HOWARD — Fr. John Bergstadt is thankful that when he was discerning the call to the priesthood in high school in Marinette, no one told him that someday he would be appointed to a parish with 2,300 families and a very large staff. It might have scared him off.
For the past 14 years, Fr. Bergstadt has served as pastor of a faith community that fits the description. On June 30, he will retire from St. John the Baptist Parish in Howard, which he describes as “marvelous.”
“I say this to a lot of people who ask, ‘What makes St. John’s so special?’ I think it’s a healthy sense of ownership,” said Fr. Bergstadt, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1967. “The people here work hard together. They are proud of what they do. If you can articulate the need, they will be behind it 100 percent. They just want to know that the money is being carefully spent and it is thought through. They will roll up their sleeves and help in any way they can.
“Our phrase is ‘We do it together,’” he added. “And that has been illustrated in hundreds of ways, thousands of ways.”
Fr. Bergstadt was initially hesitant about becoming pastor at St. John the Baptist when Bishop David Zubik proposed the appointment in 2005.
“He sent (Fr.) Paul Demuth (vicar for ministers at the time). (Fr. Demuth) said, ‘John, why don’t you come out to breakfast? The diocese will pick up the bill.’ I should have known at that time that I was in trouble,” explained Fr. Bergstadt with a laugh.
The current St. John the Baptist Church building, which was dedicated in October of 2007, brought Fr. Bergstadt to Howard, he said. He had experience from the construction of St. Bernard Church in Green Bay. Fr. Bergstadt served as pastor of St. Bernard from 1979 to 1996.
Fr. Bergtadt’s first parish assignment was for one year at St. Therese Parish in Appleton. He then served a year on staff at Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida before returning to parish ministry at Holy Cross Parish, Kaukauna, where he served for seven years prior to St. Bernard, Green Bay. He was pastor at St. Bernard Parish, Appleton, for nine years before the move to St. John the Baptist. Fr. Bergstadt appreciated the long parish stints.
“Everybody has their own style, but I prefer that to moving around a lot,” he said. “The University of Wisconsin-Madison had a workshop. Surprisingly, it was on church leadership and they talked about the general stance that it’s good to stay a long time and (about) the danger if you stay a long time and don’t reach out to the fringes. The fringes are where the new energy is found. That helped me to see what was important. That kind of brought everything together for me.”
There is one drawback of long stays, though.
“It saves on packing up and cleaning things out, but that’s why I have so much stuff that I’m trying to get rid of now,” he said with a smile. “I wish that, about 10 years ago, somebody would have shaken me up and said, ‘Remember the day will come when you need to get out of here.’”
Fr. Bergstadt, the son of Walter and Anna (Bostedt) Bergstadt, credits advice from his mother for helping him connect with parish members over the years.
“She told me, ‘If you are ever ordained, you make sure that you talk to everybody because we are not movers and shakers and most of your people aren’t. Make sure you spend time with them,’” he explained. “She said, ‘You will have lots of people after church who want to see you and you will have your friends. That’s not the time to reconnect with your friends. It’s for all the people.’ That’s been one of the wisest things I ever learned. I don’t think I ever gave her the satisfaction that she was right.”
Fr. Bergstadt has some plans in place as a senior priest. In October, he will serve as spiritual director of a pilgrimage that includes The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Ark. In February, he will take a trip to Panama. He will reside in the Green Bay area and is open to helping out with Masses.
“I want to use some time for prayer,” he said. “It would be the greatest joy to help my brother priests because some of those guys are working so hard.”
Leaving the parish community will be difficult, he said, but he feels it’s in a good place.
“I think we are at the right spot for it to happen,” he said.
Fr. Bergstadt points to growing numbers at St. John the Baptist School and the faith formation program “breaking new ground” through its mentorship model as positives.
“We also have a lot of adult-type things,” he said. “I have maintained all along that you have to have a well-rounded ministry. You won’t have a healthy school or a healthy parish otherwise.”
The last three years at St. John the Baptist have been among the best, said Fr. Bergstadt in reflection. He describes working with Fr. Scott Valentyn, parochial vicar, as a “perfect joy.”
“Fr. Scott could not have been a better person to work with,” he said. “I told him, ‘We will learn from each other. You will learn from me and I will learn from you.’ It definitely has been that. Here I am 78, and he is 28 or 30. Most people would say, ‘There is no way they are going to get along together.’ We had two things; we respected each other and we both respect the priesthood that we have.”
A dinner in recognition of Fr. Bergstadt will be held at the end of June at St. John the Baptist School.
“The celebration will close with a simple evening prayer. It’s all (God). You can never, ever do it by yourself or even try,” said Fr. Bergstadt. “I keep telling the younger guys, if you are called to the priesthood, it’s the greatest thing.”