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McKenzie County bids a fond farewell to Father John Pfeifer

Posted 6/06/12 (Wed)

By Lauren Billing
Farmer Staff Writer

Leading a religious community is no easy feat, and it does not necessarily get any easier, even after nearly 50 years of practice.
Father John Pfeifer has been serving in the priesthood since 1965, when he was 27 years old. With his retirement quickly approaching, Pfeifer reflects on all the things he has done and seen through his years of work across North Dakota.
In his time as a diocesan priest for the Catholic Church, he has led or helped lead parishes in Parshall, Mandan, Williston, Bismarck, Noonan, Bowman and Watford City.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisc., Father John was born premature, so as a precaution a nurse at the hospital had him baptized. His parents had intended to name him after his father, but the christening resulted in John Matthew instead of Matthew John, so John he was.
Pfeifer grew up in a large family. His mother, Veronica Pfeifer, was a stay-at-home mom caring for seven children. His father, Matthew Pfeifer, worked for Borden’s Dairy delivering milk.
“I remember always liking when Dad would have the horse instead of the truck to deliver milk,” says Father John. “The horse’s name was Shorty and he knew just which houses to stop at and which ones to pass by.”
Growing up in Milwaukee, Pfeifer felt the call to the priesthood even at a very early age.
“I was probably seven or eight when I started using Ritz crackers as communion and saying my own masses in the backyard,” laughs Pfeifer.
Pfeifer’s father made sure that his son did not rush into the seminary before he was ready. But after attending a co-ed high school and enjoying his teenage years, he was still set on becoming a priest.
He began his studies at St. Francis in Milwaukee and completed them at Mount St. Bernard, with two years spent studying in Rome as well.
While in the seminary, Pfeifer tried his hand at a variety of activities. Just as he was studying the many aspects of God, he explored his own abilities.
“I tried handball, oil painting and learned to play the guitar, piano, organ and drums,” says Father John. “And I have always liked playing hockey and baseball and waterskiing.”
After eight years of studying, having received his Master’s of Arts in Philosophy and Theology, Pfeifer was ordained on June 5, 1965. He said his first mass the very next day.
In the early years of his priesthood, Pfeifer set the tone for an inclusivity that has lasted throughout his years of service.
In Noonan, he became fast friends with Pastors Carl and Karen, sharing both faith and friendship with his Lutheran counterparts. He learned even in seminary that much can be learned from all Christians.
“I believe that instead of seeing what’s wrong with someone, you should look a little deeper and find what’s right,” says Father John.
Lent and Easter are Pfeifer’s favorite season in the church year. He finds the remembrance of Christ’s suffering to be a particularly moving time.
“I think I also like Easter because it brings spring and the end of winter,” jokes Father John.
It was not until 1987 that Pfeifer joined the Watford City community.
“It is such a wonderful small town,” says Pfeifer of his experiences in Watford City. “Everyone really takes care of each other.”
Father John has been serving Epiphany Catholic Church and its parishioners for almost 25 years, but for the next few weeks he will be saying his good-byes.
Bishop Kagan has decided to restructure his parishes and priests, which has priests like Father John leaving active service.
In reflecting on his favorite memories in Watford City, Father John recalls the party celebrating his 40th anniversary as a priest. He also especially remembers the trip he took through the generosity of his parishioners to Rome, Munich and Austria.
“Austria was beautiful,” says Pfeifer. “I loved all the mountains and castles. I would love to go back there.”
In his time at Epiphany, many things have changed.
“One of the hardest things was when the Bishop decided to close the church in Grassy Butte,” says Father John. “That was my cowboy congregation. I would be trying on their cowboy hats in the entry before mass.”
Though big events certainly stand out in his mind, Father John will perhaps miss most the simple everyday things he did in Watford City.
“I will certainly miss the trips to the nursing home,” describes Father John. “I think they gave more to me than I ever gave to them.”
Even though Watford City and McKenzie County are undergoing monumental changes, perhaps too quickly according to Pfeifer, he still sees Watford City as a community that can embrace the challenging times.
“There is a good foundation of Christian people here that will keep this town close even as it grows,” says Father John.
Carol Garman has been a parishioner at Epiphany for 43 years. She is active with the ‘Women of Epiphany’ and has spent more than her fair share of time in the kitchen there helping with all kinds of community events.
“It is somewhat strange to be saying good-bye to Father Pfeifer,” says Garman. “To us, he’s been here forever - like a fixture in our church. At this time, I can’t imagine having another priest.”
Pat Golberg and his wife, Sally, have been parishioners since 1973. In that time, they have spent 16 years working with Father John on teaching the parish’s youth as they prepared for confirmation.
“We worked well together once I got the hang of it, which took two or three years,” says Golberg. “Once I was able to handle it, he let me run everything and stepped in only when I needed extra help or asked for advice on some situations.”
Working closely together for confirmation classes, as well as on the church council, the Golbergs and Father John have gotten to know each other well in the last 25 years.
“He is a compassionate person and truly believes in the true presence of the Eucharist,” says Golberg. “I enjoyed his talks with the kids during Mass on Wednesday nights. I also know my grandkids will miss the suckers that he gave them after Mass when they came to visit.”
“I am certainly going to miss going to breakfast with him every Sunday,” says Eunice McCabe, an Epiphany parishioner of 55 years, who has spent a lot of time sharing meals with Father John at the Little Missouri Grille.
While Father John may be retiring, he will not have much time for just sitting around, drinking coffee and reading the paper, though he may do a little of that.
He plans to move back to Green Lake, Wisc., to be close to his sister, Therese, and brother, Tom. While he would like to spend all his days fishing, he has gotten requests from parishes in the Milwaukee area to help fill in for priests there and his sister wants to take a trip to France.
He is also excited to attend his first professional football game at Lambeau Field. Those who know anything about Father John, know he loves the Green Bay Packers. But he still has never been to a home game, something he plans to remedy by going to games with his brother.
Though he is leaving, there is little doubt in Father John’s mind that Epiphany and Watford City will remain the welcoming parish and town he met in 1987.
“Keep being the wonderful people you are,” says Father John. “Always be ready to share yourself with others and find Christ in those around you.”
In saying farewell, Father John thanks those in and out of his parishes for making Watford City home.
“Over the years I’ve really fallen in love with this community, and not just my parish families, but the whole community,” says Father John. “I would thank everyone for being so welcoming and making my time in Watford so great.”
A farewell party for Father John will be held at 12 p.m. on June 17 at the Watford City Civic Center.