WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Fr. Frank Stempfle has spent 34 of his 60 years as a priest at Edmonton's St. Patrick's Parish.
In 1977, St. Patrick's Parish held a celebration in honour of Father Frank Stempfle's 25th anniversary as a priest. Since then, it has also celebrated his 40th anniversary in 1992 and 50th anniversary in 2002.
On June 10, his 60th anniversary as a priest provoked yet another celebration.
With so many years of active service, people often ask Stempfle, 85, how long he will be an active priest. His answer is always the same. Pointing upward to heaven, he says, "It's up to him."
Stempfle has credentials that few priests can match. He has served under five popes and five archbishops in the Edmonton Archdiocese, describing himself as "a good company man."
"I find there is an immense satisfaction and joy in serving people, in saying Mass, and bringing sacraments to the people. This being able to serve others is very fulfilling," said Stempfle.
Born into a Catholic family in 1926, he lived on a farm near Strome, Alta., and later resided in Primate, Sask., before returning to Alberta to live on a farm near Hayter.
His call to the priesthood came in Grade 12, while attending St. Anthony's College in north Edmonton. The Franciscans who ran the institution influenced him greatly, so he decided to enter the seminary. He was educated at St. Joseph's Seminary for seven years.
Stempfle was ordained a priest in 1952 by Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald in Rosenheim, Alta., and went on to serve many parishes in rural Alberta, including Consort and Wainwright.
His first stint at St. Patrick's Parish, on Edmonton's 118th Avenue, came in 1970. He left in 1978 to serve as pastor of Assumption Parish. He returned to St. Patrick's in 1985.
"I never thought I'd be here this long," admitted Stempfle.
A couple of tragic incidents occurred during his first tenure at St. Patrick's. In August 1977, two intruders broke into the rectory to burglarize it, and murdered church caretaker, Leo Bilodeau.
An arsonist set fire to the church in 1978, gutting the interior of the church.
The church is not a well-built structure, its walls bowing out. Architecture and design students from NAIT have used the church for some of their projects because it serves as an example of how not to build a church.
With the number of parishioners attending Mass at St. Patrick's Church in steady decline, in 1998 an archdiocesan committee decided that closing the doors was the best solution. After all, another Catholic church, St. Alphonsus, was just down the street.
"(Archbishop Thomas) Collins said that I could stay at St. Patrick's for as long as I like. It was my choice as far as he was concerned," said Stempfle.
Since the parish was on the verge of celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2000, it remained open. In 2010, the church held its 60th anniversary celebration.
The church remains open primarily because Stempfle has been willing to continue serving well past retirement age. In its 62-year history, the parish has only had three pastors.
"St. Patrick's Church is 62 years old. I've been here 34 years, over half the existence of the church. I've been a priest for 60 years, so over half my years as a priest have been here," said Stempfle.
At its peak, the parish had an active youth group and the Catholic Women's League had between 70 and 80 members. Less active than in those bygone years, the parish still hosts an annual St. Patrick's Day tea, bazaars, bake sales, potluck meals, dances and other social events.
Today, fewer than 100 people attend Mass on Saturday, and around 100 for Sunday Mass.
"I stayed because of all the wonderful people I've come to know in the various parishes in which I've served," said Stempfle.
Outside of his priestly duties, he has diverse interests. He has been a chaplain for the Knights of Columbus for more than 60 years. He obtained his pilot's licence in 1964.
He especially enjoys golfing, and on the priests retreat to Jasper in May, he won the annual clergy golf tournament for the fifth time.