Mother’s cancer battle sparks conversion for Father Neil Bakker

| June 3, 2016 | 0 Comments
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Part of a series of profiles of nine newly ordained priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Father Neil Bakker, 37, wasn’t raised Catholic, but when he felt a tug toward faith during his mother’s battle with breast cancer, he found himself in the back pews of the Cathedral of St. Paul during Sunday Masses.

Conversations with priests serving at the Cathedral led him to join the Catholic Church. Eight years later, on May 28, he was ordained a priest in that Cathedral alongside eight other men.

A decade ago, it would have been hard for Bakker to imagine himself on that track. He was excelling in the information technology field and making a good income. After being raised in a blue-collar home in Austin, money was his goal. Religion was not on his radar.

The son of Cheryl Bakker and Gary Bakker, Father Bakker has one brother, Brian. He attended vocational school in Mankato and moved to the Twin Cities in 2000 to work for Dalco Enterprises in New Brighton as an information technology specialist. In the 10 years he was there, the staff more than doubled in size, and when he left, he was director of IT.

“It was a wonderful time,” he said. “It was just lots of new customers and lots of new opportunities, and all this new technology that we were doing. It was just so much fun all the time. It was challenging, but it was a blast.”

When Father Bakker was in his mid-20s, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. It flipped his career-and-fun-driven world upside down. He had been raised Methodist, but never had a prayer life or real faith, he said.

“This experience of my mother having cancer just stopped everything. The world stopped. It was something that was bigger than I was, it was a problem I couldn’t solve, and I was a problem solver. That was intimidating, scary and I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

During his mother’s surgery, he found a chapel at Methodist Hospital in Rochester, got on his knees, and asked God for help.

“I would say that’s the first time I ever prayed,” he said.

Father Bakker cared for his mother on weekends while she underwent chemotherapy. He felt grateful for the prayer experience in the chapel, which led him to the doors of the Cathedral.

“I really knew nothing of the Catholic Church growing up,” he said. “For me, it [the Cathedral] was just, ‘This is a huge, beautiful church. Let’s see what this is about.’ So, it was the building” that attracted him.

At the same time, “I started feeling a longing in my life,” he said. “There was some loneliness, and it was an absence of God in my life, for certain.”

In 2006, his mother’s cancer returned. Her suffering made him angry with God, as he questioned why he would allow this to happen to a good woman.

“Looking back, that was a conversion. It forced me to  be charitable; I had to get outside of myself to help her,” he said.

The experience softened his heart, he said, and he started going to Mass more regularly. After conversations with Cathedral staff and priests, he started taking classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and was welcomed into the Church in 2008. His mother, who survived cancer, also joined the Church a few years later.

Father Bakker wasn’t thinking about the priesthood when he became Catholic, but after getting to know the Cathedral’s priests — who at that time included Father Joseph Johnson and Father John Paul Erickson — he found himself Googling “how to become a priest.”

He experienced several powerful moments as he considered priesthood, but a particularly memorable one happened at night, while he was in that place between wake and sleep. He had what he characterizes as a “spiritual vision.” “But it all gets lost in translation,” he admitted. He said he felt paralyzed, scared and like he was in a dark cave amid demonic beings. He then saw Jesus, who held out his hand. Father Bakker grabbed it, and the evil receded. Jesus was holding a candle, and then Father Bakker was holding it.

When the vision ended, “I really felt like, yeah, he’s telling me to do something here. He’s telling me to take that light and go out,” he said.

Still, leaving behind the financial security of his job for seminary was difficult, and trusted priests advised him to pray and “give it some time.” He continued to work, but moved in with priests serving at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton to assist his discernment. In 2010, he entered the St. Paul Seminary.

“It’s the Church calling me,” he said. “I put myself at the disposal of the Church.”

While in formation, Father Bakker didn’t agonize over his vocation, he said, and felt like he was moving in the right direction as he gained pastoral experience.

He’s found confidence in words shared by Father Jeffrey Huard, the seminary’s director of spiritual formation: that priests are “made for the altar. . . that you’re going to be the person that you’re meant to be when you’re at the altar.”

Before joining seminary, Father Bakker knew little of the Catholic liturgy beyond Mass at the Cathedral. Thanks to his teaching parish, Holy Cross in northeast Minneapolis, he’s been able to regularly engage a range of parish life, he said.

Although it’s been challenging at times for a convert to learn basics of the Church, such as the liturgical year, alongside philosophy and theology, Father Bakker is convinced that God will use his experiences from the decade before he joined the Church and seminary.

“There was a time when I wondered if I had wasted 10 years . . . but I don’t feel that way any more and haven’t for a long time,” Father Bakker said of his time as a non-Catholic and in the workplace. “I absolutely think it will be put to good use in the Church.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda appointed Father Bakker parochial vicar of Our Lady of Grace in Edina.

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Category: Ordinations