 men in the St. Paul Seminary are later vocations.

That delights rectors such as the Rev. Phil Rask of the St. Paul Seminary and the Rev. William Baer of St. John Vianney Seminary. They find older men bring maturity and stability to a seminary community, and the result is a richer experience for all of those involved.

"This is amazing," Rask said one day as he scanned the roster of seminarians ordained in 1999. He suspected the class of 17 had a majority of later-vocation priests, but as he ticked off the names he shook his head and smiled. All but a couple had entered the seminary at a later age.

Rask and Baer are careful not to pigeonhole older men on why they chose to become priests. Most situations are unique, they say, and everyone has his own circumstances or reasons.

"Many find success in careers or business," said Rask, a traditional-vocation priest ordained in 1972, "but they ask, ‘Is this all there is in life?’ They look around for something else to give them more meaning and satisfaction. And for some, it is the seminary and the priesthood."

"Many young people today put their heads down and plan life from the moment they take the SAT in high school to when they get a degree and a job," Baer said. "I’m amazed how many anxious 18-year-olds think they need to achieve so much by 25. Then they hit 30 and they wonder. It’s not that they typically are disillusioned — it’s only that they have shut down any reflective, prayerful gears until they reach their more materialistic goals."

Baer himself is a later-vocation priest. He grew up in Baltimore, studied architecture at Georgia Tech and returned to his hometown to practice. He gravitated toward campus ministry work in Baltimore before moving to the University of Michigan. He spent eight years there and began to think of the priesthood.

"As a youth, I never wanted to be a priest," he said. "I didn’t have good priestly role models. Many of the priests I knew were burned out, lonely and not excited about their faith. I thought I could do more for God in other roles."

Baer joined the Companions of Christ community in St. Paul, enrolled in the St. Paul Seminary in 1992 and was ordained at 35. He found his greatest challenges "were how to be a student in my 30s and how to bring 15 years of life experiences into play. The seminary did a very good job of respecting the particular needs and gifts of a late-vocation student like me."

Baer had a "comfortable transition" because of his ministry work, "but certain elements of the priesthood can’t be prepared for," he said. "There is the peculiar phenomenon within the sacraments, the wonderful experience of hearing confession, the teaching nature of preaching, the dramatic shifts of joy and sorrow — getting a phone call of a child’s birth followed by one of a tragic death. That’s impossible to understand fully unless you’re a priest."

The Rev. Stan Mader, who entered the seminary at 32, was co-director of the archdiocesan vocations office from 1994 to 1998. He valued what older men brought to the seminary "because they knew what it was like to look for a job, to lose a job, to pay rent, to date people. They had a more developed sense of relationships." This is especially important, Mader said, at a time when priests are becoming pastors much earlier than in the past.

"None of that means the traditional 26-year-old man coming out of the seminary can’t be a good priest," Mader said. "He can be. People can be mature — or immature — at any age."

The Rev. John Malone was a traditional seminarian, ordained at 26. He has counseled a number of later-vocation priests who sought his advice because they knew him at St. Thomas, where he teaches business law, or because they are parishioners at Assumption in downtown St. Paul, where he is pastor.

"I don’t tell them anything specific," Malone said. "I listen to them. If they have questions, I try to be honest and responsive. I don’t think there is a boilerplate answer. It all depends on the person and his experiences."

One seminarian said Malone gave sound advice about such issues as celibacy and loneliness. "You can fill your days with a lot of work," Malone said, "but at the end of the day, can you go home and be alone? Personal fulfillment involves development of relationships. That doesn’t end when you become a priest, but the relationships clearly can be different."

The best way to gain a clear understanding of later vocations is to talk to men who have experienced them. Here are their stories — four who are priests and three who are seminarians.

Rev. Al Backmann, 63

St. John Neumann, Eagan

Everybody, it seemed, thought Al Backmann should become a priest.

But it wasn’t parents, teachers or coaches giving such advice to a teen-aged youth who they envisioned as a priest. It was friends and associates, and Backmann was a widower in his mid-50s with a business and five children.

"A couple of years after Nancy died, I was talking to a friend and I told him I was thinking of becoming a deacon," Backmann recalled. "He said, ‘I think you’d be a better priest.’ I laughed and said I did not want to go back to school for six years. But you know, he planted the seed."

Others did, too. When he met with the vocations office to discuss becoming a deacon, 15 minutes into the interview he was told, "I don’t want to discuss you being a deacon, but a priest." A priest friend read Backmann’s autobiography and asked, "Have you ever thought of the seminary?"

