Catholic Herald Staff
Editor’s note: This article is written in first-person as reporter Jenny Snarski is related by marriage to the interviewee.
More than 600 people attended a January event in Rice Lake with renowned cooking priest Fr. Leo Patalinghug. Although Fr. Ron Levra’s daily crowd numbers less than 20, he could be called the cooking priest of Price County.
A retired priest of the Diocese of Superior, Fr. Levra is a resident and staff member at Lakeside Villa Assisted Living in Phillips. Fr. Ron has been feeding bodies and souls since his May 2017 move to the facility, where he holds a certain celebrity status.
At the request of owner Lorraine Keifer, Lakeside Villa’s director Sue Bushman called the Catholic Herald to request an article. She was personally motivated to share Fr. Ron’s story “because he is a retired priest and he is still serving in so many different ways, and not just as a priest.
“He’s still serving others and feeding them and ministering to them in all these different ways, and to all people,” she said.
I drove to the interview on a cool but bright Friday morning in March, accompanied by my husband, who is Fr. Ron’s second cousin; Denny’s paternal grandmother and the priest’s father were siblings.
The first time I met Fr. Ron was at a polka Mass in Weyerhauser, soon after I married Denny in the summer of 2010. He made an immediate, strong impression with his vibrant smile and magnetic personality. I had last seen him at a family wedding concelebrated late in 2014.
A widower, ordained at the age of 67, Fr. Ron’s health problems had slowed him down; this forced him into what he felt was an early retirement from active ministry. Email updates from extended family in recent years informed us that he was living in Park Falls near one of his children and dealing with serious a heart condition.
Somewhat embarrassed we never visited him in Park Falls, I was all the more excited for the chance to cover the story and catch up with this fascinating man.
Lakeside Villa is a former motel just north of the Phillips city limits that was converted to an assisted living home five years ago. We walked in to see Father, dressed in black with his Roman collar, updating the daily weather report: windy and sunny. His face lit up as he turned around and offered big hugs; Denny and I exchanged looks of surprise, as if we were seeing a resurrected man.
There was a chance for some small talk about family and we were intrigued by his health’s huge improvement. Tapping his fingers on the table, he shared just how difficult the last years had been with “nothing to live for.”
Fr. Ron recounted the heart valve replacement that “really brought him back to life” and the providential circumstances that made the surgery a success. With the first valve not sealing properly, the surgeons scrambled to figure out a solution. The replacement heart valve – which is ordered specific to each individual – had mistakenly arrived with a duplicate. This “extra” valve was able to be inserted inside of the first. While the doctors took pride in their innovative technique, Fr. Ron gives credit primarily to “the guy upstairs taking care of me.”
Before the procedure, getting up in the morning had been a chore; just days afterwards, he “felt like a new person.”
It showed as we went into the kitchen, where hash browns and sausages were sizzling. He pointed out the pancake batter on his Packers apron, proof from his help with breakfast the day before.
“I love to cook,” he said, and was pleased to show off the new electric skillets and to tell of soups, chilis and boiled dinner he’s cooked in them. He told us that, as far as he can remember, he’s never been late getting a meal ready.
The retired priest’s duties at Lakeside Villa, LLC, include cooking breakfast five times a week as well as helping with dinners and other meals. He makes “room calls” for spiritual conversations and helps to “patch over any conflict situation” between residents, as needed. He is proud of the chapel at Lakeside Villa, an uncommon amenity in similar facilities, and the Bible study held there twice a month.
Of the 16 residents, only two are Catholics, but Fr. Ron has become a positive and uplifting presence in many other ways. In addition to cooking, he leads a morning exercise and entertainment routine.
He is grateful for the occasional opportunities to exercise his priestly ministry with the neighboring parish clusters based in Phillips and Park Falls, such as hearing confessions at a penance service earlier that week.
“Life is good,” Fr. Ron said more than a few times that morning. It was apparent he was in his element; and that the director’s comment on it being a “win-win situation” was true. Father had been given a new lease on life – a new purpose – and in Bushman’s words, the staff and residents had been inspired by him and enjoyed his presence.
Two staff caregivers, Jamie Schneider and Nancy Borchert, brought residents into the adjacent dining room and shared jokes and jabs with Fr. Ron. As it neared 8:30 a.m., individual plates were served according to specific needs and likes, including requests for fried eggs with extra firm or extra runny yolks.
Cutting up one woman’s toast, Schneider described them all as a “big family; a very big family.” It was endearing to watch their interactions, especially with quieter residents as they made small talk while handing out medications and avoiding parked walkers.
“I love doing this,” Fr. Ron beamed as he heaped food onto our plates (minus the sausage since it was still a Friday in Lent).
“It gives me something to look forward to every new day; it’s exciting,” he said.
At our table, one woman with memory challenges graciously smiled while another joined right in the conversation about gardening. There are raised garden beds on the home’s back patio. Fr. Ron had been satisfied with last summer’s homegrown produce – onions, carrots, squash, zucchini and tomatoes – all of which he incorporated into meals. He was looking forward to setting up his portable greenhouse and having a few more beds put in for this year; if the snow would ever melt, he jested.
As the tables were cleared for exercise and jokes, Schneider declared, “Here comes the boss everybody.” One female resident piped up, “This’ll be good.” Then Fr. Ron began the routine with each joining in as they were able – wrist twists, neck stretches, small and big arm circles, heel to toe counting to 25 with rhythmic tapping; right side then left. Not exactly a sermon, but Father’s voice was just as boisterous and encouraging to his little congregation; he even engaged everyone in a series of barnyard animal sounds.
