“They see that you struggle and they know you understand their struggles,” he said. “It helps me in my pastoral work very much. That’s the blessing.”
Fr. Duffeck was installed as pastor of St. Joseph and St. Mary parishes in Oneida Feb. 20 by Bishop David Ricken. Ordained in 2006, he served as associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier and St. Mary parishes in De Pere before being appointed to his first pastorate last summer.
While he admits that his physical limitations do change his approach to ministry, Fr. Duffeck believes it has helped form a special bond with his parishioners.
“I had different images, no doubt about it,” he told The Compass, explaining how his priesthood is not what he envisioned when he entered the seminary. “That’s the way it ended up. But yet, you can relate to people in a special way.”
Fr. Duffeck’s limited mobility is a result of an undetected herniated disc in his upper back. He was a freshman at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana in 2000 when the injury first came to light.
During Mass at the seminary, he received Communion, turned around “and down to the floor I went. My legs were shaking and my nerves were gone,” he recalled. The incident sparked a battery of X-rays and MRIs on his lower back.
“I never had a back injury all of my life; never had a back ache,” he said. “So it was a shock to me.” Physical therapy and visits to the chiropractor helped reduce the back pain, but long stretches driving back and forth to Indiana aggravated the pain.
About a year later, Fr. Duffeck visited another doctor. “He pulled up the MRIs, looked at them and said, ‘We’re doing another one.'” This time they examined his upper back. “We realized the damage was between the shoulder blades,” he said. “It was a herniated disc and it damaged the spinal cord. It was bruised and it never healed. So there are nerve problems there.”
He had back surgery, but continued to struggle with pain.
“I would always go to the Eucharist chapel, sit down with the Lord and not complain,” he explained. “I said, ‘I need the strength. Guide me through this,’ and the Lord would always refresh, renew my soul.”
One month after surgery, Fr. Duffeck’s mother, Joanne, died. Two months later, his spiritual director at St. Meinrad died. Both deaths meant extended periods driving in his car, causing back irritation. The emotional strain of losing his mother and spiritual mentor added to the physical pain.
“Then the (priest) sexual scandal broke and it was like, ‘Lord, is anything else going to go wrong?’ In six months, a year, I had just gone through hell,” said Fr. Duffeck. “Yet the Lord just kept reaffirming me.”
By the time he was ordained to the priesthood in 2006, Fr. Duffeck had accepted that his physical health would never be the same.
“So that is how life goes,” he said. “You move on. But every time I would sit and pray with the Lord, it was like (God would say), ‘I have called you and you are mine. Do not fear.’ Sometimes in different words, but it would always come to my heart. So I just kept going.”
Fr. Duffeck’s last series of examinations took place in January 2009 while serving in De Pere.
“A doctor in the parish looked at me and said, ‘Fr. Dave, it’s time.’ So I went back to a whole series of MRIs. He said, ‘You cracked a vertebra. We’re going to put this glue in your back and we’re going to seal that up and you should walk like normal.’ Well, two months later (after another surgery) they said, ‘You’re not going to walk like normal.'”
He was told he had irreparable nerve damage.
Today, Fr. Duffeck says his health is like a roller coaster, sometimes up and sometimes down. The quad cane keeps him upright, but his strength comes from knowing that God has chosen him to serve others.
“I’ve got limitations. I accept them,” said Fr. Duffeck. He makes sure to rest between assignments. “If I’m going to be there for people in the sacraments, I need that hour and a half. Sometimes you can’t get it and you push through it, but you’ve got to make up the time.”
Sometimes at Mass, when his legs begin to cramp, he instructs the deacon, lector and altar servers to process out of the church after Mass and he stays seated. “When people turn to walk out, then I’ll walk down from the altar and they won’t see me struggling because I have cramped muscles,” he said. “I don’t want to take away from the worship service.”
The slanted floor at St. Joseph Church makes it difficult to walk in procession at Mass, so Fr. Duffeck adapted to the situation with creativity.
He enters the church early, makes his way up to the sanctuary from a side aisle and sits in a chair near the altar. Five minutes before Mass, he calls the congregation into quiet prayer, offering petitions for local and world needs. The opening hymn and procession then begins, with altar servers and the lector joining Fr. Duffeck in the sanctuary.
“That takes away anybody coming in and seeing me stumbling with this cane,” he said. “People say, ‘Father, that five minutes before Mass, we love it.’ It was an adaptation for me but we turned it into a positive.”
When it gets extra difficult, Fr. Duffeck asks God for strength.
He will sit before the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and pray, “Lord, this is not my work, it’s yours. I’m just a feeble servant. Give me the strength to make it through this Mass and I can serve your people,” he said.
Years ago, Fr. Duffeck said he received sage advice from a veteran priest. “He said, ‘Love your people to death and they will love you.’ I think that is very true,” he said.
It has come to fruition by acts of kindness that have overwhelmed him, he said.
At St. Joseph, parishioners built hand rails on the steps leading to the sanctuary. They also installed a rail along the back of the altar to help Fr. Duffeck balance himself while celebrating Mass.
One parishioner, Ted Prosser, also built a chair for Fr. Duffeck in which he sits to distribute Communion.
“It’s hard to serve Communion when you’re balancing on a cane,” he said. “Just before my installation Mass (Prosser) delivered it. I’ve never seen so many people smile with such glee in their eyes that Father is serving Communion. I almost cried.”
While Fr. Duffeck’s Roman collar identifies him as a priest, his cane is like a key that opens doors to peoples’ souls.
“People see I have good days and bad days. Then you see other people go through it and you can guide them a lot easier,” he said. “I’ve been there for eight, nine years. There’s a negative in my life, but it can be a strength for someone else along the journey. There’s got to be good in everything. You’ve just got to be looking for it.”