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Montana-grown sister, priest discuss their vocations and how to attract others
By Kim Larsen
February 29th, 2008
The Harvest (www.dioceseofgfb.org/theharvest.htm)
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (The Harvest) - Family, role models, praying the rosary, and teachers are among sources that attracted home-grown vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Here are their stories:
Father Steve Tokarski
Pastor, St. Pius X Church, Billings
“It was a combination of family, parish, school — all of which were Catholic and influential” that helped lead Tokarski to the priesthood.
“Priests were held in high regard and I had some wonderful role models both in parish and in school,” he recalled. “Father Gene Hruska, who was newly ordained and teaching at Billings Central, was a definite role model and influence for me.”
Tokarski was born in Great Falls and grew up in Little Flower Parish in Billings.
“Our family rituals revolved around parish life: the holidays, the liturgical seasons,” he said. “I remember we prayed the family rosary each night after dinner.”
He also remembers attending Mass with his mother at 6:30 a.m. on the weekdays of Lent. And he recalls “being trooped over to church every Friday by the nuns for confession.”
“At the time I took all these and many more rituals and practices as given. Only later did I realize their deeper value and imprint on my life.”
Tokarski attended St. Edward and St. Thomas seminaries in Seattle for college and theologate classes. He spent the summer after being ordained a deacon at St. Mary Parish in Livingston.
Most of his last year in the seminary was spent in an internship at St. Patrick Church in Seattle.
“The Second Vatican Council took place during my years in the seminary, so there was unprecedented change during those eight years,” Tokarski said.
“When I started, the environment had a lot of resemblance to a Marine boot camp with Mass and prayer,” he recalled. “By the end, everything resembled the church we live in today. It was a tumultuous and exciting time in seminaries across the country and around the world.”
Tokarski has been a priest for 39 years. His assignments during that time included teaching at Great Falls Central Catholic High School. He also assisted at St. Joseph Parish and St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls.
Four years after his ordination, Tokarski went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to earn a doctor of ministry degree in pastoral counseling. “I t h e n s e r v e d a s c a m p u s chaplain and theology instructor at the College of Great Falls until 1984,” he said. “I also was vocation director during those years. From 1984 until 1991 I was pastor of St. Leo Parish in Lewistown. Then after a short period at Sacred Heart Parish in Miles City I came to St. Pius X Parish in Billings.”
Tokarski said every day is interesting for him, adding that it is difficult to single out any one experience after almost 40 years.
“Building a new church here at St. Pius X Parish has been probably the most challenging and exciting project I’ve been involved with. It is so much more than constructing a building. It is a spiritual renewal for a parish that deepens the bonds in the community and revitalizes the liturgy. A parish is changed forever after building a new parish, and so is the pastor.”
Tokarski said he finds “great joy in preaching and celebrating the sacraments and the intense involvement that ministry allows in the lives of families and parishioners, especially at moments of both joy and sorrow.”
He added: “A great challenge is the work load, the shortage of priests, and the needs and demands that are almost impossible to respond to.”
Asked about his hopes for the future, Tokarski replied: “I hope for a continuing implementation of the Second Vatican Council in the life of the church. I’ve given my life to this effort and I rejoice to see the renewed liturgy, the explosion of lay ministry, the eagerness with which the laity assume responsibility for the life and guidance of the church. It has been an historical and exciting time to be a priest in the Catholic Church.”
Asked what he brings to his priesthood as a Montanan, Tokarski said “Being a native of Montana is a great advantage to ministering here. At my age I know a lot of history first hand. I know the people and the culture.”
He noted that “I’ve always admired my brother priests who came from Ireland to serve here. They had incredible adjustments to make and it was a great sacrifice for them. Few people probably appreciate what they have done and how we have benefited.”
Tokarski has some suggestions for encouraging other Montanans to become priests.
“I think the best recruitment for the priesthood is good and holy priests who love their priesthood,” he said. “I strive for that. Others can be the judge of how well I do. I also think taking an interest in young people and encouraging them is important, whether they are interested in priesthood or religious life or not. If we do that much, God will take care of the rest.”
Sister Mary Lou Mendel, S.C.L.
Coordinator of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion
St. Vincent Healthcare, Billings
Sister Mendel, a farm girl from Red Lodge, came from a family of “non-practicing Catholics,” but “knew that being a Catholic was important to my mother.”