"I kept getting this message," Backmann said, "and I kept asking God what to do. Finally one morning, He said He would give me all the support He could. I never looked back. When I got the call, I said, ‘Yes, that’s where I am supposed to be.’ "

He enrolled at the St. Paul Seminary in 1996, took 16 class credits that summer and crammed six years of coursework into four. He was ordained last May and assigned to St. John Neumann in Eagan, not far from St. Thomas Becket, his teaching parish.

"I can’t imagine doing anything else," he said. "I never have been happier since Nancy’s death. This is where God wants me. I am totally at peace."

Backmann grew up in Minneapolis, graduated from North High, enlisted in the Army and served in Korea for two years. He married his high school sweetheart and earned an accounting degree from the University of Minnesota. He bought and sold commodities at General Mills until 1968, when he became an accountant for a large firm. He left in 1981 to establish his own firm.

His wife died of cancer in 1989; his two sons were still at home. He became more active in Serra Club, which encourages vocations, and gravitated toward the priesthood. The first six months were the most difficult as he adjusted to living in a community — "I went from a five-bedroom home to a one-bedroom condo to a seminary room!" — and taking classes with students half his age.

He cherishes his work at St. John Neumann, where he assists the Rev. Bob Schwartz. He is part of the religious education team and spends a lot of time at Faithful Shepherd School, where he says Mass on Wednesdays.

"There are two things I love," he said. "No. 1 is Mass. I still get goosebumps when I celebrate Mass. No. 2 is the people — they are so open, so welcoming, so wanting to hear God’s word." His only fear is "that someday, somebody is going to come to me and I won’t be able to help them."

Backmann says he has changed in the year he has been a priest. A daughter, Mary Beth Terhaar, mostly agrees. She wasn’t surprised he became a priest, but that hasn’t changed their relationship.

"It’s still the same for us," she said. "When he walks to the door, he’s still just dad. He does act differently with others than he did when he was in business. He’s more open, and that’s good."

Her children think it’s "cool" that he is a priest. "When dad was in the seminary, my son wrote a story for class on how grandpa was going to be a priest," she said. "I got a call from his teacher, saying Nick had quite an imagination and was making things up about his grandpa becoming a priest. I said, ‘No, that’s true; he is going to be a priest.’ "

Rev. Stan Mader, 45

Our Lady of the Lake, Mound

Stan Mader has found out that you can go home again.

He grew up on a farm near St. Bonafacius in western Hennepin County, left after graduating from Holy Trinity High School in Winsted and returned three years ago not as a farmer or the small business owner and consultant he had become. He came back as a priest — the pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Mound, just three miles away from his boyhood home.

"I first stayed away from Our Lady of the Lake because I thought it might be too close to home," he said. "I wanted a new experience. But I checked out the parish, and when I realized I knew only about 30 people, I thought it was a possibility. My parents still live on the farm . . . but they don’t feel a need to come and see me every time I genuflect."

Mader’s movement toward the priesthood occurred over two decades, beginning at 17. The thought surprised him, he said, "and I didn’t want to do it. But I started thinking about it practically every day." He graduated from St. John’s University and became a systems software specialist for Burroughs Corp.

"Along the way, people would ask me if I ever thought of being a priest," he said, but he demurred. "I kept my options open, but that gave me no direction. I came to the realization that a commitment could be more liberating than confining."

After six years at Burroughs, Mader started his own business as a data processing consultant. He was successful and found himself busy six days a week, but something still was missing from his life. He ultimately decided to share what he knew about Christ with others, "and to do it with credibility and authority. I concluded the best way to do that would be as a priest."

He enrolled in the St. Paul Seminary in 1988, did his teaching parish work at Guardian Angels in Lake Elmo and was ordained in 1992. He served at St. Joseph’s in Hopkins until 1994, when he moved to St. Mark’s in St. Paul and also became co-director of the vocations office.

"I’m very happy being a priest," he said. "There are tough days, sure, but things aren’t different because I’m a priest. It’s just a matter of dealing with the job and with life."

Rev. Bob Hart, 52

Cathedral of St. Paul

Bob Hart remembers his disillusionment one day in the early 1990s when he sat down with the Rev. Tom Dufner, a priest and friend, to complain.

"I told him, ‘Tom, I don’t like my job. I want to be a priest.’ And Tom said, ‘Well, there are better reasons to be a priest. You might think about this a bit more.’ "

Hart thought about it a lot more. He read, reflected and attended a St. Thomas Alumni Association Lenten Retreat facilitated by the Rev. Jim Smith, now pastor at Transfiguration in Oakdale, "who struck me as a pretty regular guy." They talked, and Hart decided to enroll in the St. Paul Seminary.

