Longtime priest prepares for move
After a little more than 15 years of service to Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander, Father John Gerritts is moving on. He’ll be taking a position in Hudson, a community near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, and for this kind and soft spoken priest, it will be bittersweet. “Transition is always hard,” he said. “But it’s also a part of life and like any change there will be some joy and some grieving.”
Fr. Gerritts knew there would be plenty of transitions when he studied to be a priest close to 25 years ago. He grew up in Merrill, and was inspired to serve the Catholic Church by a great aunt who was a nun. “Whenever she would visit our family, I was always impressed by her faith. She really inspired me to think about becoming a priest,” he said.
His parents’ strong faith was also an influence, along with the priest that served in his parish while he was growing up. “Pastor Peter was a great example of what the priesthood is all about,” he said. “He was a big fellow, sort of gruff, but when I would serve Mass with him, I realized how very kind and gentle he was at heart, and how he really cared for the people he served.”
After graduating high school, and then St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., Fr. Gerritts studied in Rome. “That’s where I learned how universal the Catholic religion really is,” he said. “I studied with people from all over the world which was very inspiring to me.”
After he completed his seminary studies, the young novice returned to Wisconsin, and was assigned as an associate pastor in a Superior parish. “I had a great mentor there,” he said.
Then in 1995 he came to Rhinelander to serve at Nativity. This large parish today embraces 1,600 families, employs 55 people and has a grade school where 323 children are enrolled. Nativity also has two sites-St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s.
For years the Catholic religion saw a shortage of men joining the priesthood, and Fr. Gerritts experienced that firsthand when he came to Rhinelander. “When I came to Nativity, there were two priests and an associate pastor,” he said. “Today I am the only priest that serves this parish, so that has been quite a change.”
While the challenge of administering to such a large parish alone is inspirational for Fr. Gerritts, there are some factors he wishes were different. “I do wish I had more time to visit the sick and those that are shut-in,” he said. “There are a lot more administrative responsibilities I have now. But I always try to keep in touch with the people. That is my main focus.”
Another frustration he frequently encounters among his parishioners is the perception that he is too busy. “Maybe people think I have so much going on that I wouldn’t have time to listen to them,” he said. “But I will always find the time. To me that is very important.”
During his tenure at Nativity, Fr. Gerritts has always felt very privileged to be included in the life events of the people he serves-whether that means happy times like baptisms and weddings, or sad times like funerals. And with so many parishioners under his care, there have been plenty of funerals over the years. “I do have classmates that have expressed to me that they think my job is depressing,” he said, “But I don’t think that way at all. I feel honored to be part of peoples’ lives this way. It is a very sacred time. Yes, there are times of deep and profound sadness, and many times I have had a sad heart, but I don’t feel depressed.”
Fr. Gerritts has also found inspiration from the children that have attended Nativity’s elementary school over the years. “I’m so glad I will be going to a parish that has a school,” he said. “Children teach us so much.”
While the next few weeks will be busy ones for this caring priest, he is looking forward to the parish’s annual fundraiser that will be held on Saturday, Nov. 5. In fact, he will be part of the festivities. “I am offering my services at an auction,” he said. “It could be a blessing at a family reunion, a wedding or other function.”
While the fundraiser is a busy time at the church, Fr. Gerritts is also preparing for his move, one day at a time. And time was important to him when the diocese’s bishop proposed the move to Hudson for this caring priest. “One stipulation I asked for was if I could have six months to prepare not only myself but everyone here too,” he said. “It’s always a little unsettling when familiar people leave and new ones come in.”
And while these preparations take place, Fr. Gerritts slowly but steadily prepares his people, and his heart, for the transition he knows will be hard, but also beneficial.
“Oh I won’t be a stranger,” he said with a chuckle. “But I am looking forward to new challenges and meeting new people. Change is hard, but it is also the way we grow.”
Editor’s note: The annual Nativity of Our Lord Auction will take place on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Quality Inn in Rhinelander. Dinner tickets can be purchased at the school office, and the theme is “Bush-Wacked in Dry Gulch”. For more information, call Gerritts at the parish office at (715) 362-3169.