Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
On Tuesday morning, April 10, Father Michael Wagner was purifying the vessels after the 7:15 a.m. Mass at Tacoma's Visitation Catholic Church when a sudden dizziness overcame him. He leaned against the altar for a moment to steady himself, then resumed his task. With the vessels purified, he retreated into the sacristy where, according to those present at Mass, he could be heard coughing. Finally he emerged to give the final blessing – then he collapsed at the altar. A parishioner quickly dialed 911, but Father Wagner had suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, and the emergency crew was unable to revive him.
For more than three weeks, Father Wagner lay unconscious at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma while the faithful at the two parishes he served, the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church, rallied in prayer for the beloved priest. Each night, a prayer vigil would be held at one of the two churches. Father Wagner never regained consciousness; and on the morning of May 2, he was called home to Christ.
Who Was Father Wagner?
Just who was this priest, this “new guy” who, in less than a year of service to the parishes, had brought his congregations together and led them toward greater holiness?
Holy Rosary parishioner Thom Ryng, who serves as Master of Ceremonies and directs Holy Rosary's RCIA program, had worked closely with Father Wagner. Ryng talked to the Register about the impact Father Wagner had had in the two parishes since his appointment as Administrator last June. Noting that the two parishes are different in temperament (Holy Rosary is more conservative), Ryng observed that Father Wagner was still the “new guy” – that he had served for only nine months at the parishes before he was stricken last month. But during that brief time, Father Wagner had earned the love of his flock.
Vito Fedor, younger brother of the priest, talked about him as a truth-teller, an honest man, and then added some personal reminiscences. The older brother — at 48, Father Wagner was 18 years older than his brother Vito — loved the outdoors and loved camping. Vito was saddened by the loss of his brother and told the Register that the two of them had been planning a camping trip next month, and that “Father Mike,” as he called him, was planning to officiate at Vito's wedding next year.
A Vocation “Both Early and Late”
Michael Wagner was born in Poland on Sept. 4, 1969. As a child growing up, he felt a tug toward the priesthood; but his mother warned that were he to become a priest in that Socialist/Communist nation with its official policy of atheism, he would endanger not only himself but his entire family.
When he was 15, he moved with his family – first to Rome for one year, then to Seattle, where he earned his high school diploma and then pursued a bachelor's degree in Finance. His career in the financial industry took him to Washington, New York, New Jersey, California, Nevada and Colorado. In 2002, he left the financial services industry to open his own coffee shop in Seattle with his brother Vito. They named the shop, in Seattle's bustling city center, Insomniax.
Only years later, after attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II, did Mike once again sense a call to the priesthood. In 2006 he entered the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, one of the seminaries best equipped to accept men over 30 who seek to pursue a vocation.
The Joy That Only God Could Give
Before his ordination to the priesthood in 2011, he told the Catholic Northwest Progress, the Archdiocese of Seattle's newspaper, that his successful business career failed to give him the satisfaction for which he yearned. “It didn't matter how high I climbed,” he said, “...in the corporate world or having my business – there was no satisfaction, just emptiness and shallowness of the feat.”
In an autobiography published on the website of Holy Rosary Church, Father Wagner explained, “In 2006 I answered the call, entered the seminary and crossed the threshold to a lifelong vocation to serve God and fulfill my purpose in life.”
Again talking with a reporter from the Catholic Northwest Progress, he explained how he enjoyed a challenge, and how the Pacific Northwest seemed to him a perfect place to carry the Gospel message:
I think my spirit for evangelization and wanting the good of the other, wanting to serve all people, makes me more and more excited at the prospects and opportunity to serve in a part of the country where such a small percentage of people are believers.
Thom Ryng reflected on the priest's rapport with parishioners, both young and old. “He had this amazing, sort of gentle way of talking to you about things,” Ryng recalled. He praised the priest's orthodoxy, and reported that from the onset of his illness, the two parishes had organized nightly prayer services that drew crowds. On the day of his death, it was announced on the parish's Facebook page that there would be a Vespers service drawn from the Office of the Dead; and Ryng reported that with just that brief notice, the church was crowded with people whose lives had been touched by the priest.
Even in his illness, Thom Ryng said, Father Wagner had continued to teach and to inspire his flock. “His illness brought us together,” Ryng explained, “in a way that I'm not sure could have been done otherwise. I really feel that Father Wagner is continuing to pastor us, through these days of his illness and now his death.”