GREEN BAY — Members of St. Willebrord Parish are fortunate to know that between Fr. Andrew (Andy) Cribben, 55, pastor, and Fr. Jack MacCarthy, 75, parochial vicar, the parish is being guided by 75 years of experience.
Fr. Cribben celebrated his 25th jubilee as a Norbertine on May 7, Fr. MacCarthy marks his 50th jubilee as a Norbertine on Sept. 14.
Both were ordained at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, and though both have very different journeys that brought them to priesthood, it seems their lives of service were meant to converge at the very diverse downtown parish of St. Willebrord, where, as Fr. Cribben explained, they have to be ready for everyone and everything.
The parish has four English and four Spanish Masses each weekend. At the 7:15 a.m. and 12:05 p.m. weekday Masses, you’ll find a mix of people who work at downtown businesses and government offices, some parishioners and others from around the city who appreciate the convenient daily Mass times.
The 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday is often the place to worship for older adults, said Fr. Cribben. His message to them is often about sharing their wisdom.
“Our Spanish crowd is very young,” he continued, so those homilies may focus on family life.
There are also visitors as well who want to see “Vince Lombardi’s church,” and then there is the dichotomy of those who the parish serves who live in poverty or homelessness.
“People find welcome here,” said Fr. Cribben.
The priests’ organized, yet easy-going ways suit the parish well, even though their journeys that led them to priesthood were different.
Fr. MacCarthy’s story truly was a journey — by railroad. For Fr. Cribben, his decision to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater would be the unexpected road that led him to the Norbertines.
Fr. Cribben was born and raised on a 25-acre family farm in Dodge County, one of 11 children. He well remembers serving as an altar boy. “I was attracted to the idea of religious life, living in common with a focused set of charisms,” he said.
Even while attending UW-Whitewater, where he graduated in December 1986 with a degree in business and human resource management, the idea of priesthood was with him “all the way through college,” he said.
He had a full-time internship at Swiss Colony during college, and though he said he enjoyed the experience, Fr. Cribben said he could feel “there is something else. … That’s when I started getting serious about the priesthood.”
It was a conversation with one of his roommates who had graduated from Premontre High School in Green Bay — then the all-boys Catholic school operated by the Norbertines — that would change his life.
“He told me about the Norbertines, and I added them to my research and eventually came to visit them at the abbey,” Fr. Cribben said.
Another important conversation would come the night of his mother’s death. She had cancer “pretty much the whole time I was at college,” said Fr. Cribben.
“On the night she died, Oct. 5, 1986, I was home that night,” he said. But before she died, he and his father drove to Beaver Dam to get syringes for his mother’s medications.
While they were driving his father pointed out that his son would have to buy a car to use after graduation. “I told him what I was thinking (about priesthood) and he was very happy. I never got to tell my mother,” he said.
By August 1987, Fr. Cribben was a novice with the Norbertines and was ordained in 1994.
St. Willebrord Parish is actually the first parish Fr. Cribben has served as pastor. He studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome for three years, and served as an associate pastor and did community work in Mississippi. “That was a big eye opener for a farm boy. … I was looking for something beyond the norm to make a difference,” he said. He also served as vocations director for the Norbertines.
“I needed all of those 24 years of experiences to be ready for this, for the wonderful challenge and opportunity it is to be at St. Willebrord,” said Fr. Cribben.
‘All aboard’ to Green Bay
Fr. MacCarthy’s early life story is very much tied to the railroad.
Born in 1944 in Spokane, Wash., “I’m the first generation in four Irish immigrant families not to work on the railroad. I did for one summer, but not for life,” he said.
His father worked for the Chicago & North Western Railroad in sales, and his father’s stories of troops and war materials traveling by rail during World War II to the West Coast are an important part of his family lore.
The family would move many times with his father’s job, eventually to Green Bay. “I enjoyed it,” said Fr. MacCarthy of the adventure of meeting new people and being the new kid at school.
He attended Premontre High School, and felt a calling to the Norbertine community, but also to medicine.
“My older brother (Charles) was in medical school and his first year he came home … and spread out all the bones of the hand and the arm on the living room floor. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty interesting,’” recalled Fr. MacCarthy.
Serving as a missionary also appealed to him, and he dreamed of going to India. “At that time there were four Norbertine physicians (there),” said Fr. MacCarthy.
It was Easter 1962 when students who had an interest in the Norbertines were invited for an interview with Abbot Sylvester Killeen. He recalled the abbot asking him, “‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I want to be a medical missionary,’” he said was his response.
Medical degree earned
After his ordination in 1969, he taught at Premontre for three years and coached football and hockey, then earned his medical degree from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
He never did go to India, but he did fulfill his dream to become a medical missionary.
A doctor of internal medicine, Fr. MacCarthy would spend two years in Peru then serve three years on the island of St. Lucia, then returned to Peru and the Amazon for 30 years, becoming medical director of the Centro de Salud in Santa Clotilde. He left full-time work there five years ago.
Fr. MacCarthy is humbled by the people in this region of the Amazon, with its 118 villages and one Catholic church, who worship at Sunday services led by a layperson and who find the Spirit in the forest around them, he said.
He recently returned from a six-month visit there and continues to serve on the clinic’s board.
“The bishop asked me if I would do the confirmations in the parish while I was there. I choked up while I was there because I delivered half of those kids, and I knew their moms when they were high school girls,” he said.
At St. Willebrord, in addition to offering Masses and hearing confessions, Fr. MacCarthy enjoys visiting the hospitals (“Everyday we have somebody in the hospital”) and is a mentor at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He also does mission preaching in the diocese and remains in almost daily contact with the Peru clinic.
Fr. Cribben is happy to have Fr. MacCarthy by his side.
“When Fr. Jack came back, I was already starting to feel the strain of not having a bilingual person to back me up,” he said, adding that Fr. MacCarthy “already had a great sensitivity for the nuances of multicultural ministry.”
As for Fr. MacCarthy, he’s just happy that Fr. Cribben as pastor is responsible for putting the schedule together at the very busy St. Willebrord Parish, and not him.
“His forte is identifying with people and their families,” said Fr. MacCarthy.
For both priests, life has taken them directions they never would have expected. ”It’s a priesthood of service. It’s not mine, it’s for the church, it’s for the community,” said Fr. Cribben.