BY TONI CASHNELLI PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIWhen he started, “There were many days I was convinced Iwould never see a vocation,” says Don Miller.
Don Miller had it all figured out.
“I was gonna be a diocesan priest,” he says, settling behind the meeting table in the Vocation Office at Mt. Airy. In high school, “I visited the Viatorian novitiate in Arlington Heights [Ill.]” So what happened? “I didn’t want to join because they worked with young people.”
Attracted by their variety of ministries, he became a friar.
“Within six years of ordination, I was teaching and working with young people.” That set the stage for the next 38 years, the past 12 of which he has been Vocation Director for the Province.
“Does God have a sarcastic sense of humor?” Sure sounds like it.
Don is laughing as he tells this and other stories about the journey that led him here, a journey that takes a sharp turn as he starts a sabbatical after resigning from the Vocation Office. You have to laugh, he says. “It’s essential to religious life.”
He’s looking and sounding less stressed these days, with good reason. The high-profile job he’s turning over to Larry Zurek and Luis Aponte-Merced is a huge responsibility. Don says the timing is “providential, something new for me as well as the office.” After a series of surgeries and setbacks from a torn quadriceps tendon he suffered a year-and-a-half ago, “I physically can’t keep up with the travel and that kind of stuff.”
Don is not the province’s longest serving Vocation Director – Paul Scales served two stints for a total of 22 years – but he is among the most respected. “I think the best compliment I got was at Jubilee [on May 25] when someone said, ‘I always felt secure when you were Vocation Director,’ that I gave the province a sense that recruitment was alive. I’m happy with what I did.”
Despite Don’s success, “I have no idea why some guys join and some don’t. I still find vocation work a mystery.” He came to it from academia. “I was in my seventh year at Walsh University [in North Canton, Ohio]. A year before I left I told Fred [Link] it was time for me to move on.” Given the options, “I didn’t think I could do vocation work. The President of Walsh [Richard Jusseaume] said, ‘Take it,’ so I did.”
Norbert Bertram and Luis Aponte-Merced at the Vocation Office with Don.Don at Mt. Airy.E-mail and Facebook revolutionized communication with prospective friars. PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIAt the time, “There was nothing written” about the duties of the Vocation Director. Before leaving the office, Norbert Bertram signed Don up for a vocation conference, but the rest was a blank slate. “It was rough getting started. There were many days I was convinced I would never see a vocation. I remember spending time in the chapel at Mt. Airy before the statue of St. Francis and St. Clare, and saying, ‘This is a community. If you want it to grow, do something.’”
After that, “It kind of developed from scratch. I starting making the mini-CD video” that was used for years as a vocation tool. “I started getting busy, returning phone calls. Guys teased me about calling back so fast.” Don laughs. “I had nothing else to do.”
From his time at Walsh, “I was used to how young guys think and work. I decided to go out to them, spending time with them and start mentoring them that way. I got in the car and started traveling.” He spent 30 to 40% of his time outside the office, flying as far as Seattle, Wash., to answer men’s questions and concerns about religious life. “I learned way back when I was a Newman Chaplain that visiting guys on their home turf tells you a lot more – seeing them in their home setting, whether they were young enough to live alone, how they handle themselves.”
Most are nervous. “Someone’s coming from a religious community to talk At a conference with the late Bob Lucero of the Vocation team, former Novice Nick Thorvaldsen and friend.Don giving a presentation on the younger generation.about a way of life. I joke around and try to set a tone. I try to ease that nervousness by letting them ask questions,” the typical ones being, “Will I ever see my family again?” and “What do you guys do all day?” The image of religious life, Don says, “is that we pray all day.”
There were times that “as soon as I got out of the car I knew it was a disaster. One guy, his living room was as dark as a cave, lit by 200-300 vigil lights in front of statues. His father took me aside and said, ‘Is this how all you Catholics are?’ A couple of times I sensed some mental disturbance. One guy, a Vietnam veteran, told me he was paranoid schizophrenic when I got there.”
Don never made a “pitch”. “What turned me off is that recruiters would promise some guys the world. We are not selling our religious communities. You can’t convince someone to join. You can’t sell a religious vocation.” What you CAN do is “enthusiastically present our lifestyle.”
Guys want honesty, he says, “authenticity and fairness. We need to keep asking ourselves, ‘How authentically are we living our lives?’ Once they see you as unfair, you’re dead.” Beyond that, “The community in general needs to be more welcoming and inviting. They [young people] are rambunctious, bouncing off the walls, but so were we” at that age. “There is a vitality about young people that’s catching.”
Leaving the job, “I will miss watching the guys develop, whether they stay or not. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I have really enjoyed seeing some of these guys grow up and knowing I had some part in it.”
Unfortunately, “Some guys I really thought would make good friars opted not to join.” You can’t explain “how God is working in these young men’s lives. It’s something you can’t control.” Whatever happens, “It’s not my choice. I made mine years ago.”
