European Official Warns Against U.S. Pro-Lifers

Major challenges are nothing new to Father Dan Farley. Today's top priority: forging a single parish — St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Amherst, Wis. — out of the four Badger State churches he's served single-handedly since 2000.

Yesterday's? Getting his ordination day “postponed” from 1984 to 1998. Any given month, it might be driving the 3,000 or so miles it takes to serve his 350-square mile parish.

That doesn't include bike rides to parishioners’ homes for friendly visits or to farms on which he pitches in, when he can, with the chores.

“I was told this was a dying community,” Father Farley says, looking back on his arrival and recalling how some residents were attracted to large churches miles to the east and west. Even when the population took a slight upswing after years of decline following the farm crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s, church membership stayed down.

That's not the case anymore, according to Bob Helbach, a parishioner all his 60 years. “Since he's been here a lot of young people have joined the parish and a number of the young people we've lost over the years are coming back,” says Helbach. “Little children in church will pretty much behave themselves and listen.” He “really reaches everybody” — young, old and in-between, adds Helbach.

“He's funny,” proclaims a beaming 11-year-old named Audrey Sanders. Her father, John Sanders, was a member of one of the four churches for 30 years; her mother, Kris, for 13.

Most of his people know that Father Farley is also a chaplain for the National Guard. A dead giveaway: the military-ready Humvee in which he occasionally pulls up for Mass.

“He can really catch your interest and has such a way of explaining the Scriptures and our faith that makes it easy to understand,” says parishioner Kris Sanders. “You can see that he has such a love for God and he's a light for God.”

Adds Helbach: “I've never met a priest with more faith than he's got.”

Daily Routine

Father Farley, who points to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as a “major influence,” gets up around 5:30 a.m. to make a holy hour before daily Mass. He makes sure the day ends in quiet prayer, too. In between, he translates contemplation into action. From the start, he instituted a Sunday-evening holy hour for the parish to pray for “ongoing conversion of our community as well as a deepening conversion of our own hearts.”

When people had been told their small size was their downfall, “I told them that's their strength,” Father Farley says. “We all know each other better.” One proof came as the new Family Life Committee scheduled events to bring families closer together with each other and as a parish. The first, held in the middle of a bone-chilling Wisconsin winter, drew more than triple the expected attendance.

“He knows how to gather people. He really reaches out to the community, to everybody,” says Sanders. “He's trying to start different ministries because he wants our parish to be a center of ministries so our group can reach out to others.”

One ministry, a parish prayer chain, quickly drew 60 members. Each Sunday Mass, Father Farley reports the answers to the prayers. “In one week alone, there were three miracles,” he says. In one, he explains, a young child about to have a cancerous kidney removed in a major hospital was re-tested. No trace of cancer was detected. The surgery was canceled.

One Friday a month, during Eucharistic adoration, Father Farley spends noon to 6:45 p.m. hearing confessions. Then come Mass and a healing service.

Outreach of all kinds has started. Even the rural reaches of the Midwest have their share of marital difficulties, family conflicts, substance-abuse problems and homosexual struggles. Father Farley involves parishioners as partners in the parish outreach efforts. And they're responding. As John Sanders sees it: “He's on fire with the Holy Spirit, and it's very catchy to everyone else.”

Bill Sommers, a 30-year parishioner, seconds the opinion.

“Our Family Life program is flourishing, and we owe that all to him,” adds Sommers. “Outreach to the elderly, home visitations — all this has started since Father Farley has been here.”

“He's invigorated us all,” adds Sommers. “He's the spark that's ignited a fire in our parish.”

According to Father Farley, his ministerial priesthood was a long time coming. “By second grade, I knew this was the vocation God was calling me to,” he says. He hoped to be ordained in 1984, but his response hit a roadblock: epilepsy.

His quest took him from praying in his hometown, Chippewa Falls, Wis., to teaching in a Jesuit high school in Omaha, Neb., to meeting in Los Angeles with the Salesians. His first job in Southern California was as a security guard in the 1984 Olympics; later he landed a job as a manager with an international company. His office overlooked downtown L.A. and Beverly Hills.

But, he says, “I knew the Salesians of St. John Bosco was the direction I wanted to go.” In pre-novitiate, he worked in the Boys and Girls Clubs in East L.A., in detention facilities and with street gangs. After four years, with epilepsy still the issue, he was told to consider diocesan priesthood.

Hoping to explore a vocation with the Diocese of San Bernardino, he met a neurologist with an experimental epilepsy program at UCLA. Result? Father Farley was cured of seizures.

Not surprisingly, he sees the hand of God behind his move to California. “At the heart of all this was this nudge,” he says — the sense that God was saying, “It's time to go home.” He returned to his own diocese of LaCrosse, Wis.

Growing Pains

Today Father Farley's big challenges are twofold: building St. Maximillian Kolbe Church from those four rural parishes he's been shuttling between and somehow raising the funds to construct the sorely needed new sanctuary.

Why sorely needed? Because the parish is growing even before it's built. Two new families joined in 2000, 14 the next year. So far, 26 new families have been added to the rolls. “It's just the beginning,” says the enthusiastic priest.

His high energy will be an invaluable asset in the coming months. Already three of the four churches are closed. And already St. Maximilian Kolbe is spiritual home to 240 families.

“Father Farley has done an outstanding job uniting the parishioners,” notes Bishop Raymond Burke, who heads the LaCrosse Diocese. “He has a very dynamic and generous way of serving the parishioners and this has really brought them together.”

He's up to all challenges. Even without the numbers or wealth to accomplish what's needed, Father Farley is unwaveringly hopeful. He's committed to the rural parish where he can know everyone by name, be personally involved with couples in marriage preparations and give special attention to boys interested in the priesthood. “One of our parishioners,” he says with obvious fatherly pride in his voice, “is being ordained this June.”

“He's an instrumental mentor,” says Bill Sommers. “My son Alex, who's 14, is contemplating becoming a priest. He watches Father Dan, sees holiness in him and wants to imitate that holiness.”

If there could be higher praise than that for a priest, the Church has yet to articulate it.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

Editor's note: Father Dan Farley welcomes e-mail. Write to him at [email protected]