APPLETON — Photo albums chronicle Fr. John Reuter’s 47 years of ministry in Mexico. Images of the churches and communities he served, people at various celebrations, numerous building projects and an array of candid shots, including one of the priest and his late horse, Lightning, fill the pages. Each photograph triggers another memory.
“Their faith is more than mine,” he said about the people of the Diocese of Tapachula, where he served for a decade, and the Archdiocese of Oaxaca, where he has been based for the past 37-plus years.
Mexico has become home for Fr. Reuter, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, but he will always cherish his roots, especially his home parish, Holy Cross in Kaukauna. He returned to the diocese recently to visit family and friends and celebrate Mass on July 16 at Holy Cross Church in recognition of his 50 years of priesthood. Fr. Reuter was ordained a priest by Auxiliary Bishop John Grellinger on May 27, 1967, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay.
“My big celebration was in Yucuhiti (Mexico on May 26),” he explained. “My sisters (Janet Van De Hey and Helen Van Gompel) wiggled (this celebration) around for my 50th. It was supposed to be a Mass for my parents. Holy Cross is the base of my faith and my Christian life.”
Path to priesthood
Fr. Reuter’s path to the priesthood began at Holy Cross. He became an altar server in the fifth grade. He describes his parents, Frederick and Genevieve (Theiss) Reuter, as “not super Christians,” but people of faith.
“We were always at Mass on Sundays,” he said, “and prayed before meals. My father would always lead the prayers, a simple ‘Bless us, Oh Lord.’”
Fr. Reuter attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida for high school and junior college before moving on to St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. While at St. Paul, he met a seminarian from the Diocese of Tapachula.
“That was my connection,” said Fr. Reuter. “If someone had told me when I was in major seminary that I would be speaking Spanish, I would have said, ‘You are crazy.’ Latin or any of the other languages, I tried to stay away from them.”
Prior to ordination to the priesthood, then-Deacon Reuter served a temporary assignment in the Diocese of Tapachula. When he became a priest, he served a summer assignment at St. Joseph Parish, Wautoma, before being appointed assistant pastor at St. Mary Parish, Menasha.
Pope John XXIII’s influence
“Pope John XXIII was one of my heroes,” said Fr. Reuter. “He said at one time that 10 percent of clergy (and religious) in North America should help out Latin America. That put a bug in my ear more than anything. I was at St. Mary’s for two years when I asked Bishop (Aloysius) Wycislo about going to Mexico. I had seen that the need there was tremendous. I wanted to go to Mexico when I was young.”
In 1970, Bishop Wycislo granted Fr. Reuter permission to serve in Mexico, but prohibited him from asking for funds in the Diocese of Green Bay.
“I said, ‘I won’t go without your blessing,’” explained Fr. Reuter. “He said, ‘Blessing, yes, money, no.’ I knelt down and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ I had no salary from here, just stipends down there.
“I always had the bishop’s permission,” he added. “It’s not an official missionary outreach of our diocese, but I’ve received a lot of support from the bishops and from the good people of the diocese.”
No vehicle for seven years
Fr. Reuter did not have a car for his first seven-plus years in Mexico. He traveled by foot, bus, train, taxi and horse. He eventually purchased an old Volkswagen. When a group from Holy Cross Parish visited, they saw that his vehicle was breaking down and assisted with an upgrade. Bishop Robert Banks later assisted Fr. Reuter with health insurance and a minimum salary.
The Archdiocese of Oaxaca, where Fr. Reuter served the majority of his years, is approximately five times the size of the Diocese of Green Bay in area. He served as the pastor of the parish of Santa Maria Yucuhiti.
“My parish had 23 communities up and down around the mountains of southern Mexico,” he said. “The people have small plots. They live day by day. They grow a little bit of coffee. When you plant corn in the mountains, it’s between rocks. They don’t have corn fields like here. They plant beans in some places.”
Fr. Reuter served as pastor for approximately 25,000 Mixteco Indians.
“In my parish, they all spoke the Mixteco language,” he said. “It’s a tonal language. We had Mass in Mixteco for a number of the feast days. We even had confirmations in Mixteco with the bishops.”
Hymns in Mixteco provided a challenge because the word meanings can change according to tone.
“We had to find words that work with the music. I played a recording of ‘Abba Father’ to one of the catechists and we translated the words into Mixteco. The day we were supposed to teach the song, he got sick, so I was there by myself. I can’t sing,” he said with a laugh.
Proud of parish’s progress
Fr. Reuter is proud of the progress at the parish. When he first arrived, the main church did not have electricity or running water. It now has both, plus amenities, including large meeting rooms.
The faith of the people is strong. Catechists meet for three days, five times per year. The parish council also meets five times throughout the year, and council members travel to the communities to check on them. The parish has also produced vocations, including three priests and two religious sisters.
Fr. Reuter retired at the end of 2016. He now helps out with Masses in Tlaxiaco, located an hour and a half to two hours from his home.
“I had a small parish,” said Fr. Reuter with a smile. “Tlaxiaco has 60,000 people. Eight barrios, eight different churches in the same town and another 60 communities besides and (Fr. Santiago Sanchez Sanchez, pastor) is alone. He is a mover and a good friend. On the third of May, places have Holy Cross celebrations. He had eight Masses and I had five. I was going all day.”
Fr. Reuter has his own impressive numbers of people served in Yucuhiti. In a letter to the parishioners for his retirement, he shared that he was the celebrant for 11,350 baptisms, 2,386 weddings and 8,092 first Communions.
“When you add the numbers up, you realize that each one was special to someone,” he said.
Celebration in Mexico
More than 1,000 people showed their gratitude at his 50-year jubilee celebration. Archbishop Jose Luiz Chavez Botello attended, even though the roads were blocked by a teacher strike. Archbishop Botello wrote a personal letter to Fr. Reuter, noting the priest’s deep faith and service.
The archbishop also took an opportunity to speak to the people about Fr. Reuter’s retirement and 50 year anniversary.
“Three of us had 50 years. He stopped me,” explained Fr. Reuter, filled with emotion. “He said, ‘This is Fr. John. If you people want to (show) gratitude for Fr. John, first pray for him. He will still be here in your town. Visit him. Give him your friendship.’ He also said another thing. There has been fighting between a number of communities over land and some killing. He said, ‘If you want to really give thanks to Fr. John, look to make peace between your communities.’ His words meant so much to me.”