MANITOWOC — Gary Wilhelm was an altar server throughout grade school and participated in various other parish activities while attending St. Paul Church.
But after graduating from Roncalli High School in 1975, he stopped attending Mass.
It wasn’t until Wilhelm married his wife of 28 years, Patty, several years later that he returned to church.
Two things happened to transform the 57-year-old Manitowoc resident from a casual churchgoer to someone who was ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Green Bay on May 16.
A few years back, Wilhelm’s morning routine involved getting up to drink a cup of coffee. And every morning, Patty’s Bible and other religious books were laying nearby on the table.
“I’d see (the Bible) there day after day but didn’t do anything about it,” said Wilhelm. “Eventually, one day I started looking at it a little bit. And the next day I’d look at it some more. And the next day, some more.
“The next thing I know, I started taking an interest in actually listening in church.”
That was the first thing. The second thing happened when Wilhelm attended a meeting led by Fr. Dan Felton.
“Fr. Dan used to have these town hall meetings and he’d discuss what we’re doing now and our five-year plan,” explained Wilhelm. “And he started talking one night and said, ‘If you’ve been doing things for the parish, that’s great, but don’t get in a comfort zone. There is always more that can be done.’
“So my son (Matt) leans over and gives me the elbow and says, ‘Dad, you ought to be a deacon.’ I thought, ‘Me? In white? I’d look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!’ I told my wife what my son had said, and she said, ‘Maybe you ought to think about it and look into it.’ So I started thinking about that.”
Not long thereafter, Wilhelm arranged a meeting with Deacon Al Boldt.
“And things just kind of snowballed from there,” said Wilhelm. “This journey has been absolutely fantastic. Your life gets changed, and you don’t even know it.
“I have definitely changed over these years. I wasn’t a bad person, but I was kind of edgy, always searching for something. This journey of becoming a deacon has filled a void for me. It has truly changed me.”
Wilhelm said the unwavering support of his family (he also has two daughters, Katie and Megan), as well as fellow parishioners and deacons, has been invaluable.
One person, in particular, has been life-changing for him. “If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t be here doing this today,” he said. “She’s been great.”
Added Patty, a teacher at St. Gregory School in St. Nazianz, “Going to formation classes and praying together has blessed our marriage in more ways than we ever imagined.”
Wilhelm, who’s now a member of St. Gregory Parish in St. Nazianz, is being assigned to serve as a deacon at St. Gregory and Holy Trinity Parish in School Hill, both of which are in rural Manitowoc County. He works as a journeyman metal fabricator and lead person in his department at Manitowoc Cranes in Manitowoc.
Wilhelm’s ministries have included being part of the Liturgy of the Word with Communion at nursing homes, visiting sick and homebound people with Care ministries, working with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and being involved with retreats for adults with cognitive disabilities.
“And Fr. Pat Nelson (at St. Gregory and Holy Trinity) will have me do baptism and marriage prep, which is great,” said Wilhelm. “And I’ll assist at weddings and funerals and baptisms whenever I can.”
As for the upcoming ordination ceremony in Green Bay, Wilhelm said he’ll be nervous.
“That’s because I want to make sure I do well for Jesus,” he said. “You don’t want to disappoint Jesus.”