Retiring priests reflect on decades of ministry
By Denise MacLachlan
Catholic Herald staff
Wherever Father Simon Twomey lives for any length of time, he plants trees and flowers. When he lived in Grass Valley, his dahlias won “best of show” in the Nevada County Fair for three years running.
“I like to do landscaping,” Father Twomey, pastor of Our Divine Savior Parish in Chico, said in a recent interview with The Herald.
His friend, Linda Shumate, wonders if gardening isn’t a form of prayer. Shumate was director of religious education at Holy Family Parish in Citrus Heights when Father Twomey was pastor. She remembers that often, after there had been a problem sorted out or a confrontation handled, she’d look out the window of her office to see Father Twomey by himself, “digging a hole.”
“He’d come back from working in the garden just as calm as could be,” Shumate observed.
After serving at several different parishes in the Diocese of Sacramento, Father Twomey will retire from active ministry on July 31, concluding 39 years of priestly ministry.
A native of Killarney, Ireland, he is the middle child of five children. His oldest sister became a Columban religious, spending decades as a missionary in China before retiring to Ireland.
His father was a butcher, and Father Twomey spent a lot of time in the shop, helping out and listening to his father’s conversations with friends, several of whom were priests. His father’s brother was a priest, Msgr. Dan Twomey.
Father Twomey entered All Hallows Seminary in Dublin in 1962, when he was 17, to begin studies for the priesthood. After leaving the seminary for a couple of years, he returned and was ordained for the Diocese of Sacramento on June 14, 1970. He’d chosen Sacramento because his uncle, Msgr. Twomey, who died in 1968, had served in the diocese.
Despite all that Father Twomey knew about the United States from his uncle, the transition from Ireland to the United States was a huge culture shock. “At the airport in New York I saw policemen with guns,” Father Twomey recalled. “I thought someone was attacking the country.”
The weather of the Central Valley also required a transition. “When I left Ireland it was 52 degrees. It was 112 in Sacramento. So that was another shock,” he noted. He arrived in Sacramento on Sept. 4, 1970, and spent a few weeks at Sacred Heart Parish in Sacramento before moving in October to his first assignment, as associate pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico.
“It was a college town, of course, but it was also a little town in a farming community,” Father Twomey said. “For miles and miles around, there were nut trees and fruit trees. Three minutes from the church and you were out in the country.”
Father Twomey liked the countryside and was sorry to leave it in 1975, when he was assigned as associate pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Carmichael. “That was a move to the big city for me – lots of concrete,” he said. Father Twomey served at Our Lady of the Assumption until 1978, when he took a three-year leave of absence from the priesthood. “I was burned out a little bit,” he said. “It happens.”
He worked for an insurance company during those years and became rather successful, he noted.
But it wasn’t enough. “It’s important to give your life to service,” he said. “I’d lived well, but I wanted something deeper.”
He came back to the priesthood, he said, largely through the invitation of his friend, Father John Healy, chaplain of Mercy General Hospital. “The new bishop at the time, Bishop (Francis) Quinn, sent out a couple of guys to talk with me and invite me back,” Father Twomey said.
Father Healy remembers advising Father Twomey to discern his gifts as he returned to the priesthood. “I asked him to look for the joy in what he’s doing,” Father Healy recalled. “I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Father Twomey says of his life now. “If I couldn’t have fun being a priest, I wouldn’t be a priest.”
Father Healy thinks of Father Twomey as “a very free person” — someone “who speaks his mind, in a kind way, but forcefully.” “He is also tremendously generous in his ministry, in his going out of his way to support others spiritually and financially,” Father Healy said. “I think he’s very gifted. He lives out the Gospel message with courage. He helps out where he sees the need. He does what other people only think.
“For example, he’s not afraid to try new parishes,” he added. Father Twomey’s first assignment on his return was as associate pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova in August 1981. The parishioners were great, he recalled, but his mind moves immediately to his next assignment, three years later, when he became pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Paradise.
“You always remember your first parish as pastor,” he said, “but this one was truly phenomenal. We built a new church, and in those days you could build one for $1.5 million. The people were so enthusiastic. They wanted to be involved. We had the church paid off within a year after I left.”
