Grandmother helps steer Father Wirth toward religious vocation

| May 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

A grandmother with strong faith played a key role in Father Seraphim Wirth’s journey toward the priesthood.

Father Seraphim Wirth

Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

While taking classes at the University of Minnesota in 2005, Elaine Wirth was moved to a senior care facility in St. Cloud to get help with a serious illness. Father Wirth, of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, felt drawn to her, and made frequent visits to the center where she lived before her death in 2008.

“I went down to visit her every weekend, and we’d pray the rosary,” said Father Wirth, 40, who grew up in Sauk Rapids and belonged to Sacred Heart with his parents and three siblings. “Just being with her, going through that time in her life, just kind of re-opened my eyes up to the faith in a deeper way.”

During those months, he started feeling a call to the priesthood. She encouraged him to follow up with the Vocations Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which he did. She also gave him a book: “Journal of a Soul: The Autobiography of Pope John XXIII.” She was the first person he told about his vocation desire.

“It was a relief to share that with somebody,” he said. “We didn’t talk about it too much after that. … But, I know she was praying.”

In 2006, he attended a summer discernment retreat held by the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul. At the time, he knew he wanted a religious vocation, and was leaning toward becoming a priest of the archdiocese. But, at the retreat, one of the sisters encouraged him to explore the Franciscans, and she suggested a few Franciscan communities.

He visited the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul, and found his home there. He joined in 2007, and made his permanent profession Oct. 22, 2013. It was the feast day of St. John Paul II, and he was able to go to Rome for the canonization of both Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII April 27, 2014. He went with Brother Paul O’Donnell, one of the founders of the Franciscan Brothers who died less than a year after the visit to Rome.

“We had to stand in line to get into the canonization, and he stood on the street with me in the middle of 50,000 people for 12 hours,” Deacon Wirth recalled. “I was taken aback by his dedication to be out there, given his health at the time.”

He was supported by Brother Paul in the pursuit of priesthood, and inspired by St. John Paul II. One line by this late pope, in particular, caught Deacon Wirth’s attention and stayed with him. While he was pope, St. John Paul II repeated this phrase often: “Be not afraid.”

These words have guided Father Wirth in his ministry with the Franciscan Brothers, who reach out to the poor in the Twin Cities, care for victims of torture from around the world and serve the Karen community of St. Paul.

Father Wirth has spent most of his ministry time with the Karen community. He worked with St. Jerome School in Maplewood to accept 50 Karen students at the start of the current school year, and has baptized members of the Karen community during his time as a transitional deacon, including 13 on Easter Sunday at St. Casimir in St. Paul.

Father Wirth has learned the Karen language and plans to say Mass in the community’s native tongue. Celebrating Mass for the Karen people is one of the things he is most looking forward to in his upcoming priestly ministry. In addition to being appointed to ministerial service to the apostolate of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, his first assignment, effective June 12, will be as chaplain and sacramental ministry for the Karen community.

“I worked with the priest from their country … who helped me learn to celebrate the Mass in their language,” he said. “When I was back for Easter, I was practicing my pronunciation with them. And, they said, ‘Oh, the people will be surprised (at hearing Mass prayers in their native tongue)’ because the language is very difficult.”

Father Wirth said his life in the Franciscan community has been crucial in preparing him for priesthood. He will be the first member of the community, founded in 1982, to be ordained a priest. Currently, there are 11 men living in two friaries, both in St. Paul. Father Wirth will live in the newly-opened Blessed Solanus (Casey) Friary. And, he will continue to enjoy the everyday life of being a Franciscan Brother of Peace.

“Even though I’m going to be a priest, I’m still going to cook evening meals,” he said. “I have a day a week that I cook. I also do the dishes. So, it keeps you grounded. It’s a way of life. And, that Franciscan charism, that Franciscan simplicity of just living in the community has really contributed to my formation and my growth.”

Religious community gains first priestly vocation

When the Franciscan Brothers of Peace were founded in 1982 in the Twin Cities, it was the vision of the founder, Brother Michael Gaworski, to someday have a member be ordained a priest.

It finally happened May 25 with the ordination of Father Seraphim Wirth, who has been with the Franciscan Brothers since 2007.

“It really opens up a lot of great possibilities … for our community,” said Brother Conrad Richardson, the community servant, or leader, of the 11-member Franciscan Brothers. “Of course, having holy Mass celebrated (by Father Seraphim) in our chapels of our friaries, which we have two of in St. Paul, is such a blessing.”

Brother Conrad said this is an exciting time for the community, which endured the long illness and death of Brother Michael in 2003, plus the death of a longtime community servant, Brother Paul O’Donnell, four years ago.

“The brothers are feeling a real renewal in our own religious community, both individually and collectively,” Brother Conrad said. “There’s just so many beautiful fruits that have been born” in recent years, especially since Brother Paul’s death, he said.

Brother Conrad said he took part in Father Seraphim’s vocational discernment, which is a community-wide process. He saw qualities in then-Brother Seraphim that he thought would make him a good priest.

“I admire Brother Seraphim’s … mild manner, his humility, his kindness and his pastoral sense,” Brother Conrad said. “He really has a genuine care for others … (and is) a true son of St. Francis.”

Brother Conrad said there are no immediate plans for another priest in the community, but the brothers always will remain open to anyone who might feel that calling.


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Category: Ordinations