FRANCIS CREEK — Fr. John Becker shouldn’t have any problem adjusting to retirement — at least not during the first couple of weeks.
On July 1, one day after he’s scheduled to retire following 45 years of faithfully serving the Diocese of Green Bay, the 70-year-old priest will be right back at church attending a priesthood ordination ceremony at St. Mary Church in De Pere.
The next day, Fr. Becker will help lead two Masses at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Community in Newton. And the following weekend, he will assist with multiple Masses at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Sobieski.
“I guess you could say it’s probably not going to feel like retirement right away,” Fr. Becker said with a laugh.
Retirement won’t truly kick in until mid-July, when he and Fr. Paul Demuth (who’s also retiring) will pack up their bags and embark on a month-long road trip through western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re driving to see whatever we can see,” Fr. Becker said. “The Canadian Rockies, the beautiful plains, everything. And then coming back through Seattle and Montana and Minnesota. We’ll share the driving and listen to audio books the whole way. It will be a really great trip.”
That journey will be a fitting send-off for a priest who has traveled extensively throughout northeast Wisconsin since his ordination as a priest in 1972. In all, Fr. Becker has served a dozen parishes, culminating with the two congregations he currently oversees — St. Anne in Francis Creek and Holy Cross in Mishicot.
Fr. Becker, a Neenah native, embraced religion early on. His father, Victor (who died in 1971), was active in the choir and other activities at St. Mary in Menasha. So was his mother, Gertrude, who celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this month.
Fr. Becker attended St. Mary in Menasha for grades one through eight. In seventh grade, he was profoundly impacted by three assistant pastors at the school who he said “were young and vibrant and very involved with the school. I was very impressed with their involvement. That led me to be open to pursue the priesthood.”
After taking classes at Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida for six years, he transitioned to St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota for another six years before becoming ordained as a priest in 1972.
Fr. Becker’s first assignment was at St. Matthew in Allouez for five years, which was followed by a five-year assignment at St. Bernadette in Appleton and then a two-year tenure at St. John in Little Chute.
After then leading St. Mary in Reedsville for two years, Fr. Becker oversaw one of the first linkages in the diocese when St. Patrick in Maple Grove was brought into the mix. “That was tough, absolutely,” Fr. Becker said of his three years coordinating the linkage. “I didn’t have any experience with that before and there weren’t many other priests to ask for guidance since linkages were pretty new, so I had some challenges.”
Fr. Becker’s next assignment brought him to St. Peter in Oshkosh, where he stayed for 14 years.
“I enjoyed being there so long,” he said. “I had a great staff that was very talented. They were a wonderful group to be with and work with.”
It was at St. Peter that Fr. Becker met Chuck and Sue Bongert, with whom he remains close friends to this day. In fact, in 2014 — long after Fr. Becker had moved to a new parish — Sue had surgery in Oshkosh and Fr. Becker drove to see her the night before to wish her well.
“He’s a good priest and a good friend of our family,” Sue said. “He’s just a very good, kind pastor and a very holy man with good sermons. He spent a lot of time getting to know everyone in the parish. When people would come to church he’d greet all of us and give the kids a high-five. He always went out of his way to do things for others, and we appreciated that.”
Her husband, Chuck, was equally complimentary, saying Fr. Becker “had a certain way he liked things done, but he was always open to suggestions. He was a good leader in that way. He was truly top notch.”
After leaving Oshkosh, Fr. Becker was assigned to St. Mary Magdalene in Waupaca for five years, during which time he oversaw construction of a new church for the first time.
“That whole process was exciting and challenging,” he said.
Then, Fr. Becker moved to Ashwaubenon for a five-year assignment at Nativity of Our Lord Parish.
In 2011, he transitioned to oversee three parishes — St. Anne in Francis Creek, Holy Cross in Mishicot (which just completed a renovation) and St. Augustine in Kossuth (which closed in 2016). In addition, he also has served as administrator at Holy Rosary in Kewaunee for the past three years.
Fr. Becker said he cherishes the friendships and relationships he has forged with parishioners throughout northeast Wisconsin over the years.
“The people have always brought me a great deal of life and enjoyment,” he said. “I very much enjoy greeting people before all the Masses — that’s sort of my hallmark — either outside or in the church doorway. That has allowed me to get to know people really well. I have been doing that from the very start with the first parish I was at. I’ve always loved that.”
One thing Fr. Becker hasn’t enjoyed is witnessing the steady decline in church attendance.
“The number of people going to church and involved in church has been decreasing for a long time, and that’s sad to see,” he said. “A parish used to be much more central to people’s lives. I have seen how they aren’t nearly as central anymore. … If I knew why, we’d try to change it. It’s just part of the culture now. It’s part of where society is going.”
But that won’t stop Fr. Becker from doing whatever he can to help others. Upon returning in mid-August from his much-deserved road trip, Fr. Becker intends to fill a ministry role at hospitals and nursing homes in the Fox Cities.
When asked what he’d like people to remember about him years from now, Fr. Becker said, “I’d like them to say I was enthusiastic, that I was prayerful, that I involved people in decisions, and that I was able to lead them into a deeper relationship with Jesus. I’d like them to say I was a good priest who helped others.”
That’s precisely the impression he left on Chuck Bongert.
“I truly can’t say enough good things about the man,” Chuck said.