Your priests, your praise

About six months ago, I wrote a column honoring an African priest who was formative in my life and faith formation. When he spoke, I wrote, that priest “simply made those who listened to him better. Better Christians, better disciples, better human beings.”

In the coming months, I found out that I was not alone. So many of you, our readers, could relate to the transformative experience of knowing a priest who humbly and faithfully works to bring people closer to Christ and His Church.

The amount of emails and letters we received with your own stories of faithful priests was inspiring — and so we put out the official call for you to submit short profiles of the men who positively affected your lives. The response was overwhelming, and I wish we could have published them all. The ones that follow, though, provide a good cross-section of submissions, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we did. God bless our priests.

Leahy Skluzacek Bossi
Fr. Liam Leahy Fr. Michael Skluzacek Fr. Steve Bossi
Cremer Gonzalez Esswein
Fr. Matthias Cremer Fr. Marcos Gonzalez Fr. Michael J. Esswein
Carmona OConnor Canfield
Fr. Henry Carmona Fr. James O’Connor Fr. Frank Canfield, SJ
Hegener Mulranen Cooney
Fr. Wilbert Hegener, OFM Fr. Francis Mulranen Fr. Dennis Cooney

Click photos above to read their stories!

Father Liam Leahy

Our Mother of Sorrows | Tucson, Arizona

There is one priest in particular who continuously astounds me in the way he leads me by example to grow in living out my faith. 

Father Leahy

When word got out that Father Liam Leahy was retiring after serving 42 years in the Diocese of Tucson and that he would leave the parish he had spent the last 12 years helping to build in order to spend his retirement as a priest in residence at Our Mother of Sorrows, I was eager to finally meet the priest I had heard so many great things about over the years.

One year later, I’ve found my relationship with God deepened simply by being present at a Mass at which Father Liam is presiding.

He truly brings to life Blessed Mother Teresa’s instruction to “celebrate each Mass as if it is your first Mass, your last Mass and your only Mass.”

He celebrates every Mass with such joy and reverence, and the line for Communion is always filled with non-Catholics hoping to get a blessing from this joyous priest.

After Mass, it is simply not permissible to leave until you have stood in line to be greeted with a hug from Father Liam and have him listen to you as if you are the only person in the crowded narthex. 

The reason Father Liam attracts so many people to him is that it is never about him; it is always about Jesus and the unconditional love he has for us. 

Kaitlynn Williams, Tucson, Arizona

Father Michael Skluzacek

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church | New Brighton, Minnesota

Father Michael Skluzacek is the pastor at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, Minn. Courtesy photo

I first met Father Skluzacek on a Monday evening nine years ago when I was making my first confession in more than 18 years. I was very anxious and knew deep in my heart I needed to make this leap of faith.

I must have thanked him 1,000 times afterward and on my way out of his office. Over the years, his homilies have always spoken to me, and I’ve often felt like I was accountable to him — even if he didn’t know it.

It occurred to me a few years ago that, overall, I didn’t know him very well. Yet because of him, I know Jesus more than I ever have.

Father always points me to Jesus — whether advising in confession or answering simple questions after Mass. He always points me to Jesus, recommends that I seek the comfort and protection of Our Blessed Mother and encourages me to seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

There is so much I could say about how I have grown as a person and as a disciple of Jesus because of Father Skluzacek, and yet I know he would say that it has not been him — it has been the Holy Spirit working through him, and that is pure truth. Thank you, Father Skluzacek, for teaching me truth, goodness, beauty and unconditional love!

Kat Foley, Circle Pines, Minnesota

Father Steve Bossi

Church of Santa Susanna | Rome

Father Steve Bossi serves at Santa Susanna in Rome. Courtesy photo

I can honestly say that my life would not be the same had I never met Paulist Father Steve Bossi.

