The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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May 18, 2001 Issue
Local News

More beautiful days for Waupaca pastor

Fr. James Vennix, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, will retire at the end of May

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

Fr. James Vennix, retiring pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, Waupaca, says he is "the happiest person I know." He attributes his happiness to having "the wonderful joy of resurrection and rebirth. The Easter mysteries came alive in my life."

That rebirth occurred Jan. 15, 1973, the first day of his sobriety.

Fr. Vennix talked about his battle with alcoholism as he looked back on his 45 years as a priest. He was ordained May 26, 1956, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay. He will retire at the end of May.

When asked why he was so willing to talk about it, he said, "It's simply a part of my life. You can't know me without knowing that.... All of us are the composite of everything that has gone into our (lives). Certainly one of the most influential aspects of my life was the illness of alcoholism."

Fr. Vennix grew up in Marinette and attended Our Lady of Lourdes grade and high schools, as did several priests in the diocese. Among them was Fr. Wilbert Staudenmaier, who knew his older siblings. "He may have helped change my diapers," Fr. Vennix laughed.

Another was the late Fr. Robert Sladek. Fr. Vennix served at his first Mass held at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 1948. Fr. Sladek asked him if he ever thought about becoming a priest and that there was a scholarship at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., for students from Lourdes, established by a former pastor.

Fr. Vennix attended St. John's from 1948 to 1956.

One fear, he said, as a newly ordained priest was "not knowing how to handle death and accidents." He overcame that in his first assignment as chaplain at New London Hospital. No sooner had he walked through the door, than a staff member told him: "Father, come quick. Someone is dying."

His experiences there helped him develop special compassion for families in difficulty, he said.

Next, he was associate pastor at St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, then at St. Mary in Oshkosh, St. Mark in Two Rivers and Holy Cross in Kaukauna.

After a year at St. Philip, the diocese sent him to Marquette University to get a degree in school administration. When his studies were done, he returned to his hometown to help his alma mater make the transition from Our Lady of Lourdes High School to Marinette Catholic Central.

He began his first pastorate in 1968 at St. Hedwig in Kewaunee. Later, he was pastor at St. Mary in Chilton and St. Hyacinth in Antigo. He was assigned to Waupaca in 1983.

Fr. Vennix said he confronted his alcoholism while in Chilton. "I was spiritually, financially and morally destroyed. I was bankrupt. I was just at the bottom of the barrel. I was tired of being sick and tired."

He asked a parishioner, who was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, for help. Other help came from his housekeeper, his doctor and AA.

AA's 12-step program is "the basis of my spirituality.... It's my life." The third step is the most important for him, he said. It says, "Make the decision to turn my life and my will to the care of God as I understand him."

In other words, the priest said, "Let go and let God.... I start every morning on my knees, saying, 'God, I have enough problems in my life. I'm going to enjoy today. You take care of the problems.'"

Fr. Vennix said celebrating Mass "is the greatest energizer in my life, the most uplifting experience I have."

He begins each liturgy saying, "It's a beautiful day in Waupaca." On some of those days, the temperature has been 20 degrees below zero and the weather, "blizzardy," but, "I think each day is beautiful."

The parish gave Fr. Vennix a surprise retirement dinner in late April. Between 500 and 600 people wanted to attend, but there was only room for 300, he said.

He plans to remain in the Waupaca area at his home on six acres near the Crystal River.

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