Part of the Jesuit Mission—the job they embrace until the very end
By Stephanie Martin, Acadiana Catholic
“Jesuits never retire,” says Father Derrick Weingartner, SJ. “We always work to serve the Church for as long as we’re able to, to whatever extent we can.”
It’s the mark of a passionate dedication to serving God’s people, and perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of it exists under the roof of St. Charles College in Grand Coteau. The Jesuit Order built and established the college not long after they arrived in 1837, and nearly 180 years later it is still in operation, with Father Weingartner serving as its current Rector.
The building itself now serves a four-fold purpose in the community. First, St. Charles College is still in use today as a home for several of the Jesuits who are currently assigned to active ministry within the diocese, including those who serve in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House, and the Jesuit Spirituality Center. Secondly, since 1872 the college has also been used as a novitiate for the Jesuit Order, fostering an atmosphere of prayer, work, and study for young men as they discern their calling. Third, since 1972 the building has housed the afore-mentioned Jesuit Spirituality Center as it focuses on its mission of assisting retreat participants in furthering their spiritual development.
And last but certainly not least, since 2013 St. Charles College has also been the home of St. Alphonsus Rodrigue Pavilion. This is where aging and sometimes ailing Jesuits continue to offer up their prayers for the Church even when they are no longer physically able to serve in more active ways.
“They don’t come into the Pavilion until they need more assistance with daily living than their local community can provide,” explains Father James Bradley, who oversees the operation of the Pavilion. “We moved here on May 6, 2013 with 19 residents, from a New Orleans facility that was called Ignatius Residence.”
“The neat thing is that most of these guys came here as novices,” points out Father Weingartner. “And each of the novices who come here now gets a spiritual grandfather in the Pavilion.”
It’s a way of keeping the generations connected so that they can support one another through every stage of their ministry within the religious order. Presently there are about 50 Jesuits in total who reside at St. Charles College, from the youngest novices at age 19 to the Pavilion’s oldest resident, Father Rodney Kissinger, who is 101.
|Jesuit Fathers Derrick Weingartner and Rodney Kissinger at St. Alphonsus Rodriguez in Grand Coteau, La.|
“I’m a good example of someone being chosen by God for something,” he proudly laughs, still in awe of his call to the priesthood even 64 years after his ordination in 1953. Father Kissinger was originally baptized into the Lutheran Church but later converted to Catholicism, and his first memories of St. Charles College are entwined with his discernment experience when he was a novice there some 70+ years ago.“The walk out there,” he reminisces, referring to the scenic grounds outside. “I remember that walk. Before I took vows I would walk out there—back and forth, back and forth—while I prayed.”
Though he relies on a wheelchair now to get around, Father Kissinger is proof positive that Jesuits certainly never retire. As he looks forward to celebrating his 102nd birthday later this year in June, he still concelebrates Mass with his fellow Jesuit priests and enjoys working at his computer as much as possible. He even has a website, https://frksj.org, where visitors can enjoy his collections of booklets, essays, homilies, and spiritual exercises that he has written and compiled over the years. The site also offers access to a number of audio files featuring Father Kissinger’s homilies which were originally recorded and broadcast by Spirit FM Radio while he was assigned to the Tampa, Florida area years before.
“There’s only two way to do things,” Father Kissinger muses. “Do it yourself, or do it through other people.” The website helps him to continue ministering in God’s name to others wherever they may be, even if he isn’t able to be physically present to do so anymore.
|Fr. Paul Schott with younger Jesuits|
Indeed this ongoing commitment to serving the Church however they can is one that all of the Jesuits residing in the Pavilion share with one another. While they may no longer be capable of meeting the demands of conducting retreats or serving in a church parish or school, they readily embrace the opportunity to offer their prayers—and even their own suffering and trials of aging—for the people of God. That attitude is reflected quite clearly in the words of Father Paul Schott, SJ, who also resides at the Pavilion.“I can really say that I’ve been happy in everything I’ve ever done with the Jesuits,” he says, thinking back on the years he served as a parish pastor and in high school administration, primarily in the New Orleans and Dallas areas. “But this opportunity to be here [at the Pavilion] is probably the best job to ever have—this role of praying for the Church. It’s a wonderful conclusion to our lives, and a very important part of the Jesuit mission.”
At 93 years of age, Father Schott also recalls having first been introduced to St. Charles College when he arrived there as a novice in 1950. A native of New Orleans, he first served in the U.S. Navy before discerning and pursuing his call to the Jesuit Order. “I’ve been very blessed to stay here,” he says. “My youngest brother lives in Lafayette, so I get a lot of visits from my family.”
Of course, in many ways all of the Jesuits who reside at St. Charles College also come together to form an extended family for one another. At meal times, for example, the main dining room becomes a hub where they gather not only to eat but to share some time together. A handful of those in the Pavilion are served in their rooms since it is too difficult for them to make it down to the dining room, but for the most part these community meals are an opportunity for everyone—from the young novices to the retreat directors to the parish pastors to their most elderly members—to benefit from each other’s company.
“It’s probably the happiest Jesuit community I’ve lived in,” notes Father Bradley. “In the Pavilion, we have about seven who are in wheelchairs, but at meal times when it’s necessary the more able-bodied ones will help to push them down to the dining room.”
And so that too—these acts of love and service to one another—becomes a part of their final ministry here on earth. Let us remember them in our prayers just as they remember us in theirs, but more than that, let us learn from their example to always love and serve the Lord until the very end of our days.
This story first appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Acadiana Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Lafayette, La., and is used with the kind permission of the author and the newspaper.