Community builder Father Gillespie celebrates 50 years as a Dominican priest

| Debbie Musser | July 8, 2020 | 0 Comments

Planting hope

On a recent sunny Sunday morning, Father Joe Gillespie, 77, dutifully tended to a flower garden outside St. Albert the Great in south Minneapolis, where he serves as pastor. From the garden, Father Gillespie had only to look south to view the burned down Walgreens on East Lake Street, a result of rioting in the neighborhood following the May 25 death of George Floyd.

He was spending time in the garden before Sunday Masses, now with lower numbers of participants and extra precautions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When I planted these flowers around Mother’s Day (May 10), a man walked by and asked who I was planting them for, since no one was coming to church then,” Father Gillespie said.

“I told him if people walk by, they’ll see the flowers. I’m planting hope. And he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go home and plant some hope, too.’”

These are not the first challenging times for the St. Albert the Great community, which Father Gillespie describes as a lovely little parish of great people. Baptized at the parish as a newborn, he returned in 2006 as pastor — “a remarkable gift” — and is now celebrating 50 years as a Dominican priest.

“On the day I was installed as pastor, it was 97 degrees and we had no air conditioning in the church,” Father Gillespie said. “Bishop Pates was there; he claimed he lost seven pounds that day.”

Among his impacts at the parish has been helping it achieve fiscal health, said Frank Bielinski, 82, a St. Albert the Great parishioner since 1968 and member of its finance council.

“When Father Gillespie arrived, we were about a half million in the hole,” he said. “Now we’re operating in the black, plus we’ve made some additions to the church that people really love, like the air conditioning.”

Bielinski said that Father Gillespie’s strong connection to the community has resulted in many new, young parishioners.

“He draws people in, and he’s such a leader in the community,” Bielinski said. “He consoled and helped during the unrest by bringing people to the church who needed a place to stay. I don’t know anyone who gets along better with people than he does; he’s exceptional.”

“Father Joe takes the time to listen to people and engage them; that’s why he’s such a good preacher,” said Patrick Marrin, 74, of Kansas City, a cousin of Father Gillespie, a former editor of the National Catholic Reporter’s sister publication, Celebration, and the creator of NCR’s Francis cartoon strip. “His homilies are not simply theological ideas, but always made vivid by stories that come right out of the community.”

“We desperately need models for what the priesthood offers . . . the full development of a servant in the community who lives a joyful and generous life,” Marrin said. “That’s Father Joe.”

Father Gillespie admitted it’s tough now to walk over to Lake Street and see his favorite places destroyed by the protests and riots after Floyd, an African American, died pleading for breath while being arrested when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck. “We’ve been fortunate to raise almost $100,000 to invest in small businesses, including sponsors on the back of our parish bulletin,” he said.

“There’s a real sense of rebuilding now as we find a way to keep them here — sheltering them, like in Father Michael Joncas’ new hymn, ‘Shelter Me,’ written for the pandemic and used often here at our church,” he said.

Father Gillespie plans to continue his service to the St. Albert the Great community, offering hope for the future.

“If all you’re doing is concentrating on the riots and destruction, you’re not able to appreciate the flowers and the sun,” Father Gillespie said. “We have to learn to lean on each other and trust in God.”

Father Gillespie is a graduate of DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and St. John’s University in Collegeville. He worked for the Catholic Youth Center in Minneapolis before being ordained as a Dominican priest in 1970. Two uncles and a cousin were also Dominicans.

“The first 25 years of my ministry focused on teaching graduate theology and social work; my doctorate is in family therapy,” said Father Gillespie, who taught at various places including Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque, Iowa; Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York; and Aquinas Institute of Theology, Eden Theological Seminary and St. Louis University in St. Louis.

He returned to Minneapolis on sabbatical in 1998, thinking he’d help out at the Basilica of St. Mary for a semester before returning to teaching. “Eight years later, still at the Basilica, I discovered that what I had been teaching was what I did there: family therapy, chemical dependency, grief counseling and more,” said Father Gillespie, an assistant priest at the Basilica before being appointed to St. Albert the Great. “I took to it like a duck to water.”

Looking back at his 50 years as a Dominican, Father Gillespie said one of his richest experiences has been preaching. He mentioned St. Peter Martyr, a 13th-century Dominican and excellent preacher who said that if you’re going to preach, you have to learn how to be silent and listen to God.

“Then you preach as words come out of that silence,” Father Gillespie said. “You really have to be intentional about it.”

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Category: Jubilees