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40th Anniversary Kicks off with Vocations Event


The Diocese of Gaylord opened a year-long celebration of its 40th Anniversary and the annual observance of National Vocations Awareness Week on January 8, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, with a special event at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord.

Mass_1.jpgBishop Bernard Hebda presided at the Eucharistic Liturgy with Fr. Dennis Stilwell, Fr. James Bearss, Fr. Matthew Wigton, Fr. Donald Geyman, and Fr. Gerald Okoli concelebrating. Deacon Paul Fifer served as Deacon for the Mass. Joining parishioners from the Cathedral were 22 young men who were attending the St. Andrew Task Force retreat for high school boys being held that weekend as well as members of the Vocations Advisory Committee and over 150 others from across the diocese who came to attend the Inaugural Vocations Awards Dinner taking place after Mass in the Cathedral Parish Hall.

During his homily Bishop Hebda focused on the Gospel reading recalling the baptism of Jesus by John and reminding the congregation “how important it is that just as God the Father had a plan for God the Son that the Son embraced completely, so too does God have a plan for each one of us.” Noting that the day also marked the beginning of Vocations Awareness Week, Bishop Hebda explained that it is a week set apart for each person to reflect upon God’s love for each of us and how we are “all called in some way to build up the local church, to give our gifts back to Him to do with what He wills.”

Bishop Hebda spoke not only of the importance of the particular vocations to priesthood, the diaconate and religious life, but also about the vocation of marriage and how couples are called to reflect God’s love and serve Him through married life, finding God through one another.

“How great our God is that He invites each of us to have some role in His church,” Bishop Hebda said. “When we discover that, when we prayerfully discern what it is that God is calling us to do, it is then that we experience great joy. Certainly that was Jesus’ great pleasure as he came up from the water as he was baptized by John and was recognized as God’s beloved son. That has to be what we all strive for in our lives – to recognize our relationship as son or daughter of the Lord and to know of God’s great love for us. Let us have grateful hearts for the call that each of us has been given.”

After the Mass, the celebration continued with dinner in the Parish Hall. Fr. Don Geyman, Director of Vocations, served as the Master of Ceremonies for the evening.

Fr_Denny.jpgFr. Dennis Stilwell, Pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Petoskey, was the keynote speaker. Fr. Denny was the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Gaylord. He too is celebrating a 40th anniversary this year.

Fr. Denny shared his personal journey to the priesthood in a talk he said had two themes, “Why I Became a Priest; and Why I Stay.” Fr. Denny credited his family with his strong Catholic upbringing, acknowledging his mother and brother who were in the audience. Having attending Catholic School for most of his life, several religious sisters and priests had suggested maybe he was being called to the priesthood, but it wasn’t until he was a senior in high school – “I was a late vocation in those days,” Fr. Denny said – a priest ultimately invited and encouraged him to “just try” the seminary. “And I have loved every minute of being a priest,” Fr. Denny said. He added that it is very important that we never stop asking young people to consider that they might be called to the priesthood or religious life because “sometimes you have to hear it over and over and over again before you really think about it.”

Fr. Denny shared that he has most loved being a parish pastor, but even when assigned to the Tribunal as the first Judicial Vicar for the Diocese, he liked what he learned and embraced the opportunity to use the law to help people and minister to them.

Reflecting on his own experiences where he felt challenged, Fr. Denny shared lessons learned and encouraged those gathered not to shy away from doing things that seemed beyond their comfort zone or for which they didn’t see themselves particularly qualified. “You have to allow yourself to be stretched beyond what you think your abilities are because only in doing that will you discover what your abilities are,” he said. “People often see talents and abilities in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

In discussing why he stays a priest, Fr. Denny said, “We stay because of the people that we serve. We know that our role is important and we have what is needed to serve the people, but it is the response of the people that makes us stay. I can think of no other profession or way of life where people open their hearts up more than they do for us. At diocesan gatherings, I always see people from every parish I’ve ever been in and they are always very warm and very loving and it always brings back wonderful memories,” Fr. Denny added. “You are the ones who make priesthood beautiful and delightful, and you are the reason why we all stay -- and I thank you for that,” he concluded.

Seminarians2_1.jpgSeminarians Sean Farkas, Michael Wigton, Tyler Bischoff, Will MacMaster and Chris Jarvis offered a musical interlude as they sang "Ave Maria", a Gregorian chant for those attending the dinner. Will then continued playing his guitar and invited the audience to join in.

The final highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Inaugural Vocations Awards recognizing those who have made special efforts to support vocations in the Diocese of Gaylord. Honorees included: the Knights of Columbus Council 7623 from Hale/Whittemore; Dave Fernelius and Family of Fernelius Auto in Cheboygan; and Don and Linda Zielinski of Alpena.  Each of the honorees received a framed Papal Blessing from Pope Benedict XVI which was presented by Bishop Hebda and Fr. Geyman.

K_of_C_1.jpgOur Lady of Mt. Carmel Knights of Columbus Council was recognized for their ongoing support of priests, seminarians and religious with their prayers and efforts as well as offering financial support. They were among the first K of C Councils in our diocese to sponsor a clergy and religious recognition night and the Council also supports the annual altar server appreciation day along with many other ministries.

Fernelius_1.jpgDavid and Alice Fernelius of Fernelius Auto Dealerships were honored for their continued support of the Church and vocations. Fr. Don Geyman shared his relationship with the Fernelius family reflecting on his his history with the family while he was serving in Tawas and which has continued since they moved to Cheboygan. “Both Dave and Alice have been very active in the church and school,” Fr. Don noted. “They have also been very generous supporters to our vocations efforts, providing transportation for St. Andrew Task Force events, seminary visits, and even for guests who had travelled here from across the globe for our new Bishop’s ordination.”

Zielinskis_web_1.jpgEspecially recognizing that there would be no vocations were it not for the nurturing that comes from families, Don and Linda Zielinski were honored for fulfilling their call to the vocation of marriage and service to the church by raising a faith-filled family. Their five children have continued that family legacy. Their son Chad was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Gaylord in 1996 and currently is assigned as a military chaplain in the Air Force. Now back at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Fr. Chad has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, ministering to our soldiers and families stationed there. Don and Linda’s son Todd lives in Gaylord and is an active member of the Vocations Advisory Committee. Their other children, Susan Jana and Cirraey, along with their spouses, live in Tawas and Alpena and remain active in their churches and communities as they pass down the faith to Don and Linda’s 18 grandchildren.

As the night concluded, Bishop Hebda added a special word of thanks for everyone who had come to the event and for their ongoing support of vocations efforts. “How wonderful it is that we can come together from across the diocese for such a great evening. I want to thank each of you for all you do and encourage your ongoing prayers for vocations.”

The event was the first of many special events which will take place throughout the anniversary year which will include a Women’s Conference, a Baraga Days celebration, a pilgrimage to Rome and many others. The highlight will be the celebration of the 40th anniversary itself which will take place on July 20 at St. Mary Cathedral.

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