Father Michel remembered as selfless with a heart for Latinos

| Matthew Davis and Dave Hrbacek | April 4, 2017 | 0 Comments

In this June 2015 file photo, Father Eugene Michel stands in front of Sacred Heart in St. Paul, where he served as the final Franciscan friar. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

Father Eugene Michel’s action one winter day in the parking lot of Sacred Heart in St. Paul speaks volumes about the kind of priest he was, said a friend and former parishioner.

Prisciliano Maya, who got to know the Franciscan priest over the last 15 years until his death April 3 at the age of 81, recalled the incident, which took place five or six years ago. It involved a new jacket Father Michel had just received.

“He was wearing a very old jacket” at the time, Maya said, “and, I tried to convince him to use a new one.”

It took a year before Father Michel gave in and got one. Then, the first time he wore it, he left his house across the parking lot from his parish office and encountered a man walking in the cold without a jacket. He gave the man his jacket.

“So, he wore the jacket just five minutes,” Maya recalled. “I asked him, ‘Father, where is your jacket?’ And, he told me that that happened. It moved my heart to see that kind of thing. He did that all the time. Whenever a person gave him money, he always used the money for the poor.”

Pastor of Sacred Heart from 2003-2015, Father Michel endeared himself not just to Maya and his family, but to the parish’s entire Latino community, which grew under his leadership and remains strong. Maya said the priest would come over to his house regularly and always asked for his favorite Mexican bean dish, frijolitos calientitos. On Maya’s last visit with Father Michel at Our Lady of Peace Home in St. Paul March 31, the last words he heard the priest utter were in Spanish: “Ayúdame” (“help me”).

“He always was compassionate,” Maya said. “He was a blessing because he knew our culture. He knew how we think, and most of the time, he knew more about our culture than us.”

Father Michel also formed lasting friendships with Anglo parishioners. One of them, Jerry Lowe, also remarked about Father’s love for the poor.

“He was very dedicated to helping the poor,” said Lowe, who was asked by Father Michel to be a parish trustee. “I fit in pretty good there because I’m president of St. Vincent de Paul [conference at the parish]. So that helped me a lot. He would push people to donate to St. Vincent de Paul from the pulpit, and that was a big help.”

Father Michel entered the Franciscans in 1956 and professed solemn vows in 1960 before his ordination in 1964. He spent a year in further formation before teaching religion at an all-male, African-American high school in Chicago from 1966-1977. His job required much more than teaching.

“You had to be a father figure and often put in long extra hours after school was over, because you did a lot of things with the kids that absent fathers should have been doing. And Father Eugene was just excellent at that,” said Franciscan Father Christian Reuter, who served there with Father Michel.

Father Michel then served as chaplain to the U.S. embassy in Bonn, Germany, from 1976-1977; and taught theology at Quincy College in Illinois from 1977-1978. He then served parishes in San Antonio, Texas, and Chicago before coming to St. Paul. He was the last Franciscan to serve at Sacred Heart, as the St. Louis-based Sacred Heart Province ended its 106 years of ministry in the parish with his 2015 retirement.

“He was a very dedicated priest,” said Franciscan Brother Robert Gross, who lived with Father Michel in St. Paul. “He would always do the “nth” thing for the parishioners or whoever came to him.”

He also didn’t want to stop serving the parish. Even though he battled cancer for three years, he remained in ministry, even after his retirement in 2015. The parish didn’t find a pastor until a year later, when Father Tim Norris took over in June 2016. So, Father Michel continued to celebrate Masses. His last one was Aug. 21, 2016, and he did first reconciliation for children three months later, on Nov. 9.

“He didn’t want to quit,” Lowe said. “He kept working right up to the end. I know when he first came, he told me he would like to retire at 72 and travel. But, 72 came and went and he was still working.”

A visitation will be 2-5 p.m. April 9 and 9-10 a.m. April 10 at Sacred Heart. A funeral Mass will be offered at the parish 10 a.m. April 10 followed by burial in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul.

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