My family and I made a trip back to my hometown for the annual Kopidlansky family reunion (my mother's maiden name.) Unlike my last visit home where I was discouraged to see that many of the churches in Manitowoc (a city with a population of nearly 40,000) including Sacred Heart Parish where I attended grade school are now closed, this trip left me feeling both joyful and hopeful for the church in Manitowoc and the church in the world.
My family on my mom's side is huge-she was one of ten children and each of her siblings had an average of five children and those children (myself, my siblings and cousins) went on to have an average of three children each...I'm sure you get the picture-there's a lot of us-so many, in fact, that I don't know most of them. When we were preparing to leave for the reunion I was in a pretty dark mood and not at all feeling up to socializing with relatives whom I don't know very well. But, Paul and the children were eager to go, so I did my best to put on a smile and we made the 80 mile trip to Manitowoc to spend a day with my family.
What I enjoy most about family reunions is not so much the catching up on what everyone has been doing during the past year, but the reminiscing about family members now gone from the world and hopefully, looking down with fondness, love and prayer for those of us still trekking the path to eternity. Unlike the family reunions I've attended in the past, this one didn't end with the picnic, games and socialization, instead, it ended with prayer which completely obliterated any remembrance of my earlier dark mood and made this family reunion the best one I have ever attended.
My son John was scheduled to work at his nursing home job bright and early the next morning so we decided to attend Sunday Mass in Manitowoc before heading home for the night. It turned out that many of my relatives had the same idea and a large group of us headed over to St. Francis of Assisi Parish on Waldo Boulevard (formerly Holy Innocents Parish) for the 4:30 Mass. The last time I had been in this particular church was for my dad's funeral five years ago. I had the honor of reading the scriptures for his funeral Mass that day, and it was then that I was inspired to become a lector for my own parish. So I was pleasantly surprised to see my aunt Judy, with whom I had just been visiting at the reunion, get up to proclaim the second reading! After Mass I told her how surprised I was to see her reading and she confessed that she was surprised as well. They had just asked her to fill in for an absent lector at the last minute!
I was so happy to see that the pastor of the only parish (which includes three church locations) in Manitowoc and now the newly appointed Vicar General for the Diocese of Green Bay, would be celebrating the Mass. He is the same priest who had been the associate pastor at Holy Innocents when I was still living in Manitowoc over 25 years ago. Back then, Fr. Dan Felton was a newly ordained associate pastor and was a wonderful leader for teens; my friends and I could easily relate to this young and enthusiastic priest. With Fr. Dan teaching my Confirmation preparation classes, learning about my faith was a joy and his homilies were so outstanding that I can still remember some of them to this day. In fact, one homily in particular about taking risks using the analogy of an acorn clinging to the branch of a tree, fearful to let go, still returns to my mind whenever I am challenged by a new opportunity that seems to be more than I can handle. How many people can say that they remember a homily from 25 years ago?
The large church was full for Mass and a transitional deacon in his last year of training for the priesthood was helping out. Fr. Dan's homily about the Holy Spirit's power to translate our groanings into prayer did not disappoint, and through his words I was beginning to realize that the Holy Spirit certainly did take the groanings of my dark mood from earlier in the day and translate them into prayer very effectively. I was so happy to have a minute to talk with him after Mass and I told him that I had been at Holy Innocents parish all those years ago when he was the associate pastor. He laughed and told me that it's still so hard for him to believe that he has been a priest for that long, (he just celebrated 30 years of priesthood) and in fact, he recently presided at the marriage of a young couple whose parents he had married all those years ago as an associate pastor! What a beautiful tribute that is to the longevity of his priesthood!
It was so uplifting to have those few minutes to speak with Fr. Dan and to spend time at Mass surrounded by my immediate family as well as my siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins in the parish of my youth, the same parish that was founded by my great-uncle, Fr. Edward Radey. And as I left St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc, for the first time in a long time, I really felt that when I visited the city of my youth I was truly at home.