Vocations: Reflecting on our past, projecting our future


For several years we have known that our priests are declining in numbers and increasing in age. We are responding to this crisis by developing a diocesan plan for the utilization of priests and resources.  We hope that such a plan will get us through the present crisis in good shape.

In 2005 Pope John Paul II held a Synod on the Eucharist. Among the topics discussed was the shortage of priests. The bishops discussed optional celibacy with great openness. It was surprising to me that the bishops who spoke against optional celibacy were bishops from the Eastern Rites who had married clergy!

Another possibility to solve the priest shortage was a more even distribution of priests throughout the world. Not all parts of the Church are experiencing a priest shortage. The bishops cited the problem of cultural differences as a serious reason for not going this route.

The bishops of the synod concluded that we need to beef up our recruitment efforts and we should have ample priests to meet our future needs.


Vocations are out there. Just a few weeks ago the Eastern Province of the Dominicans received 21 young men into their novitiate. The Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., had 19 first-year seminarians last year. There are other orders and diocese with similar experiences.

Over the years I have developed an interest in the history of the Church in Iowa. In the early 1900s we had a priest in our diocese by the name of Rev. John Kemper. He was quite an historian and wrote much about the history of our parishes and diocese. When Bishop Dowling was appointed the first bishop of Des Moines, Fr. Kemper wrote a “History of the Catholic Church in Polk County, Iowa.” This was presented to Bishop Dowling on his arrival in Des Moines. The original copy is at St. Ambrose Cathedral in Des Moines and was copied for me by my friend, Father Jim Kiernan.

On April 22, 1837, the Fathers of the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore petitioned the Holy Father, Pope Gregory XVI, to establish the Diocese of Dubuque for the Territory of Wisconsin, which lies between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, north of the state of Missouri. On July 28, 1837, Very Rev. Mathias Loras was appointed bishop of Dubuque. He was ordained a bishop in New Orleans September 2, 1837, and in December 1837 headed for France to recruit priests for his diocese.

Much of Bishop Loras’ new diocese was still Indian Territory in 1837, so not many settlers were in the area. Only one priest, Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, was ministering along the Mississippi River.

Bishop Loras returned to the United States late in 1838 with two priests and four seminarians. These men, along with Fr. Mazzuchelli, were his only priests.

In 1847, Father Joseph Cretin went back to France and returned with four more seminarians who were ordained within a year. Meanwhile Fathers Plathe, Lentner, Tracy, McCabe and Hoar were received into the Diocese of Dubuque.

Early in 1851 Father Alexander Hattenberger was the first resident priest in Ottumwa. Father John Villars from Keokuk  had already built a small brick church there. This new parish was responsible for the Des Moines River basin from Ottumwa to Des Moines. By 1852 Bishop Loras offered Mass in the Des Moines area.

We see that in the early days a large percentage of our priests came from other countries and other parts of the United States. I can remember the “FBI” – foreign-born Irish priests and the German priests who served us well. They certainly came from other cultures, but their people loved them in spite of the cultural difficulties.

During the years of Cardinal Stritch in Chicago and perhaps before that, seminarians who were not at the top of the list academically were allowed to go to other dioceses. We had several serving in our diocese. We need to be open to foreign priests serving us today.

It is my belief that the priest shortage will come to an end soon. The Church will survive this crisis as it has similar times in the past. We all need to beef up our recruitment efforts and invite men to consider priesthood.

If you would like a Microsoft Word copy of Fr. Kemper’s History of the Church in Iowa, I’ll be happy to send it to you by e-mail. Contact me at erniebraida@gmail.com.

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