Priest avoided construction labor only to labor in building up the church

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic News Service | June 19, 2014

After 42 years of priestly ministry, Fr. Ron Colombo retires

DENMARK — Growing up in Sturgeon Bay, Fr. Ron Colombo knew one thing about his future: “(In the summers,) I worked for my uncles in construction and I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”

Now, as he prepares to enter senior priest status on June 30, Fr. Colombo can look back and realize that, in a way, he has been in construction all his life.

Fr.  Ron Colombo outside All Saints Church in Denmark. He will receive senior priest status on July 1. (Pat Kasten | The Conpass)
Fr. Ron Colombo outside All Saints Church in Denmark. He will receive senior priest status on July 1. (Pat Kasten | The Conpass)

At his current assignment, he has served the Denmark area for “half of my priesthood.” He will retire as pastor of four parishes and one mission: St. James, Cooperstown; All Saints, Denmark; St. Mary, Glenmore/Stark; St. Joseph, Kellnersville; and Holy Trinity Mission, New Denmark.

Collectively, they have become known as “Circle of Faith Catholic Community.” It all started in 1992, when Fr. Colombo was asked to go to Cooperstown, and also serve as minister of sacraments for Kellnersville. “‘It will be temporary,’” he remembers being told, that “I’d be living out of my suitcase.”

However, due to illness and death: the late Msgr. Robert Gulig and Sr. Marlene Greatens, “what was temporary became pretty permanent,” he said.

That’s where his latest building project took place: forming Circle of Faith, gradually and with the help of people like Sr. Marlene and Franciscan Sr. Gerri Krautkramer — who has been pastoral associate for seven years and who will become pastoral leader at Cooperstown and Kellnersville on July 1. And he credits countless lay people in the parishes — “a lot of good people are out there who are willing to assist in lots of different ways,” he said. He especially credits Sr. Gerri, whom he calls “a blessing to these parishes.”

“One of the beautiful things about the Second Vatican Council,” he added, “is that we invited people to get more involved in the ministry of the church.”

The Second Vatican Council shaped much of Fr. Colombo’s days in seminary and his early priesthood. It all began when he wanted to be an altar server at Corpus Christi Parish. He had to learn all the prayers in Latin before he could serve. He credits his pastor then, Fr. John Baum, and the weekend assistant, Norbertine Fr. Robert Cornell, with encouraging his budding vocation.

He attended Sacred Heart Seminary (now closed) in Oneida for high school and his first two years of college. In his first year, there were 90 students — by the end of the year, 50 were left.

“We were young and immature probably, but it was certainly a good experience,” he said. “It was such a disciplined system — if you got 30 demerits in a year you were out.” He added that the mentality of the day was that, if seminary was “very strict, disciplined,” they would “find out if you’re disciplined enough to study to be a priest.”

It was also the 1960s and “the world was in turmoil in lots of ways,” Fr. Colombo said. There were the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, riots — he even marched with Fr. James Groppi during that priest’s civil rights marches in Milwaukee — and young men leaving the priesthood.

Still, Fr. Colombo said they “were exciting times. As a priest, I grew up with the Second Vatican Council. I’ve always appreciated the beauty of change, though change is never easy. But there was an excitement there and a lot of good things happening in the church.”

One of those was an experiment by Bishop Aloysius Wycislo. For a time, the bishop ordained new priests not at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, but at their home parishes. So, on May 14, 1972, Fr. Colombo was ordained at Corpus Christi.

“Bishop Wycislo did that for a few years, thinking that it was a way for parishes to experience ordinations,” Fr. Colombo remembered. “I still bump into ladies at Corpus Corpus who tell me, ‘I helped in the kitchen at your ordination.’ They just thought that was wonderful to be able to experience an ordination.”

Then came his first “building project.” After he earned his chaplaincy credentials at Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh, he was sent to Antigo. There, he became chaplain at Langlade Memorial Hospital. The hospital wanted to start a pastoral care department. Fr. Colombo spent three years, starting that pastoral care department. “I actually lived at the hospital,” he said, noting that there were quarters there for the chaplain.

Five years as an associate pastor followed: in Green Bay, Oshkosh and back at Antigo.

Then, in 1980, came his first pastorate: St. Pius X in Appleton. And there was another building project. The parish was preparing to build its first church — it had been founded in 1957 and was using a temporary church in the school.

“As a young pastor, in my first assignment, I had some wonderful people on that building committee,” Fr. Colombo said, adding that parishioners were so good at it that “my job was to put on the hard hat each day and look at the progress.” He especially credited one member: Ed Kaiser, who worked for Miron Construction at the time and “asked to be foreman on the project.”

After 10 years in Appleton, Fr. Colombo was sent on another building project — to a troubled parish merger in Marinette.

“That was one of the first mergers and it didn’t go too well,” the priest recalled. “The priests who had been there asked to be moved. There was a lot of stress. They wanted someone new to go up there.”

So, he went and, after three years when things had settled a bit, he “needed a sabbatical … I needed a break.”

He spent a month at St. Norbert Abbey, researching the psalms. Then the “temporary” call came from Cooperstown.

Now, as he looks back over 42 years of priesthood, Fr. Colombo realizes that he himself has been built into a new person over the years: from the boy who left Sturgeon Bay after the eighth grade to the soon-to-be senior priest.

“The priesthood has allowed me to be more outgoing,” he said. “I was basically a shy person in seminary. … I have a tendency to hold back sometimes. But people bring that out of you, in ministry. People call you to be more outgoing. … God has been good to me in terms of allowing me to grow as a person, even personality-wise. I moved from being a shy, withdrawn person to being a more outgoing person.”

He will move back to Sturgeon Bay, where his sister and her husband live. He plans to take four months to unwind. He has rented a small apartment, within a few blocks of the downtown and the bay of Green bay. Since he loves fishing, he plans to “go down and catch supper, come home and cook supper in my apartment.”

And he plans to walk more. Six years ago, he underwent quintuple bypass surgery and, while his doctor told him his heart is stronger today than it was before surgery, he doesn’t want to gain back the 30 pounds he lost then. Fr. Colombo also plans to read more — he’s given away most of his books, but kept some favorites, watch local baseball games and go to a few Brewers games. Then — after those first four months — he’ll help with Masses in Sturgeon Bay and around Door County. He even plans to help his sister with her garden and the antique store she owns with her husband. Finally, he plans to work on building up his prayer life — without the distractions of everyday parish work.

Looking back over his years of priesthood, Fr. Colombo credits the lay people he has known with teaching him about the priesthood.

“There is some resistance (to the changes over the years),” he said, “there always is … but the majority of people tend to move with you. One of the beautiful things about the Second Vatican Council is that we invited people to get more involved in the ministry of the church. …. I’ve been inspired by that.”




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