ALLOUEZ — When Fr. Terry La Combe looks back on his last official ministerial appointment, he’s thankful that he was able to bring a piece of home to those away from home.
Fr. La Combe, who retired to senior priest status on Oct. 1, 2017, and currently resides in Surprise, Ariz., served nine-plus years as a contract chaplain for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
“I absolutely loved it; Mass for the young Marine recruits,” he said in a phone interview with The Compass. “Mass meant everything to those kids. In the fall and winter we would have 400 at Mass. In the summer that number was up over 700.
“We had a lot of recruits from the Green Bay Diocese,” he added. “I gave them a little special treatment. I always talked to them. I would ask, ‘Where are my Green Bay guys? Who is from the Green Bay Diocese?’ Mass reminds them of their faith and that they can depend on God.”
Fr. La Combe’s service in the Army from 1969 to 1970 in Vietnam led him to consider the priesthood. Following graduation from Marinette Catholic Central High School in 1964, he worked at Ansul Fire Protection in Marinette.
“I worked there for two years before I got drafted,” he explained. “After I got out of the military, I went back. I retired from there in 1979.”
The example of Fr. Robert Hogan, his pastor in Marinette, also spurred his vocation to the priesthood.
“Fr. Hogan came when I was in the seventh grade,” he said. “We had so many great priests at Catholic Central.”
Fr. La Combe studied at St. Francis de Sales Seminary near Milwaukee after earning a degree in communications from St. Norbert College in De Pere. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 6, 1987, by Bishop Adam Maida at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay.
His first appointment was as associate pastor (parochial vicar) at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Neenah. Fr. La Combe soon added chaplain for the police department to his ministries.
“I received permission from the bishop,” he explained. “I was the (police) chaplain for Neenah and Menasha.”
When Fr. La Combe served as pastor at St. Joseph Parish and St. Peter Parish, both in Oconto, he again served as a chaplain for police officers.
“I was a volunteer for the rescue squad; I was an EMT, so I knew the police chief in Marinette,” he said. “I asked him if he wanted to start a police chaplaincy program, so I started it in my hometown. I had more confessions in police cars.”
Fr. La Combe was happy when he heard that Holy Trinity Parish in Oconto recently broke ground for a new church.
“I’m the guy who merged the two parishes (1996),” he said. “It was tough. A new place will really bring that community together.”
Fr. La Combe also served as pastor at St. Rose Parish, Clintonville, and St. Mary Parish, Bear Creek. He served as administrator at St. Lawrence Parish, Stangelville; St. Joseph-St. John Parish, Montpelier; and St. Hedwig Parish, West Kewaunee. He oversaw the merger of those parishes to form St. Therese de Lisieux Parish, serving the communities of Pilsen, Stangelville and East Krok. The people in Kewaunee County continue to support him, he said.
“They had a Mass for my 30th anniversary and retirement,” he said. “I was out of there 11 years and they still wanted to have a celebration. I go back there every year. I’m thankful to the people in those parishes.”
When Fr. La Combe was on sabbatical in 2007, he continued to celebrate Mass on weekends. His desire to serve the military grew at that time, so he began serving as chaplain at the Army Reserve Center in Green Bay. He’s thankful for the support of the bishops in his ministry to the Marine Corps.
Bishop David Zubik gave him the initial permission. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in San Diego in 2012, Bishop David Ricken celebrated Mass at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
“He really liked it,” said Fr. La Combe. “Bishop Ricken said to me, ‘You like your job. I like how the kids respond. You can stay as long as you want.’ When my contract would end, he had to give me permission to stay.”
Fr. La Combe usually returns to the diocese once a year to see family and friends. He grew up the third oldest of 14 children of John and Dorothy (Myers) La Combe.
“My parents were awesome; very good Catholics; very supportive of my ministry,” he said. “My dad had a lot of pride; he couldn’t wait to introduce me as a priest. My mom, too, but she was more low key.”
Thirteen of the children are still living. Fr. La Combe’s brother, Jeff, died in February.
“Fr. Celestine (Byekwaso, pastor at Holy Family Parish, Marinette) was very good to my brother and me,” said Fr. La Combe. “I helped him out at Mass.”
Fr. La Combe was close friends with the late Fr. Michael Clifford, whom he describes as the “best preacher in our diocese.”
“He was a big influence on me,” he said. “Fr. Norm Krutzik has also been a good friend of mine.”
Fr. La Combe’s friendship with Fr. Michael Dory, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay who serves as a Naval chaplain, dates back to when they were classmates in the seventh grade.
“In high school we were really close,” said Fr. La Combe. “We played football together and were on the track team. I threw the discus and shot put.”
Fr. Dory also lives in Surprise. He invited Fr. La Combe to join him in Arizona.
“He said, ‘Do you want to go back there (Wisconsin) and worry about the cold?’ We see each other regularly,” said Fr. La Combe.
The joy of celebrating Mass continues. Fr. La Combe currently helps out with Masses at four parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix.
“I enjoy it. You don’t have the responsibilities. No meetings,” he said.
“God has blessed me more than I could have ever expected,” he added.