Story by Tess Wahlmeier
(SNR) – June is an exciting but sometimes difficult time for many in the Diocese of Lincoln. It’s hard to say goodbye to the priests who have served their communities for three, five, or 20 years, but many welcomes and celebrations make their way as new friendships and parish families flourish.
In a 2013 homily for seminarians and novices, Pope Francis said, “The spread of the Gospel is not guaranteed either by the number of persons, or by the prestige of the institution, or by the quantity of available resources.
“What counts,” he said, “is to be permeated by the love of Christ, to let oneself be led by the Holy Spirit and to graft one’s own life onto the tree of life, which is the Lord’s Cross.”
“It’s sad to leave a place, always,” said Father Joseph Faulkner, current pastor at St. Ann in Doniphan and Sacred Heart in Kenesaw, and teacher at Hastings Catholic Schools. “You just get so used to certain places, styles, families, mindsets. Not only is there sadness that you’re going to miss people, but you’ve just gotten to know an entire way of life and you’re like, ‘oh, now I have to change that.’”
Father Faulkner has been appointed pastor of St. Wenceslaus in Wahoo, where he has served previously as assistant pastor.
“It’s a little scary to go be a pastor of a big place, but specifically knowing that it was Wahoo, a place that I had been before and known and loved, I would say that made it a whole lot easier to come to terms with,” he said. “When I was there, I had a great year. I loved it. It’s just a neat town and a beautiful Catholic community, especially with its strong ethnic flavor.”
Father Faulkner’s current position has prepared him well, in unique ways, for his role as pastor in Wahoo.
“Being here in Doniphan but teaching at St. Cecilia’s (in Hastings), I think I learned something of balancing rivalries that grow up around schools, and learned how to care for all the people, despite there being these natural little tensions and rivalries,” he said, “so the fact that Wahoo Public and Bishop Neumann are very intense sport rivals in the same town, and they will all be my parishioners, I feel pretty good about stepping into that role . . . a big thing that people can forget about is there’s also a large chunk of Catholic parishioners who go to Wahoo Public, and those are mine, too, so I want to be very mindful of being the pastor of the whole parish and not just the auxiliary of the schools.”
Father Faulkner said he is most honored and humbled to be following in the footsteps of Father Charles Townsend, current pastor of St. Wenceslaus who will be transitioning to serve as pastor of St. Peter Parish in Lincoln.
Father Townsend has been in Saunders County for the past 21 years – 11 years at St. Wenceslaus in Wahoo, and 10 years at St. James in Mead, just a few miles down the road.
Although he’s been surrounded by this community for a long time, he sees the wisdom in Bishop Conley’s decision to move him to St. Peter Parish in Lincoln.
“It’s kind of bittersweet, in the sense that I think everybody needs change,” Father Townsend said. “I think the people and the priests both need a change. You don’t want to grow stagnant.”
His years in Wahoo and Mead have been full of many different challenges and opportunities. He’s been able to oversee the construction of a new church, parish hall, and rectory in Mead, as well as the expansion and remodeling of Bishop Neumann High School.
“I’ve met and grown acquainted with a great number of families, and also in that time I’ve had a number of people lost,” he said. “Each family that you’ve known for so long you become incorporated into, even though you’re not a member of any of those families. You still belong to them in some way. It gets a little bit more emotional to suffer their losses and to bury the family.
“And that’s what I’ve noticed in the last year is taking its toll on me,” he continued, “the loss of some pretty dear friends of the past 20 years, and not only the old, but sometimes young members of the community, too, which is very difficult.
“Those are the things that are weighing heavily upon me, but I’ve also had the great opportunity to share in I don’t know how many baptisms, or how many weddings, or how many graduations, or how many family celebrations, that I truly feel blessed to have enjoyed with some wonderful people. That’s the bitter and the sweet of it: the losing of family, and also the celebration that goes with being a part of a family.”
