Catholic Herald staff
“My motto is, ‘Don’t retire! Inspire!’”
That’s what Fr. Joseph Kelchak has been doing in his home in the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, since retiring from the Diocese of Superior in 1990. Approaching the 65th anniversary of his ordination, the 89-year-old priest’s official job title is senior priest at St. John the Evangelist Parish in St. John, Indiana. Unofficially, he takes in a lot more territory, and hardly a weekend goes by when he isn’t celebrating one Mass, if not more. He’s been in 54 parishes in the Northwest Indiana diocese.
“I’m busy every Sunday,” he said. “That’s how retired I am.”
“I’ve been helping all over,” he added. “I’m having just a wonderful time.”
In his 40 years in the Diocese of Superior, Fr. Kelchak was the pastor of parishes in Webster, Rhinelander, Barron and Centuria. He sat on the presbyteral council, diaconate board, pastoral council and liturgical commission and, perhaps most memorably, he chaired the Indian commission.
He recalls the abject poverty suffered by Ojibwe families. The log cabins, the dirt floors. No electricity. No running water. They harvested wild rice by hand; distributors paid 25 cents a pound and sold the rice for $5.50 per pound. Unemployed, the men turned to alcohol.
Fr. Kelchak approached the bishop for funding to wire and plumb the cabins. Thursdays were his day off, and he drove to the Twin Cities to offer restauranteurs a deal: wild rice for a wholesale price of $2.75 per pound, all paid directly to growers. He found money to purchase threshing and harvesting equipment. A woman from another tribe agreed to help revive the forgotten art of beadwork.
“I loved it,” the priest said of his years here.
Spend any time around Fr. Kelchak, and you’ll find he exudes love.
“God loves you, and I love you,” is his signature parting remark. He also radiates joy; approaching the 65th anniversary, he’ll tell you his life has been fulfilling and “wonderful.”
“I’m so glad I’m a priest,” he often says. “I can’t imagine being anything else.”
A Catholic school first-grader when he chose his vocation, Fr. Kelchak never looked back. The Holy Spirit helped him reach his goal, he said, and now the priest promotes devotion to “the forgotten God.”
A side project is distributing prayer cards around this country and Latin America. Fr. Kelchak chose prayers to the Holy Spirit and had them printed in English; somehow word got out, and he regularly fields phone calls requesting the cards. A Peruvian woman wanted to give them to her family back home, so she translated them into Spanish.
“It’s all the work of the Holy Spirit. I’m just an instrument,” he added. “I think of the Holy Spirit as the forgotten God. I try to make sure he’s not too forgotten.”
After retiring in 1990, Fr. Kelchak returned to Indiana to be closer to family. He’s glad for the chance to serve his home diocese, which also struggles with a shortage of priests and a surge in closed doors and parish clusters.
“It’s terrible what’s happening,” he commented. “Well, what are you going to do? The demographics are changing.”
Fr. Kelchak doesn’t understand the lack of vocations to the priesthood, but he’s confident “the Lord is taking care of his church.” He thinks the lure of money leads men to ignore the call.
“If they knew what a wonderful life this is, we’d have so many vocations, we wouldn’t know where to put them,” he said. “They’re getting sidetracked. Who knows how many unanswered vocations to the priesthood are out there?”
Heading toward his 90th birthday, Fr. Kelchak is no closer to actual retirement. For the past two years, he has been a district chaplain for the First Catholic Slovak Union, a role befitting his Slovak heritage. He’s still studying, “despite my age,” reading a steady stream of books on theology and spirituality. He offers counseling and spiritual direction to anyone in need, and he says Mass every day, either in a church or in his home chapel.
“I’m enjoying it. My health is good; so as long as my health is good, I intend to keep working,” he continued. “I enjoy preaching. I get more and more jobs.”
On May 27, Fr. Kelchak will celebrate the 65th anniversary of his ordination. He admits 1950 was “a long time ago.”
The last of his classmates, he’s surprised by his own longevity.
“I feel ancient,” he said, laughing.
He wasn’t going to do anything special to commemorate his jubilee, but he has been asked to celebrate Mass that night. He suspects a surprise is being planned.
For the past 20 years, the priest’s family has been asking him when he’s going to retire. His standard response is, “I’ll retire the day after I die.”
“I love people,” he added. “I like to be with people. I enjoy what I’m doing.”
“It’s been a rewarding life, let me tell you,” he continued. “It’s just unbelievable how the Lord works.”
That said, Fr. Kelchak isn’t clinging to this life. When God calls him home, he added, “I’m packed and ready to go.”