Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - As the Joy of the Gospel Campaign enters the second half of the pledge fulfillment phase, there is much to celebrate: The Diocese of in Lincoln has strengthened its financial stability, and more funds have become available for important causes.
This includes the support of the diocese’s 21 retired priests. Prior to the Joy of the Gospel campaign, the endowment for retired priests was only able to fulfill 42% of the retired priests pension. Tracy Lockwood, chief finance officer, reported a big improvement in that percentage.
“Through Joy of the Gospel, we have already contributed $5.8 million to the plan, bringing the funding up to 76%,” she said. “If all of our Joy of the Gospel pledges are collected, we will be able to contribute an additional $3 million and significantly close the funding gap.”
This is particularly good news because people are living longer these days. The U.S. Social Security Administration estimates that a man aged 65 today can expect to live to the age of 84, on average. With Lincoln priests reaching retirement age at 75, that’s about a decade of support that they need and deserve, after serving the diocese for so many years.
“I was encouraged by the Joy of the Gospel,” said Father Nicholas Baker, who was ordained in 1958 and retired in 2014. “It makes me feel good to know that somebody cares about us.”
Being a priest takes a lot of energy and long hours, between sacramental duties, pastoral care, parish management, and other concerns. That can become more difficult with age, due to a natural slowing of the mind and body.
Furthermore, health issues can intensify as a person gets older. That’s why Father John Keefe retired earlier than the age of 75.
“I have had diabetes for 58 years,” he explained. “I have heart trouble; I have trouble walking.”
Once retired, a priest has some freedom to decide where he will live. For example, when Father Baker retired, he got permission from the bishop and local pastor to move into the rectory of St. Joseph Parish in Alma, which had been unused since St. Joseph became a mission to St. Mary Parish in Orleans.
Other retired priests live in homes that they inherited from family members, or purchased. A priest could move in with relatives if that was the best fit for him. Father Patrick Murphy and Father James O’Connor both elected to return to their native Ireland when they retired.
Often, there comes a time when it’s not advisable for an older person to live alone, even though they are not in need of a skilled nursing care center. Priests who need a little extra help are able to move to Bonacum House in Lincoln.
Bishop Glennon P. Flavin opened Bonacum House in 1987 as a safe, comfortable residence for retired priests who could use somebody else to handle cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc., plus provide personal assistance as necessary. He asked the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George to serve there, and they have done so with joy ever since.
Bonacum House was built across the street from the chancery and the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln. This close proximity enables the residents to actively participate in major diocesan events.
Father John Zastrow, who was ordained in 1956 and retired almost 18 years ago, said, “Retirement for a priest is a little different because you do go on helping out. You just get rid of the responsibility of taking care of a parish.”
Like other retired priests who live in various cities around the diocese, the Bonacum House residents also fill in for nearby ill or vacationing priests, help with school confessions, celebrate Mass at Villa Marie School in Waverly, and serve as spiritual directors and confessors for younger priests, religious, and the occasional layperson who crave the wisdom and guidance of these experienced servants of Christ.
“I think it makes them feel needed and wanted,” said Sister Andrea, FSGM, who is the current superior at Bonacum House. “We all find our dignity in what we are able to give.”
These priests appreciate the relief of having little daily responsibilities, as well as the camaraderie of living in a community rather than being, as Father Baker put it, “lone wolves.”
“The best part of living here is the other priests,” Father Zastrow declared.
“Part of the reality in Lincoln, is that Lincoln has done so well on vocations, I don’t get to know the other priests,” he said.
Currently, there are only nine priests living at Bonacum House. Three more – Father James Cooper, Father John Cooper and Msgr. James Dawson – receive skilled nursing at a long-term care facility that is part of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.
While apartments are vacant, Sister Andrea is seizing the opportunity to do some sorely needed renovation.
“Nothing has been done in the apartments for 15 years,” she said.
Bathrooms need to be overhauled, and the other rooms need new carpeting, paint and window treatments. The communal areas also had the original carpet and paint until the sisters got to work, using funds donated separate from the Joy of the Gospel.
Sister Andrea is happy to help make a comfortable home for the men who served the needs of others so long and so faithfully.
“They are a blessing to the diocese,” she said. “We have so much to learn from them.”
She encourages people to be faithful to their Joy of the Gospel pledges.
“The Lord will never leave a generous person unrewarded,” she said.