Four priests give thanks for blessings received during 25 years of priesthood

This year has been memorable for many reasons, including a global pandemic that changed everyone’s lives in ways no one could imagine. Despite everything, however, four priests of the Diocese of Peoria are giving thanks to God for blessings received during 25 years of priesthood.

Father Patrick DeMeulemeester, Father Joseph Dondanville and Father John Verrier were ordained by Bishop (now Archbishop) John J. Myers on May 27, 1995, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. Father Jeffrey Stirniman would join them in priestly ministry on Aug. 5, 1995, at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Another member of the class, Father Lawrence Morlan, is deceased. Meanwhile, silver jubilarian Father Johndamaseni Zilimu — pastor of Saint John Paul II Parish and chaplain of OSF Saint Luke Medical Center, both in Kewanee — will be profiled in an August issue of The Catholic Post.

Father DeMeulemeester is pastor of Sacred Heart in Granville and St. Patrick in Hennepin. Mail may be sent to Sacred Heart Church, 311 Hennepin St., P.O. Box 217, Granville, IL 61326.

Father Dondanville is pastor of St. Mary in Kickapoo and St. Patrick in Elmwood. His address is St. Mary Church, 9910 W. Knox St., Kickapoo, IL 61528.

Father Stirniman is pastor of Holy Trinity and Historic St. Patrick, both in Bloomington. Mail may be sent to Holy Trinity Church, 711 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 61701-3039.

Father Verrier is pastor of St. Joseph in Brimfield and St. James in Williamsfield. His mailing address is St. Joseph Church, P.O. Box 199, Brimfield, IL 61517.

Following are profiles of the silver jubilarians.

FATHER PATRICK DEMEULEMEESTER

Close to God as he was growing up in East Moline, Father Patrick DeMeulemeester didn’t see priesthood in his future. Very shy, he didn’t think it would be possible to stand in front of people and celebrate Mass, let alone give a homily.

That didn’t stop him from pulling on his mother’s skirt and constantly asking for stories of the saints or Mary. The son of Goldie and Andre DeMeulemeester, he often accompanied his mother to Mass and devotions at St. Mary in East Moline.

Father DeMeulemeester

Father DeMeulemeester attended St. Mary School and went on to United Township High School. He started working in maintenance there in 1979 and would continue for six years after his graduation in 1982.

His continuing interest in the priesthood was fueled by a family friend, a Belgian priest who was a Franciscan missionary in Taiwan. He visited every two years to raise funds and it was Father DeMeulemeester’s job to take him to the homes in the neighborhood.

“I was so proud to be able to take him,” Father DeMeulemeester said. “He was so happy. . . . I always loved his joyfulness.”

When the family went on a pilgrimage to France and stopped at Lourdes, God let him know priesthood was possible after all.

“For the next three years I ran away from it,” Father DeMeulemeester told The Catholic Post. “Finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it,’ fully figuring I wouldn’t make it. But I did.”

He was sent to Holy Angels College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, to study philosophy. Nervous to be going back to school, he said, “God gave me what I needed.”

He completed his theology studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, earning a master of divinity degree.

Father DeMeulemeester served for two years as parochial vicar at Holy Family in Lincoln before being named pastor of St. Patrick in Elkhart, St. Thomas Aquinas in Mount Pulaski, and St. John in Middletown. In 2000, he was given pastoral care for St. Columba in Mason City, too. He would close the Middletown and Mason City churches, saying, “We cried together.”

His next assignment was as pastor of St. Mary and administrator of St. Joseph, both in Rock Island, in 2003. In the two years he was there, Father DeMeulemeester would have to close St. Joseph, too. As difficult as that was, it provided one of the greatest lessons of his priesthood.

“When I was first ordained, people loved me and people complimented me. Even as a pastor, people loved me and complimented me. What that was doing was making it all about me, what I was doing,” he said.

In Rock Island, Father DeMeulemeester learned that “It’s God’s priesthood, not mine. It’s God working, not me. I’m just providing the person.”

He would serve as pastor of St. Philomena in Monticello and St. Michael in Bement from 2005 until he was assigned to Sacred Heart in Granville and St. Patrick in Hennepin in 2008. While in Monticello and Bement he accompanied the youth group to Mississippi to help with clean-up efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s God’s priesthood, not mine. It’s God working, not me. I’m just providing the person.” — Father Patrick DeMeulemeester

In Granville, he oversaw construction of the parish hall two years ago.

