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New Catholic priest happy to be back in the area

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By Panzi Blackwell

The Rev. Joseph Havrilka, often referred to as the new priest of Mother of Dolors Catholic Church in Vandalia, has followed his calling for God’s service in several states, and in various areas of service. He came to Vandalia in July 2009.

A native of Pana, he has lived in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas in previous assignments with the Catholic Church. He taught in parochial schools, and before coming to Vandalia, was a hospital chaplain in Alton. He also filled in on weekends for priests who were ill or on vacation.

Thus, he has traveled a lot on weekends during those years, filling in and ministering to the sick in the hospitals.

Meet the Rev. Joseph Havrilka, or“Father Joseph,” as he’s called by members of his congregation.

Planting of the seed of service

He credits his family with planting the seed to be of service to people.

“Three things inspired me to work for the Lord. One was family, especially my mother. My mother was a nurse and she was a nurse 110 percent; she loved helping and comforting people,” Father Joseph said.

“I think that was an inspiration for me as I was growing up. You know, as a kid, you don’t put it all together, but later on, especially since she has passed, you reflect on all of that, and you just see that wonderful, beautiful example of service.

And my dad, too, in his own quiet way. He would never turn anybody down that needed help. He was always there, like people used to be, just good neighbors. “

“And my grandmother, too,” he said.  “She was a good Christian woman She was almost a lifetime member of the Assumption Christian Church. When I would stay with her, she would take me to the Catholic Church there and pick me up, and then I would go to the Christian Church with her, and I loved every minute of it.

“She and her friends, too, were all about caring for people and doing for people. I think that was where the seed was planted.”

Nurturing the Seed of Inspiration

“I think too, my teachers in school, some of the priests who served us in Pana, they were good examples and inspirations to me in their own way with their own gifts,” he said. “Anybody, ministers, even people in my family, are known for two things – what they do and they are known for some other characteristics, being eccentric.

“You put both together and the Lord takes all of that, and He blends it together and uses us for His own good. We don’t always appreciate it at the time, because I think, as human beings, we tend to focus on the human side, the eccentric side or even faults, sometimes. But the Lord knows what He is doing when He takes all of that and puts it together.”

…for the Lord’s Harvest

Father Joseph felt his mind was made up when he was in high school, but it was later that he pursued the type of education he really needed.

“When I first went to college, I wanted to study music. I learned how to play the organ and piano,” he said.

“Going back to my grandma and to my childhood, I always felt I had the best of both worlds, because we had our music in the Catholic tradition, with some of the old chants, and then I could go to my grandma’s church, and hear quartettes and the gospel music,” he said.

“I really grew up with rich tradition, and loved it and learned how to play it. I always played in church, for weddings and for funerals, parochial college. I put myself through college and that kept me close to the Lord.

“I originally wanted to major in music and teach music, but midway through, I changed my mind and felt the call to enter education. I got my certification and taught for almost 20 years, and that was a good experience.

“Most of the (schools) were small schools, and anyone who has taught in a small private school knows that that you have a great advantage, because, first of all, the parents are very supportive, because they want their children to be there and in the smaller classes.

“The children seem to form better bonds. When you have that in a Christian atmosphere, you can do so much. You can let the scriptures and a good Christian attitude morality permeate everything you try to do,” Father Joseph said.

“The fact that I was a teacher in parochial schools for many years is what led me to different states, and it was during that time that I really felt the calling to extend myself and go into parish ministry,” he said.

Called to Vandalia and Ramsey

Explaining his assignment to Vandalia and Ramsey, he said, “We are normally assigned by a bishop. In former days, it used to be that you got your call and your assignment, and there you went.

“Now, in more recent times, the bishops really try to look at our gifts and talents, and your background, and see where you can serve best,” he said.

“Some are very good at administrating large properties and schools, etc., and others of us like small-town living, with the kind of folks that you find here, and don’t particularly care for the cities. So the bishop has to put all that together, and when it’s time to move folks for various reasons, he tries to see if he can make a good fit.

“So when he called me, and said, ‘I’ve got in mind for you Vandalia and Ramsey. I think you are gong to like it, because I know you are from there and you love small towns. I know you are ready to make a change, so I’m just asking you to give it a try.

“I was just thrilled. Most of my family I’m close to live in Pana, and after many, many years, this puts me close to where they are,” he said.

Thoughts About the Community

“I get a strong sense, because we have many of our parishioners in our congregation who are businessmen downtown, of people trying to promote Vandalia, to try to restore the city, bring businesses to the center of the city and revitalize  downtown Vandalia.

“I think that is very noble, and I’m 100 percent behind it. We have lost that sense of community and a place for people to gather, and an identity for the city, other than just a strip mall or a big chain store and fast food.

…And Ecumenically

“Along with that, I think, too,” he said, “within our congregations, we should continue to try to rebuild a sense of fellowship and community among people. It seems somewhere, in the last 30 years, we got very busy,  and when church is over, people are so busy, they tend to just want to get out of here and go ­– get on the road, go eat or shop.

“I’d like to see more of them return to what we used to have, where people would linger, where they would really want to come to dinners and other events in the churches and community, too, to get to know one another.”

Quoting a priest he once heard, Father Joseph said, “‘The fellowship of the front porch is something in our distant memory.’

“What he meant was, before air conditioning, before cable TV, before computers, people would sit on their front porches in good weather, take walks and visit with one another.  We did that at home, and you don’t see that anymore,” he said.

Open Door

Father Joseph is looking forward to working with other local churches in planning events and opportunities.

He will be the speaker for the Lenten Luncheon held at  First United Methodist Church on Wednesday, March 17, and Mother of Dolors Catholic Church will host the Lenten Luncheon on Wednesday, March 24.

The churches will hold a World Day of Prayer this May, with a week of activities in the planning.

“Something I’d like to do, since I’m musical, is at some point, have a hymn sing,” he said. “We could host it here. We have a piano and organ, and a wonderful room to sing in. We would just invite the other churches, if they want to a have their little group to present something, or we could sing hymns from everyone’s traditions and then have fellowship with one another.

In Person

If he has a hobby, it is his love of music, sacred and all kinds, sometimes going to St. Louis to different musicals.

He loves animals and had a dog for years. “I’m thinking about getting a dog again,” he said. “I had a schnauzer. I like smaller-medium sized dogs that don’t shed, a companion dog to be in the house.”

Father Joseph likes small towns and animals, encourages unity in the community and the churches, loves music and loves serving people. The bishop seems to have chosen a perfect fit for this community.