“If you had come a year or two sooner, I could’ve given you enough stories to fill the whole newspaper,” said Msgr. Vincent Topper.
The longest-serving priest in the country, Msgr. Topper will be 104 years old on July 28. (For the record, the Archbishop Emeritus Peter Leo Gerety of Newark, N.J., born July 19, 1912, is the oldest bishop in the world. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1939, three years after Msgr. Topper.)
“But I forget all these things,” the monsignor said matter-of-factly.
The elderly priest’s voice is strong and untouched by melancholy. The cares of old age don’t weigh upon him. To Msgr. Topper, there is little difference between the earthly life and life eternal, “because when you are ordained, you are in heaven.”
If that is true, then Msgr. Topper has spent the last 80 years in paradise. The Hanover, Pa., native was ordained by Bishop George Leech of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., on June 6, 1936.
But thoughts of heaven, brought on by the harsh reality of death, were on his mind long before he became a priest.
“We were a tubercular family,” explains the monsignor, the third of seven children born to Vincent and Flora Topper. Indeed, two brothers, one sister and his mother all died of tuberculosis, and Vincent himself was born with the disease.
“They didn’t expect me to live,” he said, and he was baptized on the day of his birth. “But God had another plan.”
That plan became evident when young Vincent, in second grade, surprised his parents by telling them that he wanted to become a priest instead of a businessman.
“They were amazed and pleased,” said Msgr. Topper, “but, at the same time, disappointed.”
“My father owned a department store,” he continued, “two blocks from the square in Hanover, and we were going to have stores in Bakerstown and Frederick.”
St. Vincent's Seminary
Those plans to expand the business had to be put on hold while arrangements were made for Vincent to attend Catholic high school. After graduating at age 15, Vincent was encouraged by his pastor to try to gain admittance to St. Vincent Archabbey and Seminary in Latrobe. Although the would-be seminarian was initially turned away, the college rector later agreed to admit Vincent on probation.
As a student, Vincent struggled with Latin and Greek, two subjects in which he lagged far behind his classmates. Through hard work and earnest prayer, the priest-to-be made such progress that he was formally accepted to the college at the end of the three-month probation period. He studied at St. Vincent’s for eight years.
As a young man, he had toiled for his place in the seminary, but when Msgr. Topper was asked whether he could still translate the Latin text of an old document, his reply came swiftly.
“Certainly!” he said.
Grasping the framed document in his hands, he translated aloud:
“By the grace of God and the Apostolic See …”
Since the day that he was presented with that certificate of ordination, Msgr. Topper has served six parishes under seven bishops and eight popes. When he retired as pastor in 1978, the bookkeeping skills he had learned under his father’s tutelage were put to good use: He became the auditor for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
At a Mass of thanksgiving celebrating the 80th anniversary of Msgr. Topper’s ordination, Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer spoke of the monsignor’s dedication to the priesthood.
“Anniversaries are not just about the passing of years; anniversaries are about fidelity over the course of the years, promises made and promises kept, sacramental grace received and sacramental grace abandoned to,” the bishop said. “This anniversary is about fidelity and cooperation with God’s grace.”
To Msgr. Topper, Bishop Gainer said, “God chose you, you said your ‘Yes,’ and for these 80 years, you have lived a faithful, selfless life as a priest.”
Msgr. Topper has said that he wants to be remembered as someone who either established or improved Catholic schools wherever he served. His founding of a school at St. Joseph’s in Milton, expansion of classrooms at St. Columba’s and purchase of a bus to transport children from St. Rita’s in Blue Ridge Summit to St. Andrew’s School in Waynesboro serve as a testament to the monsignor’s commitment.
St. Catherine Labouré
Msgr. Topper is currently in residence at St. Catherine Labouré, a parish of 6,000 located in Harrisburg. He is beloved by the parishioners, especially the children.
Bringing children to the faith remains one of Msgr. Topper’s greatest joys. The priest delights in the weekly visits of St. Catherine Labouré School students who come and pray the Rosary with him. Although the visits are scheduled only during the school year, some students choose to stop in and pray with monsignor during summer vacation.
This past April, St. Catherine Labouré Parish held its second “Topper Trot” 5K-and-1 mile “fun run” in honor of Msgr. Topper. Funds raised were put toward one of Monsignor’s favorite causes: tuition assistance for students at St. Catherine Labouré School. Last year’s race raised more than $10,000.
Bonnie Inscore, a parishioner at Msgr. Topper’s home parish of St. Joseph’s in Hanover, participated in this year’s Topper Trot.
“Monsignor’s involvement in the Topper Trot has been to greet the runners and give his blessing,” she said, “but it was such a cold day, with snow and wind chills in the low 20s, that I didn’t think we would see him. Sure enough, though, he came out wrapped in blankets and took the microphone. His voice really belied his age. He was as clear and audible as could be.”
Msgr. Topper’s popularity extends beyond the confines of St. Catherine Labouré. Facebook users one-fifth the monsignor’s age would envy the social-media presence of the 103-year-old priest, whose jubilee photo on the parish Facebook page garnered 64,249 reactions, comments and shares.
Some people say that long life is supported by adherence to a strict daily schedule. Among them is the world’s oldest priest, Belgian Father Jacques Clemens, who just celebrated his 107th birthday. Perhaps Msgr. Topper’s own longevity can be partly attributed to a regular routine. Four days of the week, he says Mass in the rectory chapel, and on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, he concelebrates Mass from his wheelchair at the Shrine Church of St. Catherine Labouré. Before retiring at 10pm, Monsignor relaxes by watching game shows and playing a few rounds of solitaire on his computer.
Woven throughout all of Msgr. Vincent Topper’s days is what, in his letter that was included in the program for his 80th anniversary Mass, the faithful priest calls "a deepening awareness of God’s presence.”
“[It is] one of the gifts of old age. It is his way of getting our undivided attention! It moves you to deeper prayer and reflection. What will I say I have done with my life when I stand before God? My answer will be: I tried to be a good priest and to bring others to Christ. It might sound simple, but it’s what it all comes down to.”
Register correspondent Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.