GREEN BAY — His white fire helmet was prominently placed on a table next to a photo of him in uniform. His fishing pole and tackle box were arranged near a chair in the front of the room. The items, displayed at the Oct. 5 prayer service, represented two passions of Fr. Ralph Merkatoris — service as chaplain of the Bellevue Fire Department and annual fishing trips to Canada. “Fr. Merk,” as he was affectionately known, or simply “Merk” to his priest friends, died Sept. 30 at age 82.
The priesthood was the only path, said Fr. Merkatoris in a 2008 interview with The Compass for his 50-year jubilee. He was born and raised in Green Bay where he attended St. Patrick School and Central Catholic High School.
Fr. Merkatoris attended junior college at Mt. Calvary and studied philosophy and theology at St. Paul Seminary, Minn. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Stanislaus Bona on May 31, 1958, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay.
Fr. Merkatoris served as an assistant in Wabeno, Oshkosh and Two Rivers prior to being assigned aspastor at Ss. Edward and Isidore Parish, Flintville, in 1969. Two years later, he was appointed pastor of St. Mary Parish, Peshtigo. In 1974, Fr. Merkatoris was elected to the priest personnel board. He would serve on the board for 18 years, including 10 as chairman.
Msgr. Jim Feely, a close friend and ordination classmate who led the prayer service at the visitation at Proko-Wall Funeral Home, explained that Fr. Merkatoris wanted to be present to the priests in his position as chairman. He was serving as pastor at St. Matthew Parish, Allouez, in 1975, when he asked for a new parish assignment with less administrative duties so he could better serve the priests. He was appointed pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, Pine Grove.
“His motive was that he could be more in touch with the priests of the diocese,” said Msgr. Feely. “If he was going to be in this job, it was not going to be just sitting at meetings and making decisions. There are a great number of (priests) in the diocese — some have passed, but many are still around — who you will find are grateful to Fr. Merkatoris.
“I always thought of Merk as a priest’s priest because he was always interested in helping the priests. The men of Grellinger (priest retirement residence) will tell you that. He would drop in on them. If there was a penance service, where priests were going to be needed at this parish or that parish, especially if it was some place out of town, he would pick up a couple of those men.”
Fr. Merkatoris served in Pine Grove from 1976 until his retirement in 2002. When he arrived, the parish had 576 members. When he retired, membership had climbed to 2,600 people. He took pride in being welcoming.
“I would spend at least a half an hour with all new members to get to know them and tell them about the parish,” he said. “When you are in this line of work, you have to be a good salesperson.”
In addition to his parish ministry, Fr. Merkatoris led retreats at Holy Name Retreat House on Chambers Island for 35 years and was a member of the Knights of Columbus 4th Degree.
Following his retirement, Fr. Merkatoris, who was known for his departing words, “Jesus loves you and so do I,” helped out with Masses on weekends in the diocese.
“His design for his ministry was to be in all kinds of different parishes,” said Msgr. Feely. “He would travel any place.”
While visiting Fr. Merkatoris at a medical care facility, Msgr. Feely was reminded of his friend’s love for those he served. A care worker commented on the outpouring shown for Fr. Merkatoris.
“She said, ‘This man must have touched the lives of many people.’ I wouldn’t mind having that etched on my tombstone,” said Msgr. Feely.
Fr. Merkatoris was preceded in death by his parents, Clarence and Annette (Warden) Merkatoris, and his brother, John. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Merkatoris; nieces and nephews.
The funeral Mass was held on Oct. 6 at Prince of Peace Church, Green Bay, with Bishop David Ricken as celebrant and Bishop Robert Banks as concelebrant. Fr. David Koch served as the homilist. Burial followed in Allouez Catholic Cemetery.