It obviously was important to Mendel, too, because she joined the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and has been a sister for 55 years.
She graduated from Carbon County High School, now Red Lodge High School. She went on to Saint Mary College (now University of Saint Mary) in Leavenworth where she earned bachelor and master’s degrees. Another master’s degree was earned at the University of Wyoming. In addition, Mendel was awarded a certificate from a one-year Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago.
Then there were “lots of workshops and summer school classes” that rounded out her education.
Mendel’s decision to choose the religious life was influenced especially by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
“They were excellent teachers, but most of all they cared personally for us students. We knew they liked us and worked hard for us. They enjoyed each other and were fun for us, too.”
Father Andrew Zarek, then pastor of St. Agnes Church in Red Lodge, also influenced Mendel.
“He would say to me each time he saw me while I was in college, ‘when are you going to enter?’ That kept the question before me.”
Mendel recalled hesitancy on the part of her family: “While they weren’t crazy about the idea nor understood why I would want to do that, were supportive.”
Fifty-five years as a sister resulted in a big résumé for Mendel.
She was an elementary teacher for one year and a highschool teacher for 18 years in Nebraska, Missouri, and Montana, including nine years at Billings Central Catholic High School.
“I taught mostly English but some social studies, journalism, speech, and drama,” she said.
Mendel also was active for nine years in her order’s formation program. She is now “recycled as the director of Sisters Under Temporary Vows, which also makes me a member of the S.C.L. formation team.”
She served nine years as pastoral associate at Holy Rosary Church in Billings and 13 years as pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart Church in Bridger, St. Joseph Church in Fromberg, and St. John Church in Joliet.
Mendel is now affiliated part time with the spiritual care department at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings as coordinator of eucharistic ministers.
“So basically, high-school English teacher, formation work, and parish work, and I’ve liked each one of them the best,” she declared.
Asked if she has had any interesting experiences as a sister, Mendel replied, “Lots. Being part of people’s journey at significant moments as well as every day.”
She sees challenges today coming “primarily from the sad divisions in our church. Religious communities struggle with fewer numbers and with rediscovering a clearer vision and direction of who we are and what we stand for.”
But there are joys, too.
“My joys are in experiencing the goodness in so many people.”
Asked about hopes she has for the future, Mendel cited less divisiveness in the church. “Wouldn’t it be great if our church could be a light and leader in respectful disagreement rather than strident labeling, in civil discourse.”
She would like to see the church model peacemaking. “Can we say we are for peace in the world when we do not reflect that in our church?” she asked.
Mendel also hopes for a more hopeful world.
“Another hope,” she said, “is that religious life will be seen as clearly being people of the Way, as faithful followers of Jesus, as loving one another in a way that is an effective reflection of God’s presence among us. That religious will be clearly caring of the poor and underserved. That may also mean being bridge-builders between rich and poor.”
Being a Montanan plays an important role in the religious life, according to Mendel. “We Montanans believe we bring a sense of adventure, of enjoyment of life, a certain ‘can do’ spirit, maybe something of a pioneer spirit,” she explained.
Mendel noted that “at one time we had significant numbers of S.C.L.s from Montana. At the motherhouse on July 4 one of the highlights was a baseball game between the sisters from Montana and the rest of the world. A certain zest for life, perhaps.”
Asked what she is doing to encourage others to seek the religious life, Mendel noted that she is a member of the order’s vocation network.
“Since I’ve been in Billings, I’ve done a small bit at Rocky Mountain College offering a series of sessions for Catholic students, usually during Lent,” she said, adding sadly, “not a great success.”
Mendel also has helped with vocation awareness days in Billings as well as at Carroll College. “I helped with busy person retreats for years at Carroll,” she added.
She has some advice for parishioners: “Parish leadership needs to offer opportunities for education and awareness about religious life. It is not on most people’s radar screen in the way it once was, nor is it encouraged in the way it once was. Instead, it tends to be discouraged.
“Parishes and families and the church need to develop again a culture of vocations where it is part of Catholic life. Education is needed for this, for we have several generations who are disconnected from sisters. Older grandparents are more aware of this than most parents and some grandparents today. A rediscovery, so to speak.”
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