Perhaps more importantly, Father DeMeulemeester brought Light of the World Evangelization Ministries to his parishes. Before the pandemic, there were between nine and 11 groups meeting every week.

“They were always asking, ‘What can we do?’ The parish became alive,” he said. “From that we would have eucharistic processions, Marian processions, Marian consecrations. It really brought a lot of joy to the parish.”

Father DeMeulemeester was planning a celebration for early June, but canceled it due to pandemic restrictions. He’s looking at early September now.

“We flow with whatever is going on,” he said.

FATHER JOSEPH DONDANVILLE

Father Dondanville started thinking about the priesthood as a junior at Moline High School, but didn’t tell anyone — including his parents, Dr. Louis and Karen Dondanville.

He wouldn’t do that until after he had graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1990 and met with Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, who was vocations director for the Diocese of Peoria then.

Father Dondanville

That doesn’t mean his parents hadn’t been praying for that all along, especially his father, whose uncle was a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“My parents never talked about a vocation to the priesthood as a possibility with any of us, but our parents had our priests at our house socially all the time,” Father Dondanville said. “We got to see them in a different light other than at Mass or visiting classrooms.”

Among them were Father Robert Lee and Father Bill Betson, associate pastors at his home parish of Sacred Heart in Moline. He also points to Father Daniel Mirabelli, CSV, longtime chaplain, teacher and development director at Alleman High School, as an influence on his vocation.

“He’s such a wonderful, beautiful priest and a wonderful soul,” Father Dondanville said of Father Mirabelli, who is celebrating his 60th anniversary of ordination this year.

“His involvement and his love for youth inspired me, too. I’ve been involved in schools all 25 years of my priesthood in one way or another,” Father Dondanville said. “Getting to work with the youth and pass on my love for the faith has always been very fulfilling for me.”

What drew him to the priesthood in high school was a retreat he made at the beginning of his junior year. He said he had been struggling with his faith as the result of a death in the family and was angry.

“While there, I had a very special encounter in the sacrament of reconciliation. I was broken, then I broke down and was lifted back up again,” Father Dondanville told The Post. “I remembered thinking at the time, ‘What an amazing gift to be able to look into someone’s soul and tell them, “It’s OK, God loves you.”’ I wanted other people to experience that love.”

A renewed love for the Eucharist also played a major role.

While a large celebration was out of the question, Father Joseph Dondanville was still able to do what he loves on his 25th anniversary of ordination. He offered Mass, which was livestreamed from St. Mary Church in Kickapoo, and then distributed Communion. He is wearing the same vestments he wore at his first Mass. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

He studied for the priesthood at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he earned a master of divinity degree and a master’s degree in church history.

After ordination, Father Dondanville served as parochial vicar at Holy Cross in Mendota until 1998, when he was named pastor at St. Mary in East Moline. He got his wish to minister as a high school chaplain in 2003, when he was assigned to The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign. At the same time, he was spiritual leader of St. Patrick in Tolono and St. Joseph in Ivesdale.

Father Dondanville has been pastor at St. Mary in Kickapoo since 2009 and added St. Patrick in Elmwood in 2017.

As he celebrated his anniversary with a livestreamed Mass on May 27, he shared 10 lessons he had learned in the last 25 years, starting with how much he loves what he does.

“God is so good and so generous, so loving and forgiving, that it is just a privilege to do my best to serve him,” Father Dondanville said.

Other lessons are to pray and trust that God is listening, and to be joyful. “Act like it is good news that you are preaching and living,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest lesson Father Dondanville has learned is to be grateful.

“I am grateful every day for the gift that is my vocation,” he said. “It is a humbling thing to be called, even though not worthy, to such a beautiful life. I thank God for it every day.”

When he emerged from the St. Mary Church to distribute Communion after the livestreamed liturgy, he found many cars waiting for him. Those inside honked their horns and then drove along the front of church to receive the Blessed Sacrament and drop off cards and gifts for their pastor’s milestone anniversary.

FATHER JEFFREY STIRNIMAN

Father Stirniman said it was the Blessed Mother who had the greatest influence on his vocation to the priesthood.

