Retiring priest finds that his faith flows like a river

By | June 29, 2011


Fr. William Kuhr stands by a lighthouse painting at Franciscan Courts in Oshkosh. Water offers personal and spiritual reflection for the priest who was granted senior priest status on June 30. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

After taking two months off to visit relatives scattered across the country, Fr. Kuhr plans to return to his same positions on a part-time basis. On weekends after Sept. 1, he will help with Mass at St. Jude the Apostle and Most Blessed Sacrament parishes. Every other Friday night, or as needed, he will help with retreat confessions at the Jesuit Retreat House. He will also continue as chaplain for the Oshkosh Serra Club.

So where’s his retirement?

“I’ll have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday free instead of just Wednesday,” he said. “As long as my health is good, I enjoy serving.”

Fr. Kuhr hasn’t strayed too far from his roots. He is the oldest of seven children of the late Roy and Virginia Kuhr of Neenah. His home parish was St. Margaret Mary, and he is the first priest to be ordained among the graduates from that parish’s grade school.

He said he got a lot of early experience coordinating children in various activities at that school. He also enjoyed playing priest for the neighborhood.

“The (parish) priests were a part of our family,” Fr. Kuhr recalled. “I saw them as so helpful, and I wanted to be like them. In the lives of our people, I wanted to serve and I wanted to help them enjoy God’s gifts. As I grew in my years and learned about stewardship, it furthered my convictions and determination.”

Fr. Kuhr attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida (the diocesan seminary, now closed) and St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee. He was ordained on May 27, 1967, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral by auxiliary Bishop John Grellinger.

His first assignment was at St. Bernadette Parish in Appleton. He served with Fr. Willard McKinnon, who had been a priest at St. Margaret Mary in the 1950s. Fr. Kuhr remembers that he had been given a tape recorder from members of the parish after ordination, and he decided to record his homilies at the Masses.

“On a Sunday afternoon in the quiet of my room, I played back the recording, and I cried. I told Fr. McKinnon I’d never preach again. The homily was terrible.”

The older priest consoled him, saying, ‘But you have to. It’s part of what a priest does, and it’s important. Keep trying.'”

Fr. Kuhr said that he went back to his room and prayed: “Lord, I will remember that this is not my gift, and I need your help. I promise that before every preparation and for a homily, I will ask for your help, and after each I will always thank you.'”

Today, he says, “People tell (preaching) is one of my strengths. I remind them it isn’t one of my gifts, but I desperately need God’s help. And it’s wonderful how he is there for us.”

Fr. Kuhr served as Vocations Director for the diocese from 1973 through 1978, and also as chaplain of the Green Bay Serra Club, which promotes vocations. He helped form parish vocation committees, and together they created a parish vocation committee booklet that he said became a model for the entire United States and was translated into Spanish for use in South America.

Although he found vocations work exciting, Fr. Kuhr asked to return to parish work. He served at parishes in New London, Appleton, Algoma and Kewaunee.

He came to serve as chaplain for the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother at their retirement facility, Franciscan Courts, five years ago. He ministers to the 47 sisters living there.

An enduring theme in Fr. Kuhr’s life has been his love of water and what it means to him spiritually. He collects model boats, and pictures of ships and lighthouses. He also enjoys swimming, boating and sailing.

“There’s a peace about water,” he said, “and it reminds me of our church. The faith was spread by missionaries who came by waterway. The first Mass in Oshkosh was offered by a Jesuit in the 1600s in Menominee Park on Lake Winnebago.

“The lighthouse,” he added, “is a symbol of Jesus the light, who protects us from danger and lights the way. Most of the apostles were fishermen. It goes on and on.”

He also sees the sacrament of baptism when he sees water.

“We use water in baptism,” he said, “and as we enter the church.”

Even in retirement, Fr. Kuhr plans to continue his ministry because of the response he has gotten from people telling him that he has helped them feel closer to God and wanting to be active in the church.

“I see what God did in my own life,” the priest said. “He gave me gifts to bring out the best in people for the Lord. Church is who we are together. It’s not my parish or my ministry. It’s not a lonely life.”

As he reflected, he added, “I’m so grateful for how God has called me. For anyone who is called to a church vocation, it’s a fulfilling life of drawing the best of out of people in their gifts from God and helping them get ready for heaven.”

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