Meet the Priest Fabricating a Stairway to Heaven

Michigan chaplain witnesses through a strong vocation — and welding.

Father Dominic Couturier, chaplain and welding instructor at Harmel Academy of the Trades, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, enjoys arc welding, training future welders — and being a priest.
Father Dominic Couturier, chaplain and welding instructor at Harmel Academy of the Trades, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, enjoys arc welding, training future welders — and being a priest. (photo: Courtesy of Father Dominic Couturier)

Sparks fly, dropping bright glints of light around the piece of metal.

A metal worker is fabricating his latest project.

But with a clerical collar visible under his coveralls, this isn’t an ordinary welder doing the arc welding.

This welder happens to be a priest: Father Dominic Couturier, chaplain and welding instructor at Harmel Academy of the Trades, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How did he come to combine his love of making metal malleable and shepherding souls?

“I was a semi-pro athlete, I had a girlfriend, and, when I was 33, God came crashing into my life more fully and told me he wanted me as a priest,” Father Couturier, 44, told the Register.

“I’ve only been a priest for four years. I know a lot about business and metal fabrication, but I’m still working on being a holy pastor of souls.”

“Our family business, Couturier Iron Craft Inc., officially started in 1967. My grandfather started it after World War II with his GI grant money,” Father Couturier explained.

“My dad left college after his freshman year to help. Later, my uncles did so too.” Ever since he was a little boy, he recalled, he was “champing at the bit to be in there with the other guys.”

Now pastor of Our Lady of Consolation in Rockford, Michigan, his journey to the priesthood was unique, to say the least. Working in his family’s architectural metal fabrication company through middle school and high school, he earned a business degree in college and continued with the business, moving up from sweeping floors to being a lead fabricator and then project manager. Soon, he was on the board of directors — at age 28. “I learned to be disciplined, to wake up early, do things you didn’t want to do, for family, for clients, for employees,” he said.

At the family company that specializes in architectural metal fabrication products for the commercial industry, such as monumental curved stairways, Father Couturier learned how to run crews, including estimating and finance, and guide via strategic management. But before he had such focus, he allowed his faith to fall to the wayside.

“I checked out of being Catholic when I was 15 or 16 and came back in my late 20s,” he said. “I’ve always had a deep moral compass; I’ve always known there was a God. But I was more of an agnostic after college. I moved to Colorado after college for a few years and worked in construction. I loved sports and skiing, but found that I was beginning to get sucked into the secular party culture of the big Colorado ski towns in the mountains.”

Finding himself drawn into this lifestyle, he was worried that his moral compass was becoming disoriented. “So I went back home.” Afterward, he had an intense experience of God as a personal God, which he had doubted was possible as an agnostic. “But journeying back to the Catholic faith had to take a few more years.”

“It was St. Ignatius of Antioch’s writing on the Eucharist that really brought me back to Catholicism,” he shared. “I kept developing my relationship with God, thinking that I was called to marriage. But at a certain point, I realized that he was calling me to the priesthood. It’s a call to fight the good fight.” He got involved in apologetics and found that teaching high schoolers about sexual morality was necessary. “I felt the need to teach high schoolers about what authentic sexuality, human identity and dignity was so that the secular world would not eat them up.” Understanding the theology of the body better led him to a deeper love for the Blessed Sacrament. He went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and to Rome, and then had a very intense dream in 2012. “I was beginning to have a devotion to John Paul II. And in this dream, John Paul II and I were at an Italian diner. The Pope says to me, ‘I’m hungry,’ and I say, ‘Me too.’ Then he says, ‘Go feed the people.’” The soon-to-be priest took this to be a reference to the Eucharist.

So he set about selling his house, which he had just built, breaking up with his girlfriend, and disengaging from the family business.

“I went to the seminary and knew that I wasn’t so much of an academic. I thought I would never play baseball again, never go mountain bike racing, or do welding ever again.” But he arrived at seminary and discovered lots of other seminarians liked such pursuits too.

Speaking with Father Robert Barron (now Bishop Barron), then rector at Mundelein Seminary, Father Couturier said, “I’ve given up everything to come here.” And Father Barron, as he recalled, replied, “Why would you give up all these things that make you who you are? You don’t need to do that.” And so the now-seminarian found that when “you give everything to God, he gives it back.”

In seminary, he started a baseball team and taught other seminarians welding and carpentry.

In seminary, he also discovered the extraordinary form of the Mass. “When I was a deacon I received permission to learn the 1962 Missal, and learning that tradition was important to me. These deep traditions that we’ve lost in the Church and which are now coming back through young priests like myself are very masculine, including the traditional form of the Mass. Maybe that’s why I like it.” Remembering the first time he ever attended a Latin Mass, he recalled how he “couldn’t believe how strong, holy and beautiful it was.”

In 2018, a year before being ordained to the diaconate, he heard about the future Harmel Academy. “I’m at my parents’ house. Dr. Nathan Schmiedicke, a longtime friend of my family, is talking to my dad about Harmel Academy. ‘It’s going to be a Catholic trade school.’ My attention was riveted.” Schmiedicke, a Scripture scholar, seminary professor and farmer, was part of Harmel’s founding team. He put the seminarian in touch with the other founders.

“I got involved, my dad’s business got involved, and everything fell in place,” Father Couturier recalled. “I love teaching at the academy, whether it’s spiritual formation or welding.”

Priest and welder
Priest and welder(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Not only that, he realized that he “wanted to bring back men to the Church. At Harmel, we form men to be on fire — not just workers, to be manly men. You are going to have to learn how to be a father, and how to fight for your faith, through prayer, study and fraternity. It’s not just a trade, but learning to be an apprentice to the Master, Jesus Christ,” he said.

Teaching the next generation of welders
Teaching the next generation of welders(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Thus Harmel gives Father Couturier a unique opportunity to practice the trades and form fellow men in Catholic ideals.

Bishop David Walkowiak of Grand Rapids emphatically champions Harmel in his diocese and was immediately supportive of Father Couturier’s involvement.

Now, the welder-priest helps with Harmel’s formation and development — and welding training. “Since I was ordained in 2020, I’ve been their chaplain. God is really leading us,” he said.

“It’s a great time to be Catholic, a great time to be a saint. We have to dig our heels down into the dirt and tell the secular world that they won’t push us around anymore, for we’ll resist with love.”