“By getting closer to her, she helped me get much closer to her son,” he said.

The son of John R. and Margaret (Rozelle) Stirniman, Father Stirniman was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He attended St. Pius X School there and graduated from Regis High School in 1983.

Father Stirniman

He earned a bachelor’s degree in international development studies from the University of Iowa in 1987.

He might have entered business with his brother, but developing “a decent prayer life” helped Father Stirniman to hear the Holy Spirit’s call to the priesthood. He studied at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, earning a master of divinity degree and a master’s degree in systematic theology.

Father Stirniman’s first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. Philomena in Peoria. He was named chaplain at Alleman High School and parochial vicar at St. Pius X, both in Rock Island, in 1997.

His assignments as pastor have taken him to St. Patrick in Bloomington (1999) and St. Louis in Princeton and St. Mary in Tiskilwa (2003). He served as leader of the Princeton faith community from 2005 until 2017, when he became administrator of Holy Trinity and Historic St. Patrick in Bloomington, and St. Patrick in Wapella.

Father Stirniman said seeing Catholics return to the practice of their faith has brought him great joy in his priesthood, adding that “real joy — in life and in ministry — is being close to Jesus.”

One of the lessons he has learned and tried to pass along is that prayer is vital to a healthy spiritual life. “If you don’t pray you spiritually die — quickly.”

Plans for an anniversary celebration have not been finalized, but include preaching on the priesthood and then getting together with friends.

FATHER JOHN VERRIER

“God was calling me from an early age, but I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually it was a deeper devotion to Mama Mary — that’s the way I like to talk about her,” Father Verrier says of what drew him to the priesthood.

Born in Boston, Father Verrier is the son of Ernest and Eileen Verrier. He studied chemical engineering at Michigan State University but switched to industrial health and safety, earning a bachelor’s degree from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, in 1986.

It was his work as an industrial safety engineer and environmental specialist at Amoco Chemical Co. in Joliet that brought him to Illinois.

Father Verrier

Accepting his vocation to the priesthood entailed another switch — from physical safety to spiritual safety, Father Verrier said. “I keep people safe from sin and the effects of sin.”

He explored religious life and visited two seminaries before a friend, now Msgr. Michael Bliss, pastor of St. Philomena in Monticello and St. Michael in Bement, gave him the phone number for Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, then vocation director for the Diocese of Peoria. While the interview wasn’t entirely smooth, Father Verrier said he felt completely at home.

He recalled that Msgr. Rohlfs told him, “We’re looking for men who love God, who love the people of God, who want to give their lives for the church and be faithful to the Holy Father,” as well as teach people that the Eucharist is the center of the faith.

“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Monsignor, that’s me.’ He hit all the points that made me want to be a priest,” Father Verrier said. “Somehow, some way, God got me to where he wanted me. I really do love it here in this diocese.”

His studies for the priesthood took him to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, where he earned a master of divinity degree and a master’s degree in systematic theology.

During his formation, his mother asked a pivotal question that he continues to reflect on each day: “Are you falling in love with Jesus?”

“That’s the only question that really matters,” Father Verrier said. “I still think about how that has formed not just my seminarian life but my life as a priest. . . . I thank God for my mom calling me that day.”

During his formation, his mother asked a pivotal question that he continues to reflect on each day: “Are you falling in love with Jesus?” “That’s the only question that really matters,” Father Verrier said.

Father Verrier served as parochial vicar at St. Vincent de Paul in Peoria after ordination. He was named pastor at Immaculate Conception in Lacon in 1998, adding St. Mary and St. Joseph, both in Henry in 2000, and then went to St. Mary in Metamora and St. Elizabeth in Washburn in 2003.

He has been pastor of St. Joseph in Brimfield and St. James in Williamsfield since 2008.

He credits his devotion to Divine Mercy and serving on teams for Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, which he terms a call within a call, for having a profound influence on him. Jesu Caritas, a priest support group, has also enriched his priesthood.

Among the greatest lessons Father Verrier has learned is that all graces flow from the Mass, which is Calvary re-presented. Another is “Be gentle and kind with everyone as if it’s Jesus present, because he is.”

His greatest joy?

“Every single time I celebrate Masses with the people in my parishes,” Father Verrier told The Post.

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