Parishioners from Amery and Balsam Lake celebrated Fr. Gene Murphy’s 10th anniversary from their cars in early June. (Submitted photo)

By Michael and Nancy Anne Kalista

It was a beautiful first Saturday in June when more than 300 people came to the parking lot of St. Joseph’s Church, Amery.

Parishioners from the cluster parishes of St. Joseph and Our Lady of the Lakes in Balsam Lake gathered while social distancing, each in their vehicles six feet apart from one another, united as a community.
The event was promoted as a music concert, but it also had a secret agenda: To surprise and celebrate the 10th anniversary of their beloved pastor’s ordination.

Gifts of music, readings and a dance filled the hour honoring Fr. Gene Murphy. The Knights of Columbus from both Amery and Balsam Lake presented Fr. Gene with gifts.

Larry Wojchik, emcee for the event, gave him an album filled with tributes from the two congregations — photos, letters, artwork, stories and even a limerick or two for the Irishman.

Musicians from each of the churches created an atmosphere of praising God, celebrating Fr. Gene, serious and lighter moments, laughter and reflection.

So how important is an ordination and what does it mean to us?

A dictionary definition tells us to “ordain” is to “invest officially with priestly or ministerial authority.”

We asked Fr. Gene about his reflections on this 10th anniversary.

He responded, “Sometimes I think that God likes to show off what he can do with people. He seems to select people who are utterly ill-equipped to face the challenges he has in store for them, just so he can demonstrate his love and compassion for us. With them he gives us evidence of his unimaginable creativity and compassion by giving them, suddenly and unexpectedly, the ability to accomplish wonderful things.

“Ten years ago, I was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Peter Christensen. That was my first ordination. My second, and perhaps more important ordination, was granted by my parishioners. People who didn’t know me or my past were inspired to accept me as their priest and pastor. A cradle Catholic with 12 years of Catholic school education, I found that some of my new charges knew more about the faith than I did. Yet they accepted me as their advocate before God.

“Perhaps my favorite expression, and one that is quite apt today, is, ‘A leader with no followers is only a guy taking a walk.’ Parishioners make the priest an authentic presbyter. It is their acquiescence that lends legitimacy to my ministry, and I will always be grateful.”

We, too are grateful. By Fr. Gene Murphy’s being invested with priestly authority through his official ordination, we, as parishioners have received many gifts or returns on that investment.

We had the honor of collating the leather album of tributes to Father. There were consistent themes of people growing in their faiths because of what they have learned from him. Frequent remarks touted Fr. Gene’s compassionate insistence that vocal babies and young children are part of our community and are most lovingly welcomed in Mass — sweet, restless bodies embraced as vital to our community. Others talked about returning to the church after extended absences (some many years) because of his welcoming, nonjudgmental acceptance of who we are and have been on our journeys. Said one couple: “We became overnight evangelists for non-practicing Catholics to come back to church as a result of Father Gene.”

Fr. Gene’s quick wit and unique ability to take complex topics and distill their essence into succinct homilies have given nuggets we remember, take with us and share with others. He has provided leadership in discussing tough issues and guiding us to be part of building better church communities.

One child’s contribution to the tribute album included: “When you first arrived at my church, it was the first time I could really understand how a reading from the Bible connected to the real world. You helped me make those connections and actually pay attention a little in church. Thank you!”

Fr. Gene has also served collaboratively with other religious leaders in our community and beyond. Rev. Tom Hahn from Redeemer Lutheran Church summarizes well the impact: “St. Joe’s, and all of Amery, Balsam Lake and the surrounding area are so BLESSED that you are here, working, and praying, and serving, and smiling and laughing among us! We, as the churches and the communities of Amery and Balsam Lake are better because you are here! God bless you, Father Gene!”

During these challenging times, as we reflect on our values, learn some new and hopefully better ways of living our faiths, worshipping in new ways and settings, we are grateful that a guy from the Bronx got tapped on the shoulder by a higher power more than a decade ago and was officially ordained on June 6, 2010, here in Wisconsin.

As Fr. Gene has often said, “God loves us beyond our imagination.”

Indeed … and we are so grateful!