"I was overwhelmed with peace and joy . . . and a little fear," he said. "Here I am, 45 and going back to school for who knows how long, and I really didn’t know what it would be like."

It was perhaps the most uncertain time in Hart’s life. The Chicago native graduated from St. Thomas in 1970 with degrees in accounting and quantitative methods, and spent 23 years in computer programming and facilities management at Prudential before he was laid off during a corporate downsizing in 1994, just as he was preparing to enter the seminary.

Hart enjoyed his work at his teaching parish, St. Joseph’s in Hopkins, and at the Cathedral, where he was a sacristan and server, but he struggled with his studies. "I kept asking myself, ‘Is this God’s way of telling me, subtly, that I’m not cut out for the priesthood?’ I told myself to keep pushing. Then all of the pieces came together in my last year."

He was ordained last year and assigned to the Cathedral, where he has been amazed by the broad spectrum of parishioners — 1,500 households, half of them single-person and spread out across 141 ZIP Codes — and their varied needs.

"It’s fascinating how you are immersed so quickly and completely into people’s lives, whether it’s people preparing for marriage or dealing with struggles in a marriage," he said. "At my first Sunday Mass here, I did a baptism . . . and later I annointed a woman, 18, after an overdose."

Hart finds satisfaction when people tell him, "What you said really touched me." He recalled one homily in which he told the congregation it must have enough faith "to let go and let God" help. "A couple came up to me afterwards and said, ‘We have several major decisions to make this week and we’re going to keep in mind what you said; to not get so worked up about them."

Rev. Joseph Gannon, 86

Byrne Residence, St. Paul

The Rev. Joe Gannon waves off the suggestion he was a "pioneer" among later-vocation priests.

"Well, kind of a pioneer," he said. "And an old one at that!"

Gannon was one of a kind when he decided to become a priest after his wife died in 1970. He was 55 years old and couldn’t get into the St. Paul Seminary because of concerns of how well he would mix with young seminarians. He enrolled in Beda Pontifical College in Rome and was ordained by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

The thought of priesthood always had intrigued Gannon. He grew up in Farmington and worked as a superintendent for Northern Natural Gas before getting into the restaurant business. He owned five restaurants in Iowa before selling them and starting a restaurant supply company in the Twin Cities. Married in 1936, he has six children, 12 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.

"Arlene would ask me what I would do it something happened to her," he said. "More education, I said. She pressed me and I said, ‘Maybe the priesthood.’ She laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’ll be married in 30 days.’ "

He never did remarry. His interest in the priesthood was piqued after hearing an Edina Serra Club speech by a Wisconsin priest who had a delayed vocation.

"I always was interested in the church and the life of Christ," Gannon said, and "the priesthood provided an opportunity to get into work where age didn’t make a difference. Once a priest, always a priest, you know."

Gannon is proof of that to this day. After serving at St. Leo’s and Maternity of the Blessed Virgin in St. Paul and St. Peter’s in Forest Lake, he became pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary in St. Paul, from which he retired in 1985. He still likes to "fill in all over" even though he’s 86 and has some trouble with his eyes.

"I just love the work," he said. "God’s work."

Dan Griffith, 30

St. Paul Seminary, third year

Dan Griffith has thought of being a priest ever since he was a little kid.

But it took him 27 years to be absolutely sure. He went to college and law school. He clerked for judges. He talked with priests who he admired. And he remembers living in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. Paul during law school. "It was like God hovering over me, saying, ‘Yes, you will be a priest, and I’m not going away.’ "

In the end, though, the questions and indecision were swept away during a dinner held by Archbishop Harry Flynn for men considering the priesthood.

"I was so impressed with him," Griffith said, "and I thought, ‘I can see myself doing this.’ I had been praying for a year. Hearing his story, and that of priests like Father Michael Joncas, was the final affirmation."

So in the fall of 1998, Griffith enrolled in the St. Paul Seminary. He will be ordained next May.

He grew up in Menasha, Wis., the youngest of nine children, and graduated from St. Thomas in 1993 with a degree in political science. He worked in a plastics manufacturing plant for a year so he could afford law school, and then enrolled at William Mitchell. His goal was simple — "to be a lawyer, a husband and a father."

"During law school, I could see myself practicing law, but something was missing, like I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled," he said. "It wasn’t a mistake going to law school. I got a great education and it gave me a greater sense of certitude about the priesthood."