He was the pastor of St. Philip Neri in Portland, Oregon, when I came back to the active practice of my Catholic Faith as a young adult. He encouraged me by example — and a little holy arm-twisting — to get involved in our parish community. Father Steve empowered me and other parishioners to evangelize through our actions for justice in the community. Perhaps most importantly for me personally, he recognized that I am called to give my gifts to the service of God and the Church and started the conversation with me that led to my decision to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Father Steve has since moved on to other assignments, as have I. He is presently vice rector at the American parish in Rome, Santa Susanna, no doubt inspiring people there through example and inspiration. As for me, I will never forget how blessed I was to have him preside at the liturgy for my first profession of vows.

Sister Susan Francois, CSJP

Father Matthias Cremer

Priests of the Sacred Heart Monastery | Hales Corners, Wisconsin

Father Cremer

Rarely in life do we meet someone who makes such an impression on us that even after many years we can still recall with fervor the emotion attached to such an encounter.

Such was the case with Father Matthias Patrick Cremer, who taught at Priests of the Sacred Heart Monastery in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, and where I first called on him back in 1992. 

He was a scholar, linguist, teacher, preacher, mentor, incredible athlete and survivor. Yes, survivor.

He had escaped the clutches of Adolf Hitler, whose aides had their eye on the young Cremer as he trained in Germany with other athletes from the national team for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Cremer had set records in the discus and javelin events and was widely considered to be one of Germany’s leading medal contenders. Hitler desired him for his bodyguard; however the young Cremer wanted no part of this evil, despite that it could have given him a comfortable life. 

His story of survival and eventual exile is impressive in itself, but only secondary to why I was drawn to this man. I heard of his great love for our Lord and His mother; his gentle nature, generosity and passion for his faith. I was determined to be in the presence of one so selfless.

During our one and only visit, I knew I’d met a true servant of Jesus. His imposing physical figure stood in stark contrast to his mild manner. And his genuine concern for me personally was my lesson in love and humility, and so much more than I could have asked for.

Joan Brigman Krueger, Racine, Wisconsin

Father Marcos Gonzalez

St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church | Inglewood, California

Father Gonzalez

One of my favorite priests is Father Marcos Gonzalez. He is a busy priest at a parish of more than 10,000 families, yet he remembers the needs of others worldwide. His altruism is expressed in apostolates from Cuba to Jerusalem.

Father Marcos is a joyful, loving priest balancing a parish while performing the duties of his sacred office compassionately for the poor and often for free — free baptisms, marriages and even tuition!

He beautifies and maintains the house of God foremost and exhibits Christ’s love, especially through the lives of his parishioners. His encouragement permeates all who encounter him! His character models that of the luminous mysteries, and with a Christlike love he has baptized and married thousands while proclaiming the Gospel to a degree that changes hearts.

He blessed us by officiating my daughter’s wedding, and he sets a good example for others in my family who are discerning their vocations. At times, he has helped me through great hardships, always reminding me of Christ’s undeniable love for everyone. His holy advice resonates within the souls he encounters on a daily basis.

Some priests do more than light up a parish, they light up the hearts of all who are in it. He welcomes everyone he meets and shares Christ’s love so exceptionally that all feel valued and treasured as members in the body of Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for your apostle Father Marcos, who shares your love in a world that so desperately needs you. Christ will not leave his people without a shepherd.

Karen Marie Aguirre, Palmdale, California

Father Michael J. Esswein

St. Peter Catholic Church | Kirkwood, Missouri

Father Esswein

Father Mike Esswein has been a holy inspiration to our family through his profound love of God and neighbor. His physical life is a constant challenge, but he is always a steadfast beacon of joy and grace.

While Father Mike was in the seminary, he was involved in an automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic with only limited movement of his arms and hands.

At the accident scene, his first prayer to God was that he could still fulfill his childhood vocational dream of becoming a Catholic priest.

During his rehabilitation, his vocational goal seemed doubtful as initially his hands were not functional enough to even grasp the host during Mass. Through constant prayer, a final surgery on his neck miraculously provided him just enough digital dexterity to grasp a host.

