ALLOUEZ — Fr. Ray Conard, who fulfilled his passion for missionary work during his priesthood, died Nov. 27 at age 88.
While growing up on a farm in Sugar Bush (of Brown County), Fr. Conard dreamed of serving the missions after listening to a radio program about the struggles of people in Haiti. Fr. Conard’s ministries included mission work on three continents.
Following high school, Fr. Conard considered pursuing the missions through the Maryknoll Society, but his pastor, Msgr. Hubert Kleiber, suggested he become a diocesan priest.
“He said that I could always become a missionary later on,” explained Fr. Conard during an interview with The Compass for his 50-year jubilee in 2005. “This mission vocation didn’t come from me. I think it came from the Lord.”
Fr. Conard graduated with a degree in business from St. Norbert College, De Pere. He then attended special studies at St. Lawrence Seminary, Mount Calvary, for one year and earned a degree in theology at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Stanislaus Bona on June 4, 1955, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay.
Fr. Conard’s first appointment was assistant pastor of St. Mary Parish, Appleton. He filled in as temporary pastor of St. Isidore Parish, Osman; St. Francis Parish, Hollandtown; and St. Margaret Mary Parish, Neenah. In 1958, he was appointed assistant pastor of St. Mary Parish, Chilton, and in 1962, assistant pastor at St. Andrew Parish, Manitowoc.
“He received a classical pre-Vatican II formation,” said Fr. Bill Hoffman, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Parish, Green Bay. “He lived the excitement of Vatican II, and in the midst of the Council he asked Bishop Bona for permission to serve in the missions.”
In 1963, Fr. Conard was released by Bishop Bona for ministry in Haiti. Unfortunately, he was refused by the Haitian government.
“With his Belgian heritage, and their language affinity to the French, came his desire to serve in Haiti,” said Fr. Hoffman. “The political atmosphere in Haiti at that time was hostile to any more foreign missionaries. With some investigating, he discovered that there was a bishop in the Dominican Republic by the name of Bishop Tomás Reilly. Fr. Ray’s offer to serve was well received, and off he goes to serve in Banica. And so began our diocesan connection with the mission parish in the Dominican Republic on the border with Haiti.”
While serving in the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic, Fr. Conard built the first rice mill in the area, two irrigation systems, an industrial arts and home economics school, and a church.
Fr. Conard returned to the Diocese of Green Bay in 1971 to serve as pastor of St. Ann Parish, St. Anna, before his next mission. In 1973, he successfully made his way to Haiti, where he began 20 years in Catholic radio. Fr. Conard founded and directed Radio Soleil, radio station of the Catholic Church of Haiti.
“The station became very powerful,” said Fr. Conard. “It became the voice of the Haitian people, which made it unpopular with the government.”
In 1984, he moved to the West Indies where he founded “Voice of the Island” radio station. He also served as pastor of Good Hope Parish at Beaulieu in the Diocese of St. George, Grenada. Fr. Conard returned to the Dominican Republic in 1996 to develop Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Sabaneta, but he soon developed health problems. He returned to the Diocese of Green Bay in 1998 and served parishes in Green Bay, Wautoma, Redgranite, Weyauwega, Manawa and Poy Sippi.
Missionary work remained his passion, so in 2001, Fr. Conard was granted permission to provide priestly ministry in Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union. He became involved in a project to provide food for the poor of Zharkent, located 20 miles from the Chinese border. He not only was able to provide seed for growing food, but founded the Parish of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Zharkent.
“I bought a 15-room house,” he said. “A big room was used as the chapel and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas. Thirty-seven people attended.”
Fr. Conard was granted senior priest status by the diocese in 2001, but continued to serve in Kazakhstan through 2006.
“I like the quote from Robert Browning (from the poem “Rabbi ben Ezra”), ‘Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.’ You have to live each day to the end of your life,” he said.
Fr. Conard was preceded in death by his parents, John and Sylvia (Borley) Conard; and four siblings, Verna Schott, Marian Steffens, Maurice Conard and Donald Conard.
The funeral Mass was celebrated on Dec. 1 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Humboldt (Sugar Bush). Bishop David Ricken presided. Fr. Hoffman served as the homilist. Burial followed in St. Hubert Cemetery in Sugar Bush.