FOWLER, Mich. — The New York Times doesn’t normally write about priestly vocations.
Then again, it’s not often that two brothers — identical twins, at that — get ordained to the priesthood on the same day.
“We knew it would make some news,” said Agnes Koenigsknecht about her sons Gary and Todd. “But even we were surprised by all the attention it received.”
Reporters and television cameras were on hand at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Lansing, Mich., to witness the twins getting ordained together on June 14.
For a family raised with a strong sense of German-Catholic humility, all the attention has been a little embarrassing at times.
“We were ordained with three other classmates, and we apologized to them for stealing any limelight. We know that there is nothing particularly special about us, beyond being twins. But we do pray that God uses our being twins for his glory,” said Father Gary.
“So, on the one hand, we’re grateful to God for the opportunity to talk to some people about Jesus on a different level — but just to remember that it’s nothing special about us. It’s just a circumstance that God put us in,” Father Gary added.
It was a circumstance that these young men discerned on their own. In fact, neither knew that the other was also considering the priesthood.
“They did both have their own call to the priesthood,” said mom Agnes. “Each did not know about the other until well after both had made their decision. The Lord does not call one to follow the other, but for each to follow him as they are called.”
As early as fifth grade, their parents thought that God could be preparing each of them for a vocation to the priesthood.
“But it had to be their own decision,” said Agnes. “All we do is support them.”
As surprising as it is to see twin brothers both become priests, perhaps even more amazing is how small villages in central Michigan have produced so many vocations. The Koenigsknechts live in Fowler, which has a population of just 1,214. Nearby Westphalia has 972 residents.
And yet these tiny towns have given the Church 44 vocations to the priesthood, along with dozens of religious sisters as well. Parishes and dioceses interested in more vocations might wonder just what’s in the water here.
“There’s no silver bullet, no secret recipe,” said Father Todd.
He did acknowledge that the neighboring villages are nearly all German, Catholic and full of farmers.
But many ethnic Catholic enclaves dot the American landscape, and they have not seen a vocations boom like Westphalia and Fowler.
Maybe it just comes down to priorities.
“The Church is central to our family — always,” said their father, Brian Koenigsknecht. “We’ve always let them play sports, but that’s always second to church.”
Vocations have always been a priority for families in this area. And if you want vocations, it helps to pray for them as a community.
Brian Flynn moved to Westphalia in 1999 to start a family with his wife, who grew up in the town. He has been active with youth ministry with St. Mary’s in Westphalia. Education and devotion have been the keys to vocational success in these villages, said Flynn.
“I have worked here for almost 15 years,” said Flynn. “We have put a lot of effort into youth outreach for those 15 years. We have offered them a regular sacramental life, along with Eucharistic adoration. We have used solid catechetical nickel resources and have involved young adults in our outreach to youth as much as possible.”
Father Gary agreed that communal prayer is a crucial component. Every Wednesday, the parish has a “Holy Hour for Vocations,” followed by an evening Mass, he said. But he added that it’s also important to speak to young men about the priesthood in order to let them know it’s an option.
“You can’t choose something you don’t know about,” said Father Gary. If the notion of the priesthood is never discussed or considered, “then they can’t recognize the call.”
The father of the new priests agreed about the importance of a Catholic education. The twins went to Catholic school from grades four to eight (although, now, the school begins at first grade).
“That was a priority, and that check came out of the budget first — no questions asked,” said dad Brian.
For a family of 12, having two boys enter seminary was a financial challenge — one that was answered by the entire community. While the cost of major seminary is covered by the local diocese, much of the cost of attending minor seminary “is covered in the usual way: scholarships, loans, parents,” Agnes explained. “We always covered all of their personal needs, plus their traveling expenses, so that all money donated went directly to their education.”
The Catholics of Westphalia and Fowler supplemented their prayers for those pursuing priestly vocations with direct financial support. Because, ultimately, these new priests are for the community.
“We recognize that it’s not just a celebration for our family,” said Agnes. “It’s a celebration for the whole community.”
So when the brothers held their reception a day after their ordination, it didn’t matter that it was Father’s Day. Just about everyone took time out from celebrating their own dads to congratulate these two new “Fathers.”
A woman in line for a blessing was a nurse who was in the delivery room the very moment they were born.
“It has been very humbling,” said Father Todd. “People have been volunteering their time. So many people have sent along notes saying that they’re praying for you.”
writes from Michigan.