BLACK CREEK — As he turns 80 on June 22, Fr. Theodore Hendricks has mixed feelings on becoming a senior priest of the diocese. On June 30, he will step down as pastor of St. Mary, Black Creek, and administrator of St. Lawrence, Navarino.
“I enjoy this,” Fr. Hendricks told The Compass about being in a parish. “Quitting is not part of my repertoire. I told somebody I didn’t get into this to retire.”
And even though he is retiring, some tones in society may not have changed much since he was a young priest. He was ordained by Bishop Stanislaus Bona on May 29, 1965. In June 1977, he was appointed pastor of what was then St. Boniface Parish in Manitowoc. It was the time when Vietnamese refugees were resettling in Wisconsin.
As Fr. Hendricks remembers it, three Vietnamese men often fished at the Manitowoc pier. One day, they caught many fish; the local fishermen did not. Tempers flared.
“Grandpa Nguyen got pounded and ended up having to go to the hospital with facial lacerations and cuts and bruises,” Fr. Hendricks recalled.
So Fr. Leo Schmitt called the Manitowoc pastors together (there were six at the time) and they were all appointed to the mayor’s ad hoc committee for refugees. The city’s common council planned to vote on sending a resolution to then-President Jimmy Carter asking him “not to take in any more refugees.”
“A bunch of us (priests), went to that council meeting and sat in back,” Fr. Hendricks recalled. “Fr. Leo was going to be our designated speaker. But what happened was that the proposal never made it to a vote. The council members realized it was such a bad idea that they threw it out.”
The event was recorded by NBC and broadcast on the Today Show. That brief notoriety didn’t matter to Fr. Hendricks. What mattered was justice.
“Even in those days, the common council did the right thing,” he says now, reflecting on the mood of the nation today. “Even though there’s always been something (against) ‘the foreigners,’ there wasn’t the anger (then) and it wasn’t put into the sort of crisis mode we’re having today. This is nonsense.”
Following social trends is natural to Fr. Hendricks, who, soon after ordination, was appointed to teach at St. Mary Catholic High School (then in Menasha) in 1968. He taught until 1977, when he went to Manitowoc. He enjoyed it, saying he found high school students both interesting and challenging.
One of his teaching techniques then was to pose a question about the church, society or history and sit back quietly, letting students toss ideas around. Some might “get far afield,” but he said that never bothered him.
“That’s the fun of it,” Fr. Hendricks said. “That’s learning, when you have to try to answer things and get it wrong once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. The other half (of teaching) is that you have to get it straightened out.”
Entering the priesthood was “always a possibility” while growing up in Green Bay. His family belonged to St. Willebrord Parish. Several cousins joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame and his father, Theodore, was close friends with Fr. Rudolph Hodik, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Casco (1935-70).
He also credits a childhood friend: “The immediate call (to priesthood) was Paul Allen standing on the corner in grade school and saying, ‘We’re going to the seminary this weekend. Would you like to come along?’”
However, it also went beyond those influences.
“I just was attracted to the priesthood,” Fr. Hendricks said. “You didn’t make up your mind at 13, but you could test it very easily. We had three seminaries that the diocese was sending kids to: Oneida (Sacred Heart), St. Nazianz (Salvatorian) and Mt. Calvary (St. Lawrence). There were a lot of minor seminaries, which we don’t have now.”
He liked what he saw that weekend with Paul Allen and entered the first class at Sacred Heart Seminary, run by the Diocese of Green Bay, at age 13.
He later became part of the largest ordination class in the history of the diocese — 19 men. They were ordained just as the Second Vatican Council was ending. (The council closed on Dec. 8, 1965.)
Today, Fr. Hendricks looks back and says, “The most positive thing that came out of Vatican II was a whole different attitude towards church.”
He added that this meant shared responsibility between priests and laity through various parish councils and committees. He also cites Cursillo as a prime example of lay involvement in the church. Cursillos de Cristiandad (“Short courses of Christianity”) is a Catholic apostolic movement founded in 1944 in Spain. Fr. Hendricks was on the 11th Cursillo in the Green Bay Diocese; the next men’s Cursillo weekend in the diocese will be the 253rd. He wants to become more involved in Cursillo in retirement.
“All these movements that have come into the church,” he said. “There are all these opportunities to get yourself involved and if you don’t, it’s your own problem.”
Fr. Hendricks is quite involved in social media — especially Facebook, which he calls “a hoot.” He maintains contact with several students from his days at St. Mary’s and has kept all 10 yearbooks from his time there. He also remains in touch with the four foreign exchange students he hosted in the 1980s, while pastor at St. Mary Parish (now St. Katharine Drexel) in Kaukauna.
He loves to travel and intends to “start saving up for a trip to Peru in 2023-24.” That’s where one of his former exchange students — José, an airplane pilot — plans to retire in 2023. For now, Fr. Hendricks has bought a house in Green Bay and hopes to provide weekend Mass help at parishes. He calls celebrating Mass his favorite thing about being a priest.
“It’s an amazing thing that God has given us — the ability to call him to us,” Fr. Hendricks said. “That’s it. That would be the most important, and the most fun. (And) to celebrate the Easter Vigil is the highlight of the year.”
Fr. Hendricks also feels deep gratitude about being a priest at this time.
“When we had our 50th (jubilee of ordination in 2015),” he said, “we had a Mass at the cathedral — just the class — and we got to talking,” he said. “They opened the homily up (asking what each priest cherished about ordination). I said that what I am grateful for is that we got to reinvent the church. And, in a very really sense, that is true. Nobody else has had that experience the way our generation has.
“The seminarians coming up today walked into what we had already established,” he said. “Of course, it didn’t all work. There were things going on in the ’60s that I would tear out what little hair I have left if somebody tried to do them today.”
Fr. Hendricks sat still for a moment of thought. Then he said, “When I go to God, I’m not going to have any fear about what we did with the church. I think we really gave it our best shot.”