STURGEON BAY — Every year, Fr. Tony Birdsall adds a few more county fair ribbons to the boxes of them he already has. This year, he got a new kind of award.
On June 18, the 79-year-old senior priest was honored at Door County’s Celebration of Giving as the 2014 Philanthropist of the Year.
“But I don’t want you to think it’s because I have millions of dollars to give away,” he said during a conversation in his home. “Philanthropy can mean sharing time and talent, too.”
Fr. Birdsall, who grew up in Maplewood and wanted to be a priest since grade school days, retired in 2008 after being pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Sturgeon Bay for 21 years. But that didn’t mean he then turned to a life of leisure. He helps current Corpus Christi pastor Fr. Carl Schmitt, who is also pastor at Holy Name of Mary in Maplewood, with Sunday and weekday Masses. He’s called to help at Stella Maris Parish’s five locations in northern Door County and even takes the ferry to Washington Island to offer Mass for the Catholics there. He’s the regional vicar for Door and Kewaunee counties.
He volunteers as playground and lunchroom monitor at St. John Bosco School, serves on the ethics board at Ministry Door County Memorial Hospital in Sturgeon Bay and on the board of the Sunshine House, a work site for developmentally disabled people. The list could go on, but Fr. Birdsall summed it up in two sentences.
“I think I got this award because, for one thing, I’m a Door County native and have been here so long,” he said. “And I like to make myself available to people.”
Part of that availability includes his involvement with the county fair, carrying on a Birdsall tradition that began before he was born. He’s been superintendent of small animals at the Door County Fair and he mentors 4-H kids — and he said he doesn’t mind “beating the ladies” and bringing home ribbons for his own flower entries. He planted 500 annuals in his gardens this year.
Fr. Birdsall’s barn holds over 100 chickens of around 25 “heritage breeds,” all purebreds unlike the hybrids commercial egg- and meat-producers use. Conversation in Fr. Birdsall’s living room is conducted to a backdrop of clucking and crowing that is, he confesses, music to his ears.
“I’m a farm boy,” he said. “I love nature and growing things.”
Whether it’s saying Mass, hearing confessions, or mentoring young 4-H chicken raisers, Fr. Birdsall will continue to be part of life in Door County.
“As long as I feel good, I’ll help,” he said.
Fr. Birdsall turns 80 on Aug. 2, and a party is planned for him during the Corpus Christi Parish outdoor summer celebration on July 27 at 3 p.m.