Outside the Diocese
Bishop Conley is also releasing a few priests to serve outside the Diocese of Lincoln, in areas where there is a great need for priests, such as Gallup, N.M., where Father Thomas Walsh will serve.
Another diocesan priest going to serve elsewhere is Father Thomas Kuffel, current pastor of Mother of Sorrows Parish in Grant, Resurrection in Elsie, and St. Mary in Wallace. Father Kuffel has been assigned to the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Diocese of Fairbanks includes 47 parishes scattered throughout 400,000 square miles. In comparison, the Diocese of Lincoln, considered ‘expansive’ by many other U.S. dioceses, includes 134 parishes in an area of 23,000 square miles. In 2015, the Diocese of Fairbanks had a total of 17 priests serving the 13,500 Catholics in the diocese.
Father Kuffel will be stationed in Nome, a town of 4,000 on the Central Western coast of Alaska. His other assignments include Teller, a village of close to 200 people about 70 miles north of Nome; Kotzebue, a city of 3,200 located 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle; and Little Diomede, a small island of 80 people in the middle of the Bering Sea.
“It’ll be a challenge to leave Nebraska,” Father Kuffel said. “I’ve got great parishes in Grant, Wallace, and Elsie and I really like the people up there. I’ve been in Nebraska for some 20-plus years and so I have a lot of ties, but an opportunity comes like this once in a lifetime, so I decided to go explore it.”
Father Kuffel is excited to meet the people of Alaska, travel, see the native art and architecture, and experience a new culture and climate. He has visited the area twice, and said that Bishop Conley and Bishop Chad Zelinski of the Diocese of Fairbanks agree that he would be a good fit.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also incredibly beautiful,” Father Kuffel said. “It’s a lot of work – a lot of pastoral work, and a lot of work developing the relationships with people between the different Native American cultures up here. We have Eskimos, which are really Inuit and Inupiaq tribes, and so they have different languages and different customs and different cultures, and it’s important to respect and honor those and try to relate with them.”
First-time pastor Father Kenneth Wehrs, currently serving as assistant pastor at North American Martyrs in Lincoln, said he is sad to leave Lincoln but excited for his new assignment as pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Cambridge and St. Germanus Parish in Arapahoe.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I grew up in the country so I’m looking forward to a smaller community – not that I didn’t love Lincoln!”
Father Wehrs said it will be difficult to leave his parishioners, and especially his students, since teaching is his first love; however, he will continue his role as a teacher at St. Patrick School in McCook, and he is excited to move to a smaller parish because he will be able to get to know all of his parishioners personally. He’s already visited several times.
“My hobby is just trying to go as far as I can in one day, so I’ve been out there every Tuesday for the last month,” he said.
As a new pastor, Father Wehrs said he isn’t really nervous, but rather is excited to take on new responsibility.
“There’s just a lot of stuff that you only get to learn through experience; you can’t learn it in a classroom,” he said. “I’ve been taught very well by the two pastors I’ve had as a priest, Father (Bernard) Kimminau and Father (Brian) Connor. They’ve both taught me a lot of aspects of the priesthood that they don’t teach you in the seminary - there are no classes on fundraising or getting people involved in activities and starting new programs and things like that. You just learn the theology, and then the rest of it you learn on the fly.”
Father Wehrs, who has had a devotion to the Blessed Mother for his whole life, is also excited about the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in Arapahoe.
“It seems like everywhere I go, the Blessed Mother is there taking care of me,” he said. “My first assignment as a (transitional) deacon was at St. Mary Parish in Nebraska City, and then my first assignment as a priest was as assistant at St. Mary Parish in David City, and so she kind of follows me around, or I follow her, one of the two.”
All of the priests wished to express their thanks to the people of their communities for their support and care over the years, and also to Bishop James Conley.
Priests’ new appointments are effective June 13. A full list of all priests with new appointments is available at lincolndiocese.org/snr.
The men ordained priests May 28 will receive letters immediately after ordination which detail their appointments; those will be published in the June 10 Register.