NEWTON — It’s fitting that Fr. Bill Ribbens’ last Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish will be the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Saturday, Dec. 12.
After all, he has devoted more than 2,000 hours over the past 13 years leading the Spanish-speaking Mass each Sunday afternoon at the rural Manitowoc County church.
And it was another Guadalupe — Sr. Guadalupe Munoz of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity — who introduced him to the Hispanic community.
“I’ve learned so much from the Hispanic community and I’m grateful for everything that I’ve learned,” said Fr. Bill, 80, a member of the Norbertine religious community. “It has been phenomenal to get to know so many people and learn so much about their culture. … Like the importance of the family and celebrating baptisms and Communions and quinceaneras — all such a wonderful learning experience. I think of it as a blessing. I’ll always feel a part of it.”
The 90-minute, round-trip drive from De Pere each week has taken its toll — especially since sometimes he assists two other Masses in the morning — so Fr. Bill is relinquishing his role at the Spanish-language Masses in Newton. His last Sunday Mass was Nov. 22.
Fr. Michael Warden of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc will lead those Masses starting on Nov. 29. They’re the only regularly scheduled Spanish-language Masses in Manitowoc County.
Church personnel and parishioners alike say they’ll miss Fr. Bill — who dutifully taught himself how to lead Masses in Spanish. He recalls missing only one Mass over the years because of bad weather.
“He is very faithful,” said Sr. Marlita Henseler, pastoral leader at St. Thomas the Apostle and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. “He’s willing to be there for more than just the Sunday Masses — he used to come on Saturdays, too. He’d be here for weddings and quinceaneras and other events. His faithful readiness to serve has been wonderful.”
Gloria Mediano and her husband, Camilo, live in Manitowoc and attend the Spanish-language Masses at St. Thomas the Apostle nearly every week. Prior to Fr. Bill’s arrival, they had to drive to Green Bay each week for those Masses.
“It’s sad for us that he will be leaving,” she said. “He’s an excellent person. He’s really patient. And I’ll miss his smiles. He smiles all the time. He did a really nice job for all of us.”
Fr. Bill’s involvement with the Hispanic community in northeast Wisconsin began after he met Sr. Guadalupe at the Our Lady of Charity convent. She told him about a young Hispanic girl with cystic fibrosis, so Fr. Bill went to visit the girl and her mother in a hospital. The girl died soon thereafter and Fr. Bill was invited to the funeral. There, he saw how families worked together at home to handle funeral arrangements.
“That really showed me how important family is to the Hispanic community,” Fr. Bill said.
After that, he became more involved with the Hispanic community at parishes like St. Philip the Apostle in Green Bay, St. Thomas the Apostle in Newton and St. Willebrord in Green Bay. He also has helped with Spanish-language Masses in Door County.
These days, he helps conduct Spanish-language Masses at the Brown County Jail, lends support to recovering alcoholics, assists however needed at the Diocese of Green Bay and leads Spanish-language Masses for migrant workers in the Gillett area during the summer.
“I enjoy the people,” Fr. Bill said. “And that’s what I’ll miss most — being with the people. I enjoy the kids. I enjoy their parents.
“I just never expected I’d be doing it this long and having this experience,” he added. “It has been phenomenal. The appreciation is just so great. The people are all enjoyable. I’m going to miss it a lot.”