He left to become pastor of Holy Family Parish in Citrus Heights, from 1990 to 1993, and then pastor of Presentation Parish in Sacramento, from 1993 to 1995.
After a short sabbatical in Ireland, Father Twomey returned to Presentation Parish for three more years, from 1996 to 1999. Then he was pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Grass Valley, from 1999 to 2003, before returning to Chico as pastor of Our Divine Savior Parish, where he’s served since November 2003.
In retirement, he plans to return to Ireland, where he has an acre of land that he’ll garden. “I don’t like vegetables, so I don’t grow them,” he noted. “I like flowers.”
Father Twomey adds that he also likes people, and that he thanks God for blessing him with the people he’s met. “I’ve tried to be as good as the people God sent me,” he said, “and God has sent me the best people.”
Soon after arriving in California in 1958, Father Patrick O’Connor discovered skiing.
“He’s an excellent skier, very graceful,” according to Carol Marie Seidenburg, one of Father O’Connor’s parishioners at Corpus Christi Parish in Tahoe City. “And in the summer, he hikes. He hikes with everyone. He loves the outdoors and he loves people.”
Father O’Connor, who turns 75 in August, will retire on Aug. 10 after 51 years of active ministry in the Diocese of Sacramento. He has been pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Tahoe City, surrounded by ski areas, for the past 16 years.
He’s hiked and skied with many parishioners innumerable times over the years, noted Barbara Schlumpf, director of religious education at the parish. “He’s extremely generous with his time and energy,” she said. “He’s never too busy for you.”
The fourth of 11 children, reared in Castelmaine, Ireland, Father O’Conner was the first of his siblings to choose religious life when he entered St. Patrick Seminary in Thurles. But in the years following, three of his younger sisters became Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Eileen O’Connor and Sister Joan O’Connor entered the Mercy Sisters’ U.S. province and live in Sacramento; the youngest in the family, Mercy Sister Sarah O’Connor, joined the order’s southern Ireland province and is a missionary in Trujillo, Peru.
“In Ireland at that time, the entire culture supported missionaries,” Mercy Sister Eileen O’Connor said. “Most of the magazines that came into the house were from missions.”
One Irish missionary, Father Patrick Kennedy, had served in the Sacramento Diocese and had returned to Ireland in retirement. He traveled to local high schools to encourage vocations. Father O’Connor chose to be ordained for the Sacramento Diocese after hearing Father Kennedy speak.
Sister Eileen O’Connor noted that her brother played an important role in her own vocation. When he was in the seminary and she was in a secondary school run by the Sisters of Mercy — she was 15 or 16 — her brother asked her if she would join him in Sacramento some day. It was a request that she later recognized had influenced the course of her life.
Father O’Connor was ordained to the priesthood on June 15, 1958, and arrived at his first assignment the following October, to serve as associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Sacramento.
The transition to California wasn’t very difficult, except for the heat, Father O’Connor noted. There were a number of Irish priests in the area, and several people who’d studied at his seminary, so he felt a kinship with priests around him. And the people in the parishes were very receptive, he recalled.
He was next assigned as associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Colusa in 1965, then to St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Sacramento in 1966, and to St. Joseph Parish in Redding in 1971.
In 1973, Father O’Connor received his first assignment as pastor, serving Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Truckee.
“It was very exciting to be a pastor,” he said, “with all of the responsibilities of the parish -- spiritually, materially, physically.” His new parish was at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet, he noted, which means snow in the winter and subfreezing temperatures for traveling. And there are different populations in the community — the permanent residents and the tourists, the wealthy people and the poor.
In Truckee Father O’Connor found himself ministering for the first time to Spanish-speaking parishioners. He didn’t know any Spanish, he said, so he found “the best Spanish speaker in Truckee” to help him: Soccoro Chavez, a parishioner who had taught grade school in Mexico before moving to the United States.
Chavez recalls that she translated Father O’Connor’s homilies from English, which he wrote out beforehand. Then she taught him to pronounce the Spanish version. Before long, she was teaching him the language, along with several other adult learners.
“Father O’Connor was the best student,” Chavez said, “and he learned the fastest. The other students just wanted to learn Spanish to get ahead in their business. But Father O’Connor wanted to understand the people. He became so advanced that he could even hear confessions in Spanish.”