Loosening his collar, he prepared to read from his joke books saying, “I can’t wear this to tell some of these.” Laughter rustled among the residents and he proceeded to read jokes and anecdotes for about 10 minutes.
Denny and I followed Fr. Ron back to his room, passing by the beauty parlor and library with shelves full of puzzles. Candid photo collages covered the hallways with memories of various events – birthdays and Packers parties, holiday celebrations and a dance night.
Back in his room, I had a chance to ask him more about his vocation story. Fr. Ron was born in 1940 and lived in Iron Belt with his parents and one sister. His mother was not Catholic – though she converted years later.
Point blank, Fr. Ron said, “When I was 14 years old, I was called to be a priest.” However, his family could not afford the seminary schooling. Father explained, “Back then, there was no shortage of priests; so (financial) help wasn’t available.” His mother attempted to raise the needed funds among family members; unable to do so, the young man’s call “had to be put on the back burner.”
He knew God was calling and Ron wanted to follow it, but went about living the life in front of him. He took a job at American Motors in Kenosha and was introduced to his future wife, Karen, through a co-worker. She was a teacher and from the get-go knew that Ron wanted to be a priest. She converted from the Lutheran faith, they were married and moved to Park Falls, where they raised three children with Ron supporting the family as a policeman.
Over the years, Karen would tell her husband that if she were to die first he could go become a priest. Little did either of them know just how God would make that happen. When their youngest child was a sophomore in high school, Karen started getting headaches. As they worsened and a doctor was consulted, he immediately saw something wasn’t right. They discovered that Karen had a brain tumor; operable, but unable to be completely removed. She was given just months to live, and after many weeks recovering from the brain surgery needed nursing home care.
Ron himself was dealing with heart issues that did not allow him to continue with police work. He was working at the local NAPA store, and spending weekends in Rochester while Karen recovered; it was straining the family’s finances. He could see God’s continued providence through the offer of a free motel room near the hospital; and there were $100 bills anonymously left in the mailbox, just when he was down to the last dollar in his wallet. “This happened numerous times,” Father shared, never discovering who they were from.
At just 47 years old, Karen died in 1987, three years after the tumor was found. In one of her last lucid conversations, she assured Ron of her hopes that he would finally be able pursue the life-long calling to the priesthood. Years passed of commitment to his family and local church, but eventually working with Fr. Andy Ricci, he was admitted to Sacred Heart Seminary in Hales Corners.
Fr. Ron has experienced Karen’s presence on a number of occasions. He told us about the widower’s club at the seminary and how they would dress up on All Souls’ Day to celebrate a special Mass for their deceased wives. At one of these Masses, he felt her right next to him during the first reading; one of his companions saw Karen and described to a tee a woman he had never met, including the dress and pearls she had been buried in. Fr. Ron also shared that during his ordination in 2007, as he lay prostrate on the cold floor of the Cathedral, she came and laid next to him and patted him three times on the shoulder.
After Fr. Ron’s ordination
After ordination, the 67-year-old new priest spent a few months in Park Falls before being moved to Chetek. Then-Bishop Peter Christensen reassigned him to a distressed Weyerhauser parish that was reeling from a scandal with their former pastor. The bishop entrusted the parish to him only after Fr. Ron acknowledged he felt up to the task; not long after, they were both surprised and pleased with the transition and its fruits in the parish.
Fr. Ron maintains close friendships with former parishioners and leaving active ministry was difficult for him. Upon retirement, he moved back to Park Falls, where one son was still living. This son, in his late 50s, was married last year and stepped into an important stepfather role to his wife’s four children. They attend their local Baptist church and Fr. Ron even attends with them some Sundays, something the pastor “thinks is awesome.”
Some people have asked, “How can you allow it?” referring to the son’s participation in another Christian faith. But the priest can only respond, “I brought him up, but he’s on his own; it’s his choice;” mostly he is grateful that religion is important in his son’s life and wants to support him in that, not make it a cause for division.
Another son lives in the Omaha area, and is very active in a young, vibrant Catholic parish in Elkhorn with his family of three children. He said it’s a noisy church, but that he loves hearing all those kids when he visits. “That’s our tomorrow,” he affirmed. “Let them make their noise; as long as mom and dad are trying;” and he gives parents credit for the effort to be there.
A human father first, the priest is pained by the distant relationship with his only daughter, who lives in North Carolina. As hard as it is for him, the situation has helped him relate to and counsel troubled families as part of his ministry.
“In the short time that I have been an active priest, I’ve had so many unbelievable experiences,” he said. Denny and I were both moved by the conviction conveyed in his voice of just how present and faithful God has been at every step of his journey.
Fr. Ron shared a moving story of one of Lakeside’s residents, a fallen away Catholic. He would stop by her room every day and ask to pray with her. Even though she had stopped speaking otherwise, this woman would join Father in reciting the prayers. One time she prayed “verbatim,” according to Fr. Ron, Psalm 23. He was able to reconcile her with the Church and give her communion for the first time in years. “There were tears – not only hers, me too.
“I melted,” he confided.
It’s no surprise that Fr. Ron Levra has a soft heart, even though it beats stronger in his chest than it has in decades – a heart deeply affected by those he ministers to, both as a priest and a man. And it’s no surprise that he is able, even with other physical abilities waning, to deeply affect whoever he finds in front of him, one day and one meal at a time.
His own words describe both the lesson he lives and shares: “You gotta continue a purpose in life; it’s too short not to.”