APPLETON — Forty-four years ago, Fr. Dennis Ryan had quite the birthday week. He was ordained at his home church, St. Patrick, Green Bay, by Bishop Mark Schmitt on June 2, 1974, and then two days later, celebrated his 26th birthday.
Fr. Ryan explored the call to the priesthood at an early age and was encouraged to pursue his vocation.
“I was young — in grade school at St. Patrick’s in Green Bay,” he said. “I talked to a priest who was in the parish and talked to a counselor at Green Bay West High School who was also a Catholic and a friend of the family. Then I set up going to Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida. Two years of college there and then St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee for six years.”
Fr. Ryan, who will conclude his assignment as pastor at St. Bernard Parish, Appleton, on July 1 and be granted senior priest status, comes from a fairly large family.
“I’m one of the older ones in the family. There are seven children — four boys and three girls,” he said. “The last boy was a twin but his sister died at birth, she lived two hours.”
Fr. Ryan acknowledged that in the days when couples had more children, it was common for parents to encourage their children to look at the religious life. That is no longer the case for many families, he said.
“Some parents say I want to have grandchildren and if I only have one child, then to give one and you don’t carry on the name of the family, it’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s a need for support for men and women going into priesthood and religious life. There needs to be the opening or the development of them when they want to pursue that rather than say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to get into that field.’”
Fr. Ryan’s first parish assignment following ordination was as associate pastor (parochial vicar) at St. Therese in Appleton, where he served three years. He then served as an associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay for six-plus years. In 1984 he was appointed pastor at St. Mary Parish in Stockbridge, where he served for six years, and then spent the next 15 years as pastor at St. Nicholas Parish in Freedom. He was appointed pastor at St. Bernard on July 1, 2005.
The last two parish assignments for Fr. Ryan included major church renovations under his supervision. The work on those projects gave him insight into architecture, but he said that he most likely would have been a counselor or perhaps a lawyer if he hadn’t answered the call to priesthood.
There are advantages to having extended stays as a parish priest, said Fr. Ryan.
“You get to know the people; you get to know their stories. You get to walk through the experiences of church with them,” he explained. “I like parish ministry because it’s so diversified in relationship to people’s lives. You’re there from birth to death, from the happiest moments of their lives to the saddest. You can walk into any home when there is a need for a priest and share your ministry with them.”
He did recognize when it was time to move on.
“When you get to around that 15-year mark, there comes a point where you say, ‘I’ve done what I can do,’ and begin to look around and say, ‘What is enticing, what is going to be a challenge, does the bishop have some thoughts in his mind?’” he said.
According to Fr. Ryan, his most challenging aspect of being a parish priest “would be to create programming that would address the needs of the parishioners. So in Freedom, because they had a great youth population, it was to develop a high school program that truly would be engaging both inside the classroom as well as out, so I brought Life Teen there.”
As for the most gratifying part of his vocation, it was “seeing people coming to their eureka moments in relationship to their faith life. Sometimes you know them but other times you don’t. It’s within them but the Holy Spirit has come to be alive in their life in relationship to faith and parish in their prayer life.”
If anyone feels a call to the religious life, they should take that seriously, said Fr. Ryan.
“If it’s the calling of the Lord, people should follow that calling,” he said. “Yes, there is going to be some obstacles to the fulfillment of that calling, but you have to be strong in making that commitment come to life. But also, the devil does not want priests to come to be. Anytime you can stop a priest from being a priest, the devil is happy.”
Even though Fr. Ryan has reached senior priest status, he will remain active.
“On the weekend I will be doing the liturgical ministry at Cooperstown and Kellnersville,” he said.
With his weekdays now open, he intends to follow another calling within the church.
“I will work on evangelization, that’s kind of a special desire, with the parish and the area group that’s directed towards evangelization and the diocesan activities for evangelization,” he said. “I’ve taken four CES (Catholic Evangelization Studies) programs through the diocese. I just really want to further the proclamation of the Gospel. At this point in my life that is really the call that the Lord has given me to go out and evangelize. I will have much more time without doing administration.”