Father O’Connor was always moving, Chavez noted, visiting the sick and traveling the mountain roads to Our Lady of the Lake Mission at King’s Beach even in the worst weather.
In the middle of his tenure at Truckee, he found time to attend McGeorge School of Law in the evenings in Sacramento, graduating with his juris doctorate in 1979. One of his professors was Anthony Kennedy, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
But Father O’Connor never practiced law; he studied the law simply because it interested him. “One of my heroes was St. Thomas More,” he said, by way of explanation. Schlumpf characterizes Father O’Connor as “an intellectual.” “When you ask him a question, you’ll get the complete and accurate answer,” she said, adding that this is the reason people trust his teaching. “He is faithful to the magisterium, which he understands through and through,” she added.
After 13 years as pastor in Truckee, Father O’Connor was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Susanville as pastor in 1986. Sister Eileen O’Connor remembers visiting him at the parish and backpacking with him at Velma Lake in Desolation Wilderness. “That was many years ago now,” she noted with a laugh, “though he still has a great love of nature.”
In 1993, Father O’Connor became pastor of Corpus Christ Parish. He loves to be among the mountains, he said, to stand on a peak and see the beauty of God’s creation in 360 degrees all around him.
Yet when he retires on his 75th birthday, he’ll move to the Central Valley.
“I love the beauty of the mountains,” he said, “and I’m still skiing, but I feel I have done enough snow shoveling. I will be happy to retire to the priests’ retirement village in Citrus Heights.” The ski slopes are only an hour away.
“I love being a parish priest,” says Father Gerald “Jerry” Ryle, who celebrates 44 years in the priesthood this summer as he retires on June 30.
Currently pastor of St. Philomene Parish in Sacramento, Father Ryle recalls declaring his intention to be a priest when he was four years old.
“Our God is a God of surprises,” he said laughing, noting that his ministry as a priest has been a process of continually deepening his understanding of the priesthood. “I’ve learned to be a parish priest from the people I’ve served,” he said.
As a boy, he encountered real support for his vocation among his teachers, the Sisters of Mercy at Holy Spirit School in Sacramento. They encouraged him to apply to St. Pius X Seminary, at that time the Sacramento Diocese’s junior seminary in Galt, which he entered in 1956 when he was 13.
He completed his studies for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and was ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1968 in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento.
During those 12 years of study, the Second Vatican Council was convened. Media coverage of the council was everywhere — in The New York Times and evening news broadcasts — and everyone was talking about the ideas coming out of the council, he recalled. It was an exciting and inspiring time to become a Catholic priest, he said.
During Father Ryle’s first assignment, as associate pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Grass Valley from 1968 to 1973, he served under three different pastors. One pastor, Father James (Coleman) O’Connor, died unexpectedly, leaving Father Ryle the de facto pastor for three months before the diocese could send a replacement.
“These were great years for learning to be a pastor,” he said, “and it was the parishioners who taught me.” He credits now-Deacon Carlos Astesana in particular for teaching him how to sustain a parish community.
In 1973, Father Ryle was assigned to live in residence at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento while teaching religion at St. Francis High School. He loved teaching, he discovered, but also during those years he found himself increasingly drawn to monastic life.
He visited the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, he said, and by 1976, he had obtained permission from Bishop Alden Bell, and from the then-Abbot Thomas Davis, to enter the Cistercian-Trappist community as a novice.
He lived at the Vina monastery for two and a half years, convinced at first that he was called to be a monk. He loved the beauty of the life, the work in the orchards, the silence, and the space for prayer. He said his years in the monastery deepened his understanding of faith as “surrendering to the mystery of God.” But his monastic experiences also taught him that his is a vocation to be with people.
“The diocesan priests are the trench workers,” he said, “keeping the books, living with the people, striving to reveal the kingdom of God in their midst.” That is the life that draws him, Father Ryle said.
So he returned to the diocesan priesthood in 1979 with renewed dedication to parish life. He assisted briefly at Holy Family Parish in Citrus Heights before spending nearly four years as associate pastor of St. Philomene Parish in Sacramento.