Now he’s made another choice, leaving the Vocation Office to renew his training in moral theology. “I’ll be looking for workshops. The other thing I want to do is teach myself how to do websites. It’s something I’m fascinated with. I want to take some time for prayer, reading, exercise.”
That’s the plan. We’ll see what God has in store.
BY FR. LEONARD CORNELIUS, OFM
Left, John Joseph Gonchar with his award; below, J.J. at St. Paul with other honorees.On Sunday, June 7, the Diocese of Pittsburgh honored a number of consecrated men and women and lay men and women for outstanding service in the life of the diocese at a Mass celebrated at St. Paul Cathedral. The honorees were selected, in the case of the consecrated men and women, by their major superiors; the lay men and women by the pastors of their respective parishes.
Fr. John Joseph Gonchar received the award for our Province. In one photo he is seen seated among the Religious men and women awaiting the beginning of the Mass. To his right is Sr. Janice of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and behind her is Sr. Jeanne Marie of the School Sisters of St. Francis. Among the services that John Joseph is providing, once a week he visits the residents of the nursing homes operated by these two congregations of Sisters.
Bishop David Zubik was the main celebrant and homilist at the Mass. There were several Concelebrants, including Vicar Frank Jasper. At the conclusion of the Mass each honoree was called upon by name to receive a glass plaque from the bishop. In the second photo John Joseph is seen holding the plaque which reads:
Diocese of Pittsburgh
with recognition and appreciation
Reverend John Joseph Gonchar OFM
Manifesting the Kingdom 2015
At the conclusion of the celebration in the cathedral the Friars at Holy Family Friary along with Frank went to a restaurant to have dinner together on this happy occasion.
BY TONI CASHNELLI
He loved people, and they loved him back.
This was obvious at the June 6 funeral for Gil Wohler. The line, “Brothers to each other and to the world”, from “Facing Our Future with Hope”, seemed to have been written for him.
“I’ve only known the man for 30 days,” said neighbor Cherri Southerland, a recent arrival at Mercy Community at Winton Woods, where Gil lived and ministered for a decade. “There was something about his spirit that would draw you in. I’d pray for him, and he’d turn around and pray for me. I was good for the day.”
Cherri was among 120 people – an overflow crowd – at St. Clement for the Reception of the Body. They represented Gil’s time as a pastor, a missionary, a vocations director, a teacher, a spiritual director, a chaplain, and a liaison to the Franciscan Alumni Association. Many had never laid eyes on each other. But all of them could relate.
“I came to the former seminary in 2012,” said Dominic Lococo. “Gil was one of the reasons I wanted to go there. He was our local minister but he never flaunted his authority.” In recent years when Gil’s ailments multiplied, “I was his driver. He was so appreciative. St. Paul in his Epistles said we’re all part of one body. For our place, Gil was the heart. The fact that we lost our heart doesn’t mean we lost everything. He’s praying for us, looking down on us.”
Two years his junior, Joe Ricchini bonded with Gil in formation. “One of the beautiful things about our way of life is we see the whole span of a person’s life,” Joe said. “It was nice to see how Gil developed.” In school, “He was an outstanding athlete, an outstanding shortstop.” That all came back when Joe visited Gil the day he died. “I told him, ‘Gil, there’s nothing to be said.’ I was holding his hand. That son of a gun still had big arms.”
“He could have been a professional baseball player,” said Dave Stenz, who met Gil through an uncle in the seminary. “He said he would have a longer career as a Franciscan.”
Celebrant Frank Jasper welcomed Gil’s brother Ken and wife Lydia, niece Amy Winter, nephew Allan Weilert, and thanked a long list of groups large and small, including caregivers, for being there. “It’s so great to see so many of you who have come to remember him and pray with him and for him.”
Homilist Manuel Viera remembered a time during his parish days out West when funerals were so frequent they became second nature. “Today was not second nature,” he said, admitting how hard it was to preach for a friend. In 2002 when Gil suffered a brush with death, he told Manuel, “‘You’re preaching my funeral.’ That was not easy to take, and it is not easy today.”
Their friendship deepened when Manuel moved to St. Francis Seraph, where Gil was pastor. “Once a week we would go out to eat. During those times I tried to get out of this job. Gil would not let me. For the last three years since I’ve been gone from Cincinnati we kept in regular touch through the phone. The calls stopped in March,” when Gil began to decline. Manuel phoned three weeks ago, and all his friend could say was,
Today, “I think what Gil wants to communicate to us is that we are loved by God; that has been his life and ministry” at the seminary, in parishes, at the Vocation Office and in South Africa. “All that he proclaimed to us is, ‘God loves you’. I’m sure he’s rejoicing in that love.” If we ask, “’Gil Wohler, son of Francis, do you love me?’, the Lord will point to everything Gil has done that demonstrates and shows that love.”
