GREEN BAY — After 30 years of priesthood, Fr. John “Jack” Harper has retired as pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Parish and is returning to his hometown of Peshtigo, the city he credits as the inspiration of his vocation.
While it is easy to look back on his journey through faith, Fr. Harper knows he would not be where he is today without the support of his community, his many life experiences, and a strong faith that drove him to welcome all into God’s light.
“I think from very early on in my life, I knew that one day I would be a priest,” Fr. Harper said. “I had no idea how it was going to work out. Then the Lord sent people at opportune moments.”
Fr. Harper was raised in Peshtigo along with seven siblings — all of whom were boys. He graduated from Marinette Catholic Central High School in 1965 and soon after landed a job at Badger Paper Mill. From there, Fr. Harper joined Merchant Marine and attended a marines stewards school in order to work as a head cook while sailing the Great Lakes.
In addition to sailing, Fr. Harper held a number of jobs prior to priesthood, including two stints as a business owner, a nurse’s aide at a psychiatric ward and a teacher at Preble High School in Green Bay after he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and speech education.
“As I reflect on the whole process now, I think every job I had in some way impacted my priesthood positively and gave me insights and skills,” Fr. Harper said.
It was shortly after receiving his college degree that Fr. Harper met Fr. Frank McNulty of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., who played a pivotal role in guiding Fr. Harper to the priesthood.
“I shared with (Fr. McNulty) that I often thought I’d like to discern the possibility of a vocation, but I’d never had the opportunity,” Fr. Harper said. “He’s the priest that set it all in motion.”
With Fr. McNulty’s encouragement, Fr. Harper spent a year in New Jersey at the Immaculate Conception Seminary to study and contemplate if priesthood was his true calling. He said the year was non-committal, allowing him to be a “free agent” of sorts. He ultimately decided to attend the seminary and was ordained in 1987 at the age of 36.
Much to his delight, Fr. Harper was able to host his first Mass right where his journey began: at St. Mary Parish in Peshtigo.
“It was an amazing experience for me because I knew that I was the only priest ever from Peshtigo, and St. Mary Parish that year was celebrating its 122nd anniversary,” Fr. Harper said. “I have always felt deeply indebted to the people of Peshtigo and St. Mary Parish for the roots of my vocation.”
A conversation with a parish elder that day made the occasion even more memorable.
“The morning of my first Mass, this man from the parish by the name of Amos Alswager came up to me — and he always called me by my formal name, John, after my father — and he said, ‘John, I want you to know that when this parish celebrated its 80th anniversary, I promised the Lord I would say the rosary every day until we had our priest. I’ve been saying the rosary now for 42 years, and now we have our priest.’
“That always hit me. (Alswager) was praying for my vocation before I was conceived. Six weeks later he died. It was like he saw his major intention of his life fulfilled. He was a wonderful man,” said Fr. Harper.
Much like his life before priesthood, Fr. Harper’s first years of vocation were filled with different places and people. His first assignment was Sacred Heart Parish in Appleton. After one year, he was transferred to St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, only to be sent to Holy Family Parish in Marinette a short while later. He eventually landed at St. Mary Parish in De Pere, where he served for over 20 years.
“That was a great experience,” Fr. Harper said. “The people there were wonderful.”
In 2009, Fr. Harper was diagnosed with stage-3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was the beginning of a challenging period for him. He endured six months of intense chemotherapy that wiped him of his strength and energy. It was around this time he learned he was going to be transferred to Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Green Bay.
“I was never able to feel like I was really satisfying the needs of the people at Nativity, because I could never do that much,” Fr. Harper said. “I didn’t have much strength. If I could visit four people in the hospital, that took me out for the day. For 15 years at St. Mary in De Pere, I visited every homebound person, every hospital patient and every nursing home resident every month.”
Since his victorious battle over cancer, Fr. Harper feels the effects of the disease and treatment. Despite this, the strength of his faith and devotion to the parish allowed him to serve Nativity of Our Lord until his final Masses in May. The parish expressed its gratitude with receptions after the Masses, as well as plenty of handshakes and smiles as Fr. Harper proceeded down the aisle.
In retirement, Fr. Harper plans to sail once again as he works with the Apostleship of the Sea, an organization that assigns priests to cruise ships as chaplains to celebrate Mass with the passengers. He worked with the group regularly throughout his priesthood, acting as the chaplain for around 85 cruises. His first in retirement leaves for Alaska July 7.
He will also fill in for priests in the diocese when he is able.
While looking back on his priesthood and everything he has done, Fr. Jack said he would not have had it any other way.