“Father Jerry is an extraordinary pastor,” explained Rita Mize, a St. Philomene parishioner whose friendship with Father Ryle began soon after his return from the monastery. “He has an amazing capacity to discern people’s gifts and knit people together into a community,” she said.
Mize praises Father Ryle’s “contagious enthusiasm for life and faith,” noting that his influence has transformed her own faith life from a mostly dutiful observance of Catholic practice to an active faith that “makes sense in the 21st century.”
In 1983, Father Ryle took a yearlong educational leave to study theology and history at UC Berkeley. He returned to the diocese to serve as associate pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Vallejo in 1984 before becoming pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in North Highlands in 1986.
Paul Leboeuf, who was an altar server at Father Ryle’s first Mass at St. Philomene and later became a youth minister at St. Lawrence Parish, said the priest “embodies what a priest should be.” “He cares about people and he cares about Jesus, and he is passionate about turning people to the Lord,” Leboeuf said.
Leboeuf, now director of campus ministry at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, says that he sees God at work in his own life through Father Ryle, who invited him into youth ministry at St. Lawrence and inspired him to pursue graduate study in catechetics. If it hadn’t been for Father Ryle, Leboeuf said, he would never have considered ministry as a career.
Father Ryle served as pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Galt from 2000 to 2006 before being named parochial administrator and then pastor of St. Philomene Parish. When he retires from active ministry in the diocese on June 30, he’ll take on a new kind of pastoral leadership.
He is relocating to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., where he will be director of campus ministry. His new position starts on Aug. 14. He’ll celebrate liturgies and guide students, he said, and as always, parishioners will teach him how to be their pastor. “The Spirit is alive and well among us,” he said.
Father Michael Dillon loves teaching.
“Like anyone, I like new ideas, new understanding, getting to know history better,” he explained in a recent interview with The Herald.
The founding pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Rocklin, Father Dillon has made adult education one of the pillars of parish life, just as continuing education has been a hallmark of his own ministry as a priest.
The parish is home to several thriving educational programs, including children’s Liturgy of the Word and Vacation Bible School for first through sixth graders, EDGE Catholic middle school ministry for seventh and eighth graders, and high school youth ministry. But it’s the range of thriving adult faith formation groups that reveals parishioners’ commitment to engaging and understanding their faith.
Among more than two dozen active faith enrichment opportunities at the parish are the Monday Night Series, featuring different speakers on spiritual and theological topics; JustMatters, on Catholic social justice; family ministry, on supporting Catholic families living their faith; the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults for those entering the church; a Welcoming Catholics Home program for those considering a return to the church; periodic adult retreats and a yearly parish mission.
There’s also a Bible study group for men and one for women, as well as a coed Bible study group centered on scriptural themes and another group that offers Lectio Divina for biblical exegesis.
And then there’s centering prayer, offered twice weekly.
For Father Dillon, the changes in theological understanding that flowed from the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s meant a shift from a devotions-centered spirituality to a Scripture-centered spirituality.
This means, he said, that instead of praying rosaries, novenas, and other devotions that require people spend a lot of time talking, people are called to spend more time listening to God: listening through Scripture, through the liturgy, and through prayerful silence.
“After Vatican II, I realized that we had a whole lot more questions than we had answers,” Father Dillon said. “We had to live a little more by faith, and be comfortable not having answers to all of the questions.”
The changes in the church in some ways mirrored Father Dillon’s own faith journey. The fourth of five children born into a farming family in Limerick, Ireland, Father Dillon entered the seminary at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Thurles in 1955 at age 19.
He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Sacramento in on June 11, 1961, and crossed the Atlantic by steamer in September, arriving at his first assignment, Sacred Heart Parish in Sacramento, on Oct. 1. He served as assistant pastor for five years, and recalls that he “tried to do everything by the book.”
In 1966, he was assigned to St. James Parish in Davis, where the cultural and political issues of the times — the Vietnam War, civil disobedience and the theological changes of the Second Vatican Council — created a lot of questions among parishioners. “Some of (the church’s) neat answers didn’t fit the human condition,” he said.
“A lot of questions arose in my life, “Father Dillon recalls of those times. But after talking over his questions with then-Bishop Alden Bell, Father Dillon realized that his faith journey was his alone, and that no “packaged answers” were going to work.
