Priestly jubilees: Celebrating lives in service to the Church

| Susan Klemond | June 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

A jubilee anniversary is an opportunity not only to celebrate achievements but to reflect on a journey — past, present and future.

This year, 15 archdiocesan priests are celebrating 10, 25 or 50 years of ministry. The Catholic Spirit asked three of them to share their stories: Father Jerome Hackenmueller at 50 years, Father Minh Vu at 25 years and Father Allan Paul Eilen at 10 years.

The three have served parishes in the archdiocese and have drawn from their unique backgrounds, gifts and ministries. Their ages at ordination ranged from 29 to 49. While two grew up less than 20 miles from each other, Father Minh’s native country of Vietnam is 8,000 miles from Minnesota.

As distinct as their priestly journeys have been, all three priests say the Holy Spirit has guided them — from Father Minh’s escape from communist Vietnam to Father Eilen’s abandoning a career in medical supplies to Father Hackenmueller’s service in South America.

“My whole life has been a constant journey but always guided by the Holy Spirit,” Father Hackenmueller said. “I’ve just felt that so strongly, especially always looking back. Stepping ahead was always a challenge, but it was like the Holy Spirit was always (leading) me. … I don’t know what the next step of the Holy Spirit is about, but I’m not going to question it.”

In their stories, the three priests demonstrate the Spirit’s work in the Church, in their ministries and in their hopes for the future.


Helping people encounter mercy

Father Allan Paul Eilen

Father Allan Paul Eilen, 59, has been pastor of St. Patrick in Oak Grove since 2015. He has also ministered at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings (2009-2011), Our Lady of Grace in Edina (2011-2012), Immaculate Conception in Marysburg (2012-2015) and Nativity in Cleveland (2012-2015).

It wasn’t until Father Allan Paul Eilen was in his 40s with a successful career and plans to marry that his call to priesthood — always quietly in the background — grew a lot louder.

After several years of discernment that involved choosing between marriage and holy orders, Father Eilen entered the seminary, bringing to the priesthood decades of life experience and professional knowledge.

“The Lord knew what my vocation was,” Father Eilen said. “He was just very patiently and mercifully allowing me to get to the point to finally give my free yes — and love has to be a free yes.”

Celebrating 10 years as a priest and his 60th birthday this year, Father Eilen shared highlights from and hopes for his priesthood.

Father Eilen grew up in Delano and prepared for a medical career in college, but instead of going to medical school he developed a career in hospital materials delivery, in which he worked for 20 years.

Since his 2009 ordination at age 49, Father Eilen’s assignments have been varied and not always expected, but in each the Holy Spirit has given him opportunities for growth. “I’ve never asked for an assignment,” he said. “I’ve always allowed the Holy Spirit to dictate.”

He has ministered at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, Our Lady of Grace in Edina; the cluster of Immaculate Conception of Marysburg in Madison Lake and Nativity in Cleveland; and he now serves as pastor of St. Patrick in Oak Grove. He was recently also named chaplain of Way of the Shepherd Catholic Montessori School in Blaine.

Father Eilen said his priesthood is about being an instrument of mercy. “In my whole life and priesthood, it’s all about being merciful like the Father, which means living the truth in love,” he said. “God is still just, he just gives us that which we don’t deserve. It’s helping people encounter the mercy of God.”

At St. Patrick, Father Eilen hopes to draw parishioners into encounters of God’s mercy as part of a parish goal to engage adults and young people through prayer groups and retreats.

Outside the parish, Father Eilen has seen greater willingness among Catholics and society as a whole to talk about the clergy sexual abuse crisis. He is a chaplain for Grief to Grace, an international program in which professionally trained teams help survivors of abuse — including clergy sexual abuse — discover spiritual healing and transformation.

He is also a former member of the Serra Club, which supports priestly and religious vocations, and whose patron is St. Junipero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan friar who founded California missions in the 1700s. Father Eilen’s opportunity to concelebrate with Pope Francis the saint’s 2015 canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is a highlight of his ministry.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner Faith Siebenaler said she appreciates Father Eilen’s care for the sick and elderly, and his reverent celebration of the liturgy.

“He walks into the parish to this day and people just run over and greet him, and they all have a hug for him,” said Siebenaler, 63. “He’s always welcomed with open arms. People loved him; they really loved having him here.”

Father Eilen is broadening his ministry by studying spiritual direction. He’s found that it’s also helping him better integrate the human and spiritual aspects of his priesthood.

“It’s only by that,” he said, “that we’re going to be able to draw people to an encounter of the love and mercy of God.”


Bridging cultures through service

Father Minh Vu

Father Minh Vu, 63, has been pastor of St. Adalbert in St. Paul since 2001. He has also ministered at St. Rose of Lima (1994-1998) and St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes (1998-2001).

As difficult as it was for Father Minh Vu to study for the priesthood under communist government persecution in Vietnam, he discovered another obstacle to becoming a priest when he arrived in the United States 33 years ago: the challenge of ministering to American Catholics whose language and culture were very different.

Eventually, his priestly call proved stronger than his uncertainty, and in 1994 at age 37 he became the first Vietnamese priest ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

As he celebrates his 25-year jubilee, Father Minh, 63, reflected on how the Holy Spirit has moved in his life and ministry, starting in his native country.

Father Minh, who studied “underground” — or in secret — for the priesthood for eight years in Vietnam, escaped from that country by boat in 1986 after being pursued by the government because of his faith. Forced to leave without his family, he spent about eight months in Malaysian and Filipino refugee camps.

When Father Minh arrived in Malaysia, a priest remarked that after his harrowing escape on Good Friday, the future priest had traveled in the power of the Holy Spirit, arriving at the camp during the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection.