Even though he is confined to a wheelchair and daily carries many physical crosses, he is always thankful to God for his life as a devoted, loving priest. Our family is in awe of his humility, compassion, wisdom and joy he shares. When any of us are burdened by one of life’s challenges, we are inspired by the graceful, angelic life of Father Mike. We are blessed that he is a part of our Christian family.

Ken and Pam Kopp, Des Peres, Missouri

Father Henry Carmona

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist | Boise, Idaho

Father Carmona

A heart for helping others and a heart for fun make Father Henry Carmona, our rector at St. John’s Cathedral here in Boise, an inspiring person and my favorite priest.

Father Henry has a heart for helping others. I’ve seen Father Henry reach for his wallet when approached by folks after Mass or during coffee hours. Father Henry leads two lives: helping the people of God in Idaho and also in his native Colombia. San Marcos School in Cali, Columbia, was founded by Father Henry in September 1985. Father Henry also assists several Franciscan brothers who run a home in Cali for abandoned disabled adults.

Father Henry also has a heart for fun. Father Henry may be the first rector in Cathedral history to snowshoe, float the Boise River and play soccer with his parishioners. When Father Henry takes off his collar at parish dances, that means Father wants to dance, too!

Health challenges haven’t prevented Father Henry from continuing to serve. Father has celebrated Mass while on crutches or on a non-motorized scooter. In April 2013 while on Easter vacation in Colombia, Father Henry was diagnosed with pre-cancerous metaplasia. During this past year, Father Henry has carried on as rector, sometimes having to leave parish events in discomfort.

Because of his health and his desire to be with his elderly mother, Father Henry will be retiring from the Diocese of Boise this summer to return to Colombia. Father’s last Mass as Cathedral rector will be on June 29. Father Henry, you’ll be missed!

Mary Ellen Nourse, Boise, Idaho

Father James O’Connor

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church | Botkins, Ohio

Father O'Connor

I remember when we came to Immaculate Conception and filled out the card for newcomers. One day, Father O’Connor came knocking at our door to make our acquaintance and extend his warmth and gather the necessary stats of our lives. My husband played the accordion and father played a violin, and he expressed his desire of starting a senior citizen band with all the musical talent in the parish.

As years passed, my husband was unable to attend Mass and services.

Father O’Connor came to administer the sacraments, and each time he came, he took off his coat and gave one the impression that “I am here for you.” As a caregiver, the love and concern he showed always lit a fire in our lives.

Time passed and father retired, but at the funeral Mass of my husband, Father O’Connor was able to be there, and it put a seal on the love and concern that he had for the sheep of his flock, the body of Christ.

Thank you, Father, for all the love, concerns, hardships, your building and tearing down, your disappointments, your love and faithfulness of the priesthood, and your service to the people that God placed in your tender and loving care, to grow and bear fruit.

Gertrude Kondracki, Botkins, Ohio

Father Frank Canfield, SJ

University of Detroit High School | Detroit

Jesuit Father Frank Canfield says a prayer with teens. Courtesy photo

By the time I was a junior in high school, my father, a disabled veteran whose commanding general died in his arms many years earlier from the shot of a sniper, was suffering from severe survivor’s guilt and was a broken man physically, mentally and spiritually. It was a very difficult time for him, and for me as his son.

I remember well seeking out Father Frank Canfield, a Jesuit at the University of Detroit High School, who truly represented Christ to me. Seared in my memory is his comment, “Ken, I don’t care if it’s 3 a.m., if you need to talk to somebody, call me.” Profound words during a time of need.

I am struck by the power of faith lived out in action. Father Canfield has been a living witness to me of the power of the Gospel lived out in service to others.

A deeply spiritual man, he has such a love of the Eucharist. There are thousands of men throughout the years whose lives have been deeply affected by him.

I am privileged to be counted among those men.

