At least once on the weekends and often during the week, Msgr. Vincent Topper celebrates Mass at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Harrisburg, Pa.
At one point, he didn’t have to look at the book to say all the prayers and offerings during most of his priesthood, but now he does. That’s not a huge surprise, seeing as he will be 102 years old in July. Since the time he was ordained a priest in 1936, he has experienced the introduction of four different translations of the Mass.
Msgr. Topper is the oldest living and longest practicing priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg. In June he will celebrate 78 years in the priesthood.
One of the biggest changes, and the harbinger of more to come, was when Vatican II in the 1960s changed the Mass to vernacular and turned the altar around.
“It was hard, even though there was only a partial change at first,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “The most difficult thing was facing the people, and not being sure where to look. It wasn’t comfortable facing the people. It was distracting.”
In all his time as a priest, Msgr. Topper has seen Mass attendance drop, scandals rock the Church and, he said, secularization of the world that impacts the Church. Yet through those challenges, his role, and the role of all priests, remains constant: to bring people closer to Christ.
And how has he changed in all those years?
“I would hope that I am closer to God,” he said. “But I don’t know how because when you are ordained, you are in heaven.”
Msgr. Topper grew up in Hanover in south-central Pennsylvania and knew from the time he was in second grade that he wanted to be a priest. He was influenced by the Sisters of St. Joseph from Chestnut Hill — “saints,” he called them — and the ceremonies of the Church. Beginning in third grade, he became part of those ceremonies as an altar server at his home parish, St. Joseph Church, and remained so through high school.
Msgr. Topper came from a big family, but lost his mother and several siblings early on. His father owned a department store and thought young Vincent would become a partner. But when it became apparent his son wanted to be a priest, he canceled plans for a business expansion and supported his calling. His father arranged for him to attend a Catholic high school in Shelbyville, where he graduated in 1928 at the age of 15.
Msgr. Topper is truly an inspiration and example. He loves the priesthood and being a priest. His vision of ministry is simple: ‘Bring Jesus to the people. Bring the people to Jesus. That’s what a priest is supposed to do.
— Father Neil S. Sullivan, pastor, St. Catherine Laboure Parish, Harrisburg, Pa.
Next stop was St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, on the west side of the state, where his pastor tried to get him enrolled in the seminary.
The priest had even tutored him in Latin and Greek, but it wasn’t enough to catch up to the other students who had studied the languages for years. Msgr. Topper's pastor turned down an offer from the seminary to enroll him in the third year of St. Vincent Prep School and said he could get him into another seminary.
The rector changed his mind and offered to let Msgr. Topper enter the first year of college on probation. He accepted and struggled to catch up.
“Yes, I prayed,” he said, then added lightheartedly, “but I had to study. If you prayed and didn’t study you wouldn’t get through it. God doesn’t work miracles like that.”
Msgr. Topper credits the Benedictines with the “wonderful experience” of preparing him for the priesthood. Reflecting recently for Leaven, St. Vincent Archabbey’s magazine, he called the professors “dedicated, holy” men.
On June 6, 1936, he was one of three men ordained by Bishop George L. Leech of the Diocese of Harrisburg. His first assignment was at Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in York, where he used the pastor’s car to pick up families who couldn’t get to church.
“This was during the Great Depression, and of the 19 families in the parish, only one had a car,” he told Leaven. “The (little frame) church had nine pews, five on one side and four and a little pot-bellied stove on the other. After we got there, we had confession, the Mass and then Sunday school. I finally got to break my fast about 2 in the afternoon.”
Msgr. Topper served many more parishes until he retired as pastor in 1978 and became the diocesan auditor.
About 14 years ago, he came to live and work at St. Catherine’s, where he serves with a caring presence and where, the staff said, “the little ones love him.”
He encourages the laity to embrace the Church that was established by Christ as an aid on our way to heaven.
“All the sacraments and commandments are intended to get us closer to God,” he said. “What a beautiful world if we loved and obeyed God. We wouldn’t have wars, persecution or hate.”
He advises young priests to come down to earth. “Be close to the people, like the Holy Father says,” he said.
And for the Church, he would like to see it return to being a stronger voice in the world. Like the time, he related, when Milton Hershey of the chocolate empire would not permit residents of the Milton Hershey School to attend religious education classes. In response, the bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg called for a boycott of chocolate. Hershey not only relented, but also helped to build a church.
“That showed the power of the Church at that time,” Msgr. Topper said.
When asked about the priesthood affecting his own life, he responded, “I hope it has given me reward to be faithful to Christ and to bring people closer, starting with the children who are the future of the Church.”
“How do I want to be remembered? he asked. “As a good priest who brought people to Christ.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.