Fr. Dennis Meulemans celebrated the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination on May 21 at the Rib Lake nursing home where he currently resides. (Submitted photos)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Mary Kauer remembers a transition some years ago between priests at Good Shepherd Parish in Rib Lake when retired priest Fr. Dennis Meulemans stepped in to shepherd the people.

“There was a lapse of time between one priest leaving the parish and another coming,” Kauer recalled. “Fr. Dennis, understanding our anxiety, came to the parish office and provided the assurance that he would be there for us in the interim, as needed.”

“That is what he has always been for Good Shepherd since his retirement in the Rib Lake community – the rock of stability.”

Kauer alerted the Catholic Herald that Fr. Meulemans had celebrated his 60th anniversary of ordination on May 21.

The celebration took place at the Rib Lake Health Services nursing home, where the retired priest has resided since undergoing chemotherapy treatment for early-stage colon cancer.

Given the ongoing COVID restrictions, Kauer said only a few people were able to be present at the Mass of celebration.

“However, the joy of Fr. Den and those who attended filled the room with great praise to God in thanksgiving for this special day,” she said.

Following the Mass, a private social was held at the home, with anniversary cake and beverages shared with the residents. The gathering provided a time of reminiscing on the places where Fr. Meulemans had served and the accomplishments of his ministry.

“I became a priest because I watched my pastor at home,” Fr. Dennis shared in an interview with the Herald. “He was a holy man, and I said, ‘I think I want to be like him someday.’”

The Meulemans family lived in Downing, just east of Glenwood City, on the border of St. Croix and Dunn counties. St. John the Baptist Parish in Glenwood City was the closest and most accessible Catholic church for the family.

St. John’s pastor had attended the Josephinum seminary in Ohio and made arrangements for young Meulemans to course his seminary studies there also.

The Josephinum, located in Worthington, just north of Columbus, Ohio, is unique in that it is a pontifical college and directly subject to the Holy See.

Being ordained for the Diocese of Superior in 1961, the new priest served for a few years with Catholic Charities. Fr. Meulemans is grateful to have helped start the Catholic Charities daycare in Hudson. The Hudson Community Children’s Center has continuously served its community for more than 50 years.

Fr. Meulemans was also involved in starting daycare centers in both River Falls and Ladysmith, although those are no longer under the direction of Catholic Charities.

In 1971, he received his first parish assignment at St. Bridget’s in River Falls, where he was able to oversee the construction of a new church building.

In 1985, Fr. Meulemans was transferred to Holy Rosary in Medford, where he served until his retirement in 2003. The building of the new school was a major accomplishment during this assignment.

Since retiring, Fr. Meulemans has celebrated Masses as needed on the weekends. He admitted that since he has been at the nursing home, he has really missed being able to say Mass at the parish churches.

He has “always loved to say the Mass,” noting that if he had to choose a favorite sacrament, while he believes they’re all important, confession and the Eucharist do rise to the top.

All in all, Fr. Meulemans said that he has “really enjoyed being a priest.”

He admitted, when asked about some of the greatest challenges of his priesthood, “Just going through the process of being a pastor is a challenge by itself.”

“Decisions are the toughest part,” he added.

How you get along and deal with people, he said, also plays a large role in pastoring. He always felt he got along with his people and appreciated being able to treat others in a way that fostered positive responses.

Fr. Meulemans credited his parents and Pope Francis for being wonderful examples of what we should all strive to be – good and holy people.

“My mom and dad were holy people,” he said. “Not show-offs, they just were good people. The church has to be full of a lot of good and great people that can help show the way.”

In regard to what has impressed him about the pope, Fr. Meulemans referenced all the ways he is reaching out.

In Kauer’s comments from her experience accompanying Fr. Meulemans in the 60th anniversary celebration, she said he mentioned he viewed his vocation to the priesthood as a “call to serve.”

“Tears filled my eyes several times during the Mass,” Kauer added, “To watch Fr. Den express his gratitude to be able to celebrate that day and renew his commitment to the Lord.”

She shared that the priest noted in his homily how privileged he felt to be celebrating his anniversary during the Easter season and so close to the Solemnity of Pentecost, which was the feast on which he was ordained back in 1961.

Kauer also noted Fr. Meulemans shared how excited he was to have received a phone call from Bishop James P. Powers that morning congratulating him on the jubilee.

While Fr. Meulemans said that he doesn’t get around like he used to, when asked what words of wisdom he could share for promoting new vocations to the priesthood, he iterated the importance of one’s witness of life.

“Tell young men to watch their priests and seminarians and that can be a big help – just the witness that people give is important for the lives of others.”

He did share that a beloved patron saint of his is St. Thomas More, who was martyred through the order of execution by King Henry VIII in the 16th century. The date and time of Thomas More’s death was almost exactly 400 years prior to Fr. Meulemans’ date and time of birth.

That connection marked Fr. Dennis from early on, and he remains moved by “what he stood up for,” giving everything for the faith.

“We’re called to do that,” he stated.

The interview concluded with an invitation to “Be good people. The best inspiration you can give to a young person – do something valuable with your life.”