Manuel reached for his cell phone. “I’m gonna let Gil have the last word,” he said, attempting to play back a voicemail message without success. “Basically,” Manuel explained, “it is Gil speaking, ‘I am not here today. Leave a message.’ Gil, our message is that we love you. As you look at the face of the Father, pray for us that we may be able to continue the work of God you have begun.”
Asked to describe Gil in one word, Mike Chowning said, “A brother. And not just as a friar, a brother to everyone he met. He could relate to the young, the elderly, he just had that way; they felt comfortable with him.”
Cherri, the neighbor who met Gil a month ago, could testify to that. “It didn’t take me 10 years to find out he was a good man,” she said. “It took two days.”
06/11/15 eNews Notes
06/04/15 eNews Notes
One Saturday afternoon during the General Chapter, I made my way from St. Mary of the Angels up to Assisi. I spent some time praying in the Church of Santa Chiara, before the San Damiano cross which is housed there. I prayed the same prayer that St. Francis prayed before that same cross: “O Lord, enlighten the darkness of my heart, give me right faith, certain hope, perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out your holy and true command.” I asked the Lord to speak to me the way he spoke to Francis: “Go and rebuild my house, which you can see is falling into ruin.” But the truth is I heard no voice, and in fact nodded off a bit as I tried to pray. On the way home, I was reflecting on my experience, and in a way, I did hear the Lord speak. He gently echoed the words of Francis. “Jeff, I have done what was mine to do, now you do what is yours to do.” In the end, while Assisi is wonderful to visit, it is not where I live. I have my own San Damianos and Portiunculas, places where the Lord has spoken (and speaks) to me. Here is where I live my Franciscan life and mission and do what is mine to do. I was grateful for the time and opportunity in that special place, but I am grateful to be back home, where, together, we friars of St. John the Baptist Province do what is ours to do.
— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM
Bruce Hausfeld, right, gave the homily for Bryant’s Jubilee Mass.
Maynard Tetreault, E.J. Stein and Richard Goodin share a
Left, the blessing of the San Damiano Cross was especially moving; above, Pastor Larry Zurek consoles a Sacred Heart parishioner; right, Larry asked friars to sing the Ultima; above right, Larry needs a caption.
BY FR. MARK SOEHNER, OFM
Accompanied by singing, trumpets, the organ and clouds of incense, we made our way down the aisle of Sacred Heart Church at the stroke of 10 a.m. on June 7. The occasion was the return of the pastoral care of Sacred Heart and St. Joseph parishes to the Diocese of Peoria.
The four concelebrants were: Larry Zurek, the pastor; Luis Aponte-Merced, the associate; Msgr. Stanley Deptula, the new pastor; and myself, representing the Province with Vince Delorenzo. We were joined by Marcel Groth and Norbert Bertram for the emotional ceremony. Friars had gathered for dinner the night before, receiving a free room graciously provided by the Pere Marquette Hotel.
Of the many highlights in the uplifting Mass, we were told that parishioners found the blessing of the San Damiano Cross by all the friars especially moving. Toward the end of Mass, I thanked Luis and Larry for their years of service there, noting the beautiful renovation and the building with living stones. They both received a thunderous standing ovation.
Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett followed with many historical highlights of the 123 years of the friars’ service, as well as the 132 friars who served there. Luis gave a tearful thanks and farewell. Msgr. Deptula spoke about how overwhelming it was to follow the friars and reminded us that we were always welcome to return.
Larry tried to sum it all up, thanking people for their support of the renovations that have made Sacred Heart the “most beautiful of all the Catholic churches in Peoria”, to quote the mayor. And then, almost forgetting, he gave the keys to Msgr. Deptula.
(Read the Catholic Post’s online story about the friars’ departure at: http://thecatholicpost.com/post/PostFeatured.aspx.)
“There was great appreciation for the presence and ministry of the friars throughout these manyyears.ﾠThe commentﾠthatt we heard most washowﾠmuchh the friars were loved, especially Larry andLuis.ﾠ It remindedme
of what Pope Francis recently told the friars inRome:ﾠ‘Thee people of God loveyou.’ﾠ I could certainly feelthis
– Vince Delorenzo, OFM
“It was a very impressiveceremony.ﾠThee music was really nice and the blessing of the San Damiano cross in the side entrance was really moving. Mark had a goodhomily.ﾠII was very impressed with the proclamation the Mayor gave.Afterﾠeverythingg was said, Larry asked the friars to come up in the sanctuary to sing the Ultima. We did well and the people enjoyed it.”
– Norbert Bertram, OFM
“I was glad to see the church. I was stationed in Peoria before it was remodeled. Larry did a fabulous job. Everything at the service was well done, and I liked the symbolism of the exchange of the key to the church, turning it over to the new pastor. The church choir was unbelievable. I enjoyed being with Larry’s family at dinner the night before. I am so glad I went."
– Marcel Groth, OFM
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