Ken Darnell,  Ann Arbor, Michigan

Father Wilbert Hegener, OFM

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church | Petoskey, Michigan

Father Hegener

Many things made Father Wilbert Hegener, OFM, an extraordinary priest and man — that he lived to be 100 years old is one, as is the fact that he served as a priest for 72 years. Still, there is so much more.

Coming to Michigan at the age of 3 from Germany with his parents, he was raised in our parish. He then left for the seminary and, later, the Army. Serving as regimental chaplain for the 75th Division at the Battle of the Bulge, Father Willie was awarded a Bronze Star for caring spiritually and physically for the wounded and dying of both armies. He sometimes wept when recalling those days.

After the war, he taught and led retreats before returning to St. Francis Xavier parish as senior parochial vicar and hospital chaplain. The span of his priesthood was stunning.         

More remarkable was his humility, warmth, humanity and ability to imitate Christ in the confessional. Remembered as a lion in the pulpit, he was a lamb in the confessional. Father Willie touched my heart deeply, and many others’, with his kind council. He said, “It’s impossible to measure the circumference of God’s love for us.” He taught that when we come to Christ in humble, honest need, we’re always forgiven.

I’m not ashamed to say I wept at his funeral Mass. I’ve no doubt that when he was embraced by Christ, he was told, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Father Willie served God and the Church to the end.

Edward Mattson, Petoskey, Michigan

Father Francis Mulranen

Our Lady of Fatima Church | Secane, Pennsylvania

Father Mulranen

I have known Father Mulranen for more than seven years — or, should I say, I have come to know our Lord through him. His love of the Church, the sacraments and the people has had a profound impact on my spiritual life. His giving of himself is his way, guided by the Holy Spirit. He has been able to demonstrate to me a “convincing sign of God’s kingdom.”

I have never known another priest or person that so fully lives the Gospel in his life and is able to share his love for Jesus with so many people in so many ways, even through all of his physical sufferings. I have seen this especially in the celebration of the Mass in his gentle way through word and action of bringing us into the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. He has drawn me closer to Christ, to contemplate his love, forgiveness and mercy. During the consecration, Father’s words and actions are no longer his own; he is truly in persona Christi. I am brought to tears as I truly see Jesus present on the altar. He lovingly looks at Jesus, and then at us, as he proclaims “This is the Lamb of God.” What a gift the Lord has given him! He no longer lives for himself, but for Christ. 

Though I have had many conversations with him, the most important one, as Father puts it, is when he says “The Body of Christ” and I say “Amen.”

Theresa Chuplis, Coatesville, Pennsylvania

Father Dennis Cooney

St. Raphael Catholic Church | Lehigh Acres, Florida

Father Cooney

Our pastor, Father Dennis Cooney, is, before anything else, the Lord’s servant and a true shepherd of his people. He is faithful to our holy Catholic Church. He is a staunch defender of the Faith and the magisterium of the Church.

He loves children, and he is always there for his parishioners and their needs. He is generous and humble.

No matter what is taking place in the parish, you will see Father Cooney leading his people, old and young alike.

If it’s the Lord’s work, he is there with his people serving, not delegating.

Father is a sought-after speaker throughout the Diocese of Venice, Florida, as well as a retreat master, probably because of his awesome knowledge of our Faith and the fact that he is not afraid to speak the truth from the pulpit, guiding and leading and, best of all, never losing his super sense of humor. He works in prison ministry as well as mission work, and he teaches a class for his parishioners based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church weekly in the spring.

Father ministers to faculty and staff at Ave Maria University here in southwest Florida, on what would otherwise be his day off. Here at St. Raphael’s, he’s often seen going from one building to another, dressed always in his priestly black, wearing a baseball cap. And it’s not unusual to see a youngster running to catch up with him just to chat or ask a question.

Father Dennis has been a priest for 40 years; it is our prayer that the Lord gives him many more years here at St. Raphael’s.

Mary A. Johnson, Lehigh Acres, Florida