A joyful crowd of more than 400 people from around the state gathered Sept. 28 at St. John’s Seminary in Camarilloto honor five men as St. John’s 2014 Distinguished Alumni.
San Fernando Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, Monsignors Helmut Hefner and Norman Priebe, Father Thomas Peacha and Michael Clements received their awards at the seventh annual awards event.All received theological formation from St. John’s, and have served the church in areas of faith-based community organizing, parish ministry, diocesan leadership and (in the case of Msgr. Hefner, as St. John’s rector from 2001-07) forming new generations of priests.
This year’s dinner — bringing the number of honorees to 35 since its founding in 2008 — coincides with the seminary’s 75th anniversary year and its three-year pledge campaign to help underwrite funding for the nearly-completed renovations of the seminary’s St. Joseph’s Dormitory as well as support the ongoing formation of priests and lay ministers attending St. John’s.
“Over these years, thousands of men have lived, worked, studied and discerned the call of God to service in his church here at St. John’s,” noted Msgr. Marc Trudeau, rector, in his welcoming remarks to guests seated at outdoor tables following a reception outside the chapel, where Archbishop José Gomez had presided at a solemn vespers service. “Many went on to be ordained priests and became pastors, confessors, formers of community through Word and Sacrament.”
The award recipients he added, “represent the best in leadership, witness to the Gospel and humble service, the hallmarks of what St. John Paul meant when he quoted Jeremiah, ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart,’ and what Pope Francis means when he calls us to be shepherds with the smell of the sheep. We are honored by their presence.”
In introducing Clements (vice president of Justice in Education, a Santa Ana organization serving families of children with disabilities), Natividad Chavira characterized his good friend as an accomplished trainer and organizer who has worked with poor communities in Texas and all over Southern California.
“The best way to describe Mike is to say that he is a Gospel ‘love and justice man’ who has spent his whole life expectantly working among and giving hope to the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the strangers — the immigrants,” said Chavira, general counsel of Justice in Education.
“Deep rootedness in family and deep ties of friendship are hallmarks of this man,” said Msgr. Craig Cox of Msgr. Hefner, pastor emeritus of St. Mel in Woodland Hills, who preceded Msgr. Cox as St. John’s rector, and was only 11 months old when his family left their home in the former Yugoslavia in 1943 for a refugee camp in Austria, immigrating to the U.S. in 1955.
Describing his friend as a person who has a profound friendship with Jesus, Msgr. Cox added that Msgr. Hefner “is truly a priest, a pastor; one who knows his people, loves them dearly, serves them enthusiastically…[and] pours himself out for them.”
In introducing Father Peacha, pastor emeritus of Holy Trinity in Los Angeles, Msgr. Trudeau commented: “If you would ask any priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to name a few priests that they know as pastors, Father Tom would be top of the list” for his willingness to be of service.
As a young priest at St. James the Less in La Crescenta, Msgr. Trudeau would see pastor Father Peacha visiting Catholic high schools to hear confessions. “You expect the young priests to do this, but Father Tom was always there — hearing confessions, celebrating Eucharist and [attending] community get-togethers. Father Thomas Peacha is a pastor’s pastor.”
Reflecting back to his first pastor, Msgr. Priebe, Father Mark Warnstedt (pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Downey) said Msgr. Priebe showed him how to be a priest.
“Father Norm told me nothing that I remember in those four years,” smiled Father Warnstedt, “but in those four short years, he showed me how to love God, love my priesthood and, most importantly, how to love God’s people. And he learned those gifts here at St. John’s.”
In canvassing friends about honoree Bishop Wilkerson, Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson (pastor of St. Monica in Santa Monica and 2010 Distinguished Alumni awardee) said the bishop was referred to as a priest’s priest, a collaborator, a visionary, a man of prayer and spirituality and a person open to taking risks, among other accolades.
“I think you’re a pastor,” said Msgr. Torgerson to his St. John’s classmate and friend for nearly 60 years. “I’m proud of you as the class of 1965; I’m proud of you as a dear, dear friend; and I’m so grateful to you for the gift and the grace and the blessing that you give to so many people: that great gift of being a pastor.”