GREEN BAY — “When he was first ordained, he thought he’d like to be in a small parish up north someplace.”
Bishop-designate John Doerfler’s mother, Germaine, recalls this from her son’s earliest days in priesthood.
Today, her son has his parish up north — it just covers a diocese.
On Dec. 17, Pope Francis named bishop-designate Doerfler, who was currently vicar general for the Diocese of Green Bay, as 13th bishop of Marquette, Mich.
While the bishop-designate would have known of his appointment earlier, he was not allowed to tell even his mother until the pope’s announcement. So when The Compass called her, she had only known for three hours.
“It hasn’t hit yet,” said Germaine, who served for many years at St. Mary Parish in Appleton. “God has many surprises. As you know, he was teaching at (St. Francis) seminary and he loves to teach. I thought that was probably his niche — whether it would be part time or full time. So this was really surprise. God is a God of surprises.”
Besides his mother, many people noted Bishop-designate Doerfler’s love of teaching when the news was announced.
“He has all the gifts you’d love to see in a young bishop,” said Bishop Emeritus Robert Banks, who ordained Fr. Doerfler to the priesthood on July 13, 1991. “He’s a nice combination of being very pastoral and very learned.”
Bishop Banks also mentioned Bishop-designate Doerfler’s gift for ministry with children. Germaine Doerfler, who didn’t get to attend many of her son’s Masses, remembers a recent Christmas Eve Mass at Holy Trinity in Casco, where her son served as administrator from 1999 to 2004 and where he still helped on weekends. “He sits right on the floor with them,” she said, adding that he had been looking forward to Christmas Masses there again this year.
Deacon Mike Grzeca, pastoral leader at St. Martin Parish in Cecil, also commented on Bishop-designate Doerfler’s pastoral ministry.
“People enjoyed attending Mass here when he was celebrant — because he was so prayerful,” said Deacon Grzeca. Bishop-designate Doerfler served as sacramental minister at the parish from 2007 to 2013.
“When he was here as sacramental minister, a number of people commented that it was just a matter of time because he’s such a good candidate for bishop,” said Deacon Grzeca. “He’s just a man people would look to (for leadership). People enjoyed attending Mass here when he was celebrant — because he was so prayerful. … He’s very kind, very gentle, and a very smart man also.”
Deacon Kurt Grube was director of religious education at St. Mary when Fr. Doerfler was a high school student in Appleton. In religious education class, Deacon Grube remembers the young man as exceptional.
“Basically, he always would have questions,” Deacon Grube said. “He would always challenge me at different times, about the church and other things. He had a lot of different interests.”
Bishop-designate Doerfler has credited Deacon Grube with being the first to ask him if he had considered priesthood.
“I had to answer yes, because the thought had crossed my mind,” Bishop-designate Doerfler told The Compass in a 2008 interview. “Then he asked me if I was doing anything about it, and I said no.”
That question got the young man thinking. “Out of the blue I said, ‘John, you’ve done a lot of things with the church the last few years. Can you think of yourself doing anything else with your life?’ I knew immediately the answer was no.”
Years of training and pastoral ministry later, Deacon Grube now sees his student as “(still) very intellectual, but he has that more pastoral, more human side than what you expect from someone who’s as smart as he is.”
Fr. Bob Kabat, judicial vicar, has worked with bishop-designate Doerfler on the diocesan marriage tribunal since 1997.
“I think his work on the tribunal showed his compassionate side,” said Fr. Kabat. “He’s grown in his working with canon law in a very pastoral way.”
Besides his work on the tribunal and as diocesan chancellor from 2005 to 2013, bishop-designate Doerfler also served as the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion from 2009 to 2010 and oversaw the diocesan study of the apparition there.
“He will be a wonderful bishop,” said Father of Mercy Peter Stryker, the current rector of the shrine. “Fr. Doerfler is faithful to all the church teachings. We hope, as bishop of Marquette, that he will bring pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.” He assured the bishop-designate of prayers.
Germaine Doerfler also mentioned the new bishop’s attachment to the Blessed Mother and believes that he chose his episcopal ordination date of Feb. 11, 2014 — the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes — because of that.
“He always sort of believed in going to Jesus through Mary,” Germaine said. “When he was ordained a priest, he had a cross with an M on it – it symbolized Mary.”
She is proud of her son and knows he will do well, but admitted that she worries for him as well.
“Sometime people would mention to me about his (possibly) being a bishop – I said I’d never wish it on him, but if it’s God’s will (so be it). In this day and age, it’s hard, harder than it used to be …. But he’s got pretty broad shoulders.”
Jeff Kurowski contributed to this story.