Oasis in the city for retired priests

| July 1, 2010 | 0 Comments

Father James Schoenberger tends to his flowers on the balcony of his apartment at the Leo C. Byrne Residence for retired priests in St. Paul. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Msgr. William Baumgaertner, 88, is enjoying the fruits of the research and recommendations that he prepared with the late Msgr. Ambrose Hayden back in the 1970s.

At the request of then Coadjutor Archbishop Leo C. Byrne, the two priests visited clergy retirement residences throughout the country in search of the best living situation for active, yet aging, priests.

“Our recommendation was that we ‘not’ get a house way out in the country where you could have perfect quiet,” Msgr. Baumgaertner said. “In retirement, we wanted to be available to the church.”

Before a residence was built, he was called to serve in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. bishops and the National Catholic Educational Association, overseeing accreditation for seminaries and other schools. But when it came time to retire, Msgr. Baumgaertner returned to his home diocese and the home that — in some respects — he helped build.

On June 20, the Leo C. Byrne Residence in St. Paul celebrated its 30th anniversary with an open house and a prayer service led by Archbishop John Nienstedt.

Celebrating Father’s Day

Thomas Chapple, administrator of the residence, planned the celebration for a small group of residents, relatives, friends and a few retired priests that may be considering one of the three apartments currently available.

“It turned out to be Father’s Day and I’ve got a lot of unwed fathers here,” Chapple quipped. The celebration also appropriately coincided with the end of the Year for Priests.

Later, while giving a tour of the three-story building with an indoor garage, Chapple spoke of the residents like a father watching over his family.

“I have 26 now, and the ones that are younger, retired and healthy are out saying daily Masses for the neighboring parishes and all over the place. My ones who are more housebound concelebrate Mass here,” he said.

“They’re in a contemplative part of their life,” he said. “They’ve been at the front door of rectories and on telephones and serving people 24-7. I think they just like their quiet time.”

Many of the older priests also appreciate some of the items that were moved to the residence from the now-closed Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary, where they once attended school.

Daily, on their way to the community room to read the newspaper or watch TV or for one of the three meals they are served, the priests walk past a familiar 1924 Frank H. Schwarz triptych of Italian villagers in prayer surrounding Mary holding the infant Jesus.

In the chapel, they celebrate Mass at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on the altar that was once used at Nazareth Hall.

Familiar friends and faith

The original Byrne Residence was situated at the corner of Summit and Cretin avenues in St. Paul. It was razed to provide space to build the University of St. Thomas’ science building.

Today, the Byrne Residence sits off Mississippi River Road high on a picturesque hill overlooking the river. Green lawns, trees and St. Paul Seminary buildings provide a restive backdrop.

Some of the priests, such as Father James Schoenberger, 78, add to the beauty by honing their green thumbs on brightly-colored flowers that spill over balcony railings.

Father Schoenberger, who has lived at the residence for 11 years, said that Chapple will water his plants whenever he is away at his lake cabin in Wisconsin.

“We get a lot for our rent,” and the convenient location has allowed him to continue to celebrate Mass for people in the archdiocese, he said.

At 96, Father Thomas Gannon is the oldest resident and the oldest priest in the archdiocese.

Asked why he moved to the Byrne Residence, Father Gannon joked that he didn’t exactly choose to move there.

“I had a heart attack and I had to make a move from the parish to a residence of some kind,” he said. But he said he enjoys living there because the contact with brother priests and daily Eucharist keeps him “in the Divine presence.”

Msgr. Baumgaertner said his fellow priests have many shared concerns. “You gravitate to people with your own background and a place that will give you a chance to exercise ministry of some kind as long as you can,” he added.

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