He looked to priests he respected — Joncas, Malone, Kevin McDonough and Eugene Tiffany — for advice and was heartened by their joy of being priests. "I came to the conclusion that I, too, could be happy as a priest," he said. "Sure, I felt called. But would I be happy? I kept meeting happy priests. That was an important step for me."

He also came to accept that he wouldn’t be a husband and a father. "That’s the reason it took me 27 years," he said. "If they had allowed married priests, I might have done this right out of college. It just took me longer to get to this point."

He has found seminary life, with its academic, formation and teaching parish responsibilities, to be more hectic than law school, when he took a full load of classes and was a full-time clerk.

"Father Joncas says there’s a method to that," he said. "The priesthood is a very busy life. They want to see if you can hack the pace, how you deal with pressure and conflicts and setting priorities."

Paul Treacy, 35

St. Paul Seminary, first year

Paul Treacy had a closer connection to the St. Paul Seminary than he ever imagined.

On the day he moved in last fall, his mom pointed to the rose window above the organ in St. Mary’s Chapel and told him how his grandfather and brother had given the window to the seminary in 1929 in memory of their mother.

Eighty-two years later, Mary Culligan’s great-grandson can be found praying in that same chapel and studying for the priesthood just a few steps away. He made the choice after drawing inspiration from people such as Mother Teresa, who he met when his cousin became a Sister of Charity, and from a friend whose mom died of cancer.

"I asked him about her faith, and he told me the story of a priest who came into her life and, in annointing her, brought peace to her," he said. "The next day, I read more about that sacrament and the thought of priesthood came to me. My first reaction was no, that I wanted a wife and kids. But by the end of the night, the thought hadn’t gone away. I decided to learn more about my faith."

Treacy earned degrees in marketing and finance from St. Thomas in 1988. He worked for the St. Paul Companies for 12 years in underwriting, marketing and management.

His parents, nine siblings and friends, including his former fiancee, were surprised by his decision but supportive. So were co-workers, some of whom "couldn’t understand why I’d give up a good career," he said. "My boss, and her boss, said, ‘Well, how can I argue with God?’ They knew this would make me the happiest."

He finds his coursework challenging but says it is fun to be a student again at 35. He is on a six-year program, including two years of "pre-theology." One of his courses this year — Theology 101 — is the same that he took as an undergraduate student, "but my disposition is different today. It’s fascinating — the topics we get into now I wouldn’t have fathomed 16 years ago."

Bob Stone, 55

St. Paul Seminary, fourth year

Bob Stone was in his late 40s. His marriage of 27 years was over. He had lost his job and his house. His kids were grown up.

He decided he needed to "reassess" his life, and he turned to God for help.

"God gave me a real wakeup call," Stone said. "He had been open to me but I had taken Him for granted. I was too self-centered."

Stone also turned to a new friend, the Rev. Jim Henry. They shared an interest in hiking, and talked often about Stone’s interest in the priesthood.

"He never pushed me into it but wanted to make sure I understood God’s place in my life," Stone said. "The idea of being a priest came on slowly. I put it off at first because I didn’t want it to be a ‘rebound’ after marriage. I wanted to make sure it was God’s idea."

It ended up as God’s idea. Henry knew priests in the Diocese of Crookston in northwestern Minnesota, and Stone visited there. He enrolled in the St. Paul Seminary in 1997 and will be ordained June 18 in Crookston as a priest of that diocese.

Stone grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, earning psychology and sociology degrees at Maryland and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Auburn. He moved to California and worked for the state as a rehabilitation counselor, vocational psychologist and juvenile corrections psychologist until entering the seminary.

He remembers he was nervous telling his children about his decision, but "they were excited for me. They thought it was a phenomenal call from God at that time in my life." As a deacon, he recently baptized his grandson. His former wife also has been supportive. "She asked if she could come to the ordination, and I said, ‘Darn right.’ She’ll be right there with the kids and me."

Henry also hopes to participate in the ordination. He believes Stone will be a good priest.

"My role was to enable him to get to a point where he could reflect seriously about the priesthood," said Henry, an Ireland native who is pastor of a church in Arroyo Grande, Calif. "It takes a lot of courage to step into something this unusual at this time in one’s life."

Stone isn’t sure about the "courage" issue. He ultimately places his trust in one person, and remembers some common-sense advice from a priest.

"God and you are on a two-seat bike," Stone said. "He’s in front and you’re in back. You pedal and He steers. He’ll get you where you need to go."