Msgr. Watson to retire; pastor of St. Thomas ‘family’ 34 years

By: By Tom Dermody

The first parish that Msgr. William Watson served as pastor will be the only one.

After 34 years of guiding St. Thomas the Apostle in Peoria Heights — one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Peoria with 2,100 families — Msgr. Watson has announced plans to transition to senior status effective July 8.

“I feel like I’m part of their family,” said Msgr. Watson, 79, of the St. Thomas faith community. “Yet it’s the nature of the Catholic Church that people come and go.”

But when pastors come or go at St. Thomas, it’s big news. Msgr. Watson was appointed pastor in 1981. He succeeded Msgr. Bernard Rank, who arrived as the new parish’s first resident pastor in 1937.

Prior to announcing his retirement plans at the end of all Masses last weekend, Msgr. Watson sat with The Catholic Post to reflect on his 53 years of active priesthood. He spoke frankly of his love for God, the Catholic Church, and the people of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish and School as well as the Peoria Notre Dame High School community. Msgr. Watson served as president of Peoria Notre Dame from 2007 to 2013 and has been a booster as pastor for decades.

“I just hope they were taken good care of from a priest’s perspective, all the sacramental life,” said Msgr. Watson of those he has served, including at his only other assignments — as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Rock Island from 1962 to 1969, and at St. John’s Chapel at the University of Illinois in Champaign, from 1969 to 1981.

He found joy in the support of parishioners, his brother priests, and the offering of daily Mass, which he called “the center of my life.”

Asked how many baptisms or weddings he may have presided over, Msgr. Watson replied “I have no idea. We always have a lot.”

He drew a laugh when explaining how he avoids repeating homilies — “I don’t keep anything” — and how he tailors wedding homilies to each couple.

“I deal with the couple and their background and where they’re going, so that makes it different than anyone else’s,” said Msgr. Watson. “But at weddings they don’t hear much anyway. It’s ‘I do’ and ‘I do’ and out the door.”

Born in Pontiac on March 9, 1936, he is the oldest of five children of Jarlath and Lucille (Johnson) Watson. And just as St. Thomas the Apostle Parish is like family to him now, St. Paul Parish in his hometown of Odell was like family in his boyhood.

“My mother and dad went to Mass every day of their life, and therefore we went every day of our life,” said Msgr. Watson. His father was in the funeral business, and his mother taught a course in the Catholic grade school. “The church was almost as much a part of our life as our home was,” said Msgr. Watson.

The close contact with parish priests and the Springfield Dominican Sisters meant Msgr. Watson thought about being a priest from a young age. After high school he was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria, attended St. Bede Junior College for two years, and completed his philosophy and theology studies at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein.

He was ordained on June 3, 1962, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

Involvement in education has been a hallmark of Msgr. Watson’s priesthood. While in Rock Island, he taught religion at Alleman High School. In addition to taking care of the sacramental needs of Catholic students at the University of Illinois, he taught a Marriage and Family Life class for an average of nearly 100 students for 24 semesters.

His presence is familiar at St. Thomas Grade School, though in recent years Father Thomas Taylor, parochial vicar, has taken the larger role there.

Msgr. Watson’s 34 years at St. Thomas saw dramatic growth in the parish’s physical plant. He oversaw an addition to the south side of the school that added classrooms, a library, and a gymnasium in 1995. The present church was built and dedicated in 2001 while preserving the original church. The former convent was renovated for parish offices and a new rectory was added several years ago, linked to the church by a skywalk.

Msgr. Watson is a happy priest who always senses the real presence of Christ.

“I’m happy with life,” he said. “I’m happy with wherever the Lord sends me. I really enjoy the great gifts of faith, hope and love. Those are words that come to my mind frequently when I’m reflecting and praying. They keep me moving.”
He has also developed a conviction that offers peace of mind.

“There is only one God who is totally loving,” said Msgr. Watson. “The rest of us struggle a little bit. We have limitations.”

As he nears age 80, Msgr. Watson is aware of his own limitations.

“This parish is size enough they need someone younger than I am to come along and take care of all this,” he said. He expressed gratitude to the many who have served the parish with him through the years, including Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, pastoral associate for his entire tenure.

Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, has announced that Msgr. Jason Gray, currently serving the Congregation for Causes of Saints in Rome, Italy, will return to the diocese and become the third pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle on July 8.

Msgr. Watson plans to return to his hometown of Odell. In fact, he has purchased the former rectory at St. Paul Parish, a relatively new three-bedroom structure no longer being used. Msgr. Watson’s sister, Catherine Verdun, still lives in Odell.

And he will continue to pursue a longtime love of travel. The day after his senior status takes effect, Msgr. Watson will lead a group of 25 pilgrims to Rome.

Persons wishing to send well wishes to Msgr. Watson may do so in care of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 904 E. Lake Ave., Peoria Heights, IL 61616-6360.


PHOTO CAPTION: Msgr. William Watson holds the crucifix for veneration during a Good Friday liturgy at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Peoria Heights. (The Catholic Post file photo/Jennifer Willems)

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