From the camps, Father Minh came to the United States, and after spending several months in Buffalo, New York, uncertain about his vocation, he traveled to Minneapolis in 1987 to study sociology on a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. But hearing again his call to priesthood, he entered the seminary before finishing his university studies.

On top of his study at a Vietnamese seminary, he completed four years of theology coursework in the archdiocese. “I studied much more than any seminarian in order to get ordained,” he said.

Since his ordination, Father Minh has ministered at St. Rose of Lima in Roseville, St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes and St. Adalbert — a predominantly Vietnamese parish in St. Paul — where he is now pastor.

As he celebrates 25 years as a priest, Father Minh said he’s received a desire to serve his parishioners — “being with them in any situation of their life celebrations, and giving them the sacraments, especially in hard times” — which is his biggest gift to them, he said.

After anointing a St. Adalbert parishioner at a St. Paul hospital one day about seven years ago, for example, he was approached separately as he was leaving by parishioners from each of his previous assignments and asked to anoint their loved ones, too.

By using his knowledge of Vietnamese, English and French, Father Minh also translates catechetical works into Vietnamese.

He encourages Catholic young people, taking on their tough, faith-related questions. “I work closely with youth in my ministry in the catechism class, and they seem to understand what I’m saying,” he said.

Father Minh’s support for youth and choir programs at St. Adalbert, along with efforts to reduce parish debt, are ways he’s impacted the parish, said parishioner Helen Pham.

“He’s very active and present to the community,” she said. “He brings people together. … I admire his ability to greet people warmly and sincerely. Kids love him very much.”

During his priesthood, Father Minh said he’s appreciated his brother priests’ friendship and support.

When a priest suggested he become a military chaplain, Father Minh was interested but said he’s glad to serve as a diocesan priest in America.

“I’m very happy in my life as a priest,” Father Minh said. “I’ve never had a depressed or sad time. … I’ve always had peace, even in persecution time in Vietnam, too. I had a lot of hardship, but I never had a negative attitude in my life.”


A missionary at home and abroad

Father Jerome Hackenmueller, 78, a retired priest since 2011, last ministered at St. Patrick in St. Paul (1996-2011). He has also ministered at Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul (1984-1996), Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul (1983-1984), St. Weneceslaus in New Prague (1969-1974), St. Joseph in West St. Paul (1969) and the Archdiocese of Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela (1972-1983).

When he was growing up in St. Michael, Father Jerome Hackenmueller became aware of his missionary call while listening to the stories of aunts, uncles and cousins who served as priests and religious sisters in missions around the world.

After 50 years of priesthood, he’s still responding to a second call — his priestly vocation — which has been like a second musical chord creating harmony in the song of his life.

The missionary character of both callings is evident in his service at the archdiocese’s Venezuela mission, his involvement with diverse cultures as a local pastor and his current advocacy for the poor as part of the international nonprofit organization Unbound.

Even with Father Hackenmueller’s preference for the missions, he sees the work of divine providence in his assignments.

“The Holy Spirit led to one thing and moved me to another thing, and they all just kind of built one on top of the other,” he said. “I always felt it was the call of the Holy Spirit, me never going necessarily where I wanted to go, but always a strong attraction and call from the Holy Spirit to just be in tune with everywhere I was called to go.”

Now “actively retired” in Siren, Wisconsin, he reflected on constants of his priesthood, including service to the poor, Hispanic ministry and mission-related work in Latin America.

Father Hackenmueller was servicing air conditioners and quietly discerning his priestly vocation when he surprised his family — including more than 30 members who have served as missionaries — by entering the seminary. After his 1969 ordination at age 29, he served at St. Joseph in West St. Paul and St. Wenceslaus in New Prague. In 1971, a year after the archdiocese established its mission in Venezuela, Father Hackenmueller was assigned there and spent 11 years establishing several parishes in northeastern Venezuela.

When he returned to Minnesota, Father Hackenmueller served at the Catholic Youth Center, a former archdiocesan ministry in St. Paul, as well as Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Patrick, all also in St. Paul. He ministered at St. Patrick until he retired in 2011. After assisting part time at Sacred Heart in Rush City, he now travels to parishes around the country to promote Unbound’s work of connecting sponsors with youth and elderly living in poverty in developing countries.

Father Hackenmueller, 78, said the biggest milestone of his priesthood was serving at Virgin de la Valle parish in Venezuela. He learned there and during his priesthood “to see Christ’s face in the poor and teach others to have this 20/20 vision.” The poor continue to teach him through their energy and the way they live faith and culture together, he said.

As he celebrates 50 years as a priest, Father Hackenmueller sees the Second Vatican Council and its documents as foundational to his work. Ordained just four years after Vatican II’s close, he said he has received in his priesthood a sense of the Church being of the people, and he has encouraged lay leadership.

At St. Patrick, Father Hackenmueller’s joy and sense of peace eased parishioners’ sense of loss, St. Patrick parishioner Tom Nordgren said, when the parish school — which merged in 1992 with the schools of nearby parishes St. Casimir and Sacred Heart to create Trinity Catholic School — closed in 2009. He also helped the parish transition from the longtime spiritual care of Capuchin Franciscans — which ended when Father Hackenmueller became pastor in 1996 — to the leadership of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who assumed responsibility for the parish when Father Hackenmueller retired. “He’s so down to earth,” Nordgren said. “He’s firm and he’s serious about what he does, but there is such a joy permeating his whole ministry. That kind of charism is so magnetic (that) it draws people to him.”

Whether at a parish or in a missionary setting, Father Hackenmueller said his jubilee means “I’ve run the good race, but more importantly, God has given me good health to continue this wonderful journey as long as God permits.”

Photos by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

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