“You realized that you went into the priesthood for one reason, but now you had to recommit,” he explained. “Was I going to stay the course? If so, how was I going to live it out?”
Those years of crisis, from 1966 to 1976, were years of growth, Father Dillon said. He questioned matters he had always accepted and became comfortable with not having all of the answers. Sometimes the questions are more important than answers, he realized.
In 1971, he was assigned as assistant pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Sacramento, “a restful assignment,” he noted, after the years in Davis. In 1974, after he’d been ordained 13 years, he was appointed as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Bluff. He taught eighth grade at Sacred Heart School and adult faith formation classes at the parish. He was ready to be a pastor, he said, and the experience was a joy.
When the opportunity arose in May 1981 to help establish a new parish for people in Rocklin, Loomis and Penryn, the challenge appealed to Father Dillon. He threw himself into helping build the parish community as much as he worked at finding the land and getting the church built.
Now, 28 years later, many of the founding parishioners are still active in the parish and many newcomers have expanded the community. Katie Maynard, a teacher who has been a parishioner since she was in the eighth grade, drives from Carmichael to Rocklin with her husband each Sunday for Mass. “I’ve always remained a parishioner here, and it’s because of the close and active community,” she said.
Maynard attends the 5:15 p.m. Mass on Sunday evenings, which Father Dillon rarely celebrates, she noted. She loves Father Dillon and his homilies, she said, but he’s not the reason she makes the drive each week. She does it for the community he inspired, she said.
“I think that when you inspire people to live out their faith, as Father Dillon does, it creates a fire and energy that connects them to one another. Our faith makes this an amazing community,” Maynard said.
Father Dillon will retire from active ministry on June 30 to become pastor emeritus of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. He plans to live in Rocklin in his retirement years.
Father John Folmer, parochial vicar of St. Mel Parish in Fair Oaks, will retire from active ministry on June 30.
The native Sacramentan has served more than 40 years as a priest in the Sacramento Diocese, beginning with his ordination on May 31, 1969 in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament after completing studies for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.
He began his ministry as assistant pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Fairfield in 1969, followed by an appointment as assistant pastor of St. Robert Parish in Sacramento from 1969 to 1971.
During this time, Father Folmer was also a teacher, counselor and chaplain at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. He returned to parish ministry in 1971 as assistant pastor of St. Basil Parish in Vallejo.
Father Folmer took a six-year educational sabbatical, beginning in 1972, earning a master’s degree in canon law from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. in 1974 and a juris doctorate from King Hall at UC Davis in 1977. He was a member of the California Bar from 1977 to 2000.
After completing his law degrees, Father Folmer served as a canon lawyer for 30 years, serving in the diocesan tribunals of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and the Sacramento and Monterey Dioceses. He was appointed on a case-by-case basis as judge, Defender of the Bond, or advocate.
He took a one-year sabbatical at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley from 1977 to 1978 to study liturgy and spirituality at the Institute for Spirituality and Worship.
From 1978 to 1980, Father Folmer spent two years with the Sulpicians, a community of diocesan priests dedicated to educating fellow priests.
Beginning in 1981, Father Folmer served as a staff canon lawyer in chancery matters in the Diocese of Sacramento and the Archdiocese of San Francisco. From 1983 to 1991, he was Judicial Vicar of the Interdisciplinary Appellate Tribunal for the Province of San Francisco. This province includes 10 dioceses.
In 1984, Father Folmer was elected vice president of the Canon Law Society of America; he became president of the society in 1985.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Father Folmer served as Adjunct Judicial Vicar of the diocesan tribunals of San Francisco and Sacramento, and served as Defender of the Bond in Sacramento.
From 1989 to 1991, he served as associate pastor of St. Agnes Parish in San Francisco. In 1991, he became associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, becoming rector of the cathedral in 1993.
From August 1993 to August 1994, Father Folmer was the director of the Newman Center in Sacramento. In 1994, he began helping out at various parishes while serving on the tribunal as Adjutant Judicial Vicar. He became chaplain at St. Francis High School in Sacramento in 1999 and remained at the school until August 2005, when he was appointed parochial vicar of St. Mel Parish in Fair Oaks.