Catholic Virginian Article

Living a Vocation for 60 Years:
Msgr. Chet Michael at 85 keeps a busy ministry

by Steve Neill of The Catholic Virginian
(Published in The Catholic Virginian, Richmond, Virginia, April 15, 2002. Reprinted with permission.)
Msgr. Chester Michael, known to thousands of people for his many years of retreat ministry and spiritual direction institutes, will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood Saturday, April [6], with Mass at Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville.

Now 85 and living in a rural area of Nelson County, 25 miles southwest of Charlottesville, he is busy writing, gives individual spiritual direction to many people who see him on a regular basis, and does about five week-long retreats a year as well as weekend retreats. And when he is able, he presides at Mass on weekends when the priest has had to be absent from the parish.

Born in Berkeley Springs, W. Va. on Oct. 17, 1916, Chet Michael was the fourth of five children. He and his younger sister, Marie Zacharias of Richmond, are the only ones still alive.

The Michael family grew up on a farm 10 miles from Berkeley Springs, which at that time was within the Diocese of Richmond. The house had no electricity and running water. Perhaps he was predestined to be a priest because of his mother’s assurance that this would happen.

“The interesting thing is I was the youngest boy of four sons and my mother would always introduce me as her youngest son who is going to be a priest,” Msgr. Michael said. “She died in 1966 at 81 and I always regret that I never asked her why she said that.”

The Michael family attended Mass only twice a month because Berkeley Springs was a mission until a permanent parish, St. Vincent de Paul, was established in 1931.

“Father Jim McConnell was our first pastor and he came in my last year of high school,” Msgr. Michael said. “I remember Father McConnell going through the Baltimore Catechism. He also said ‘this is the first time you’ve had a chance to visit the Blessed Sacrament regularly.’

“I would leave school (Bath District High School) at lunchtime and spend the noon hour praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I’d be the only one in the church.

“During those visits it was that I decided to enter the seminary. In high school I saw the good, the value that was there in ministering to people. This was a way of taking God seriously.

“I took a commercial course in high school–typing, bookkeeping, but I still took as much Latin as they had.”

He entered St. Charles Seminary in Baltimore and spent five years there, graduating with a master’s degree in philosophy. He then had four years of theology studies at Theological College of Catholic University of America.

Msgr. Michael was ordained a priest on Easter Monday, April 6, 1942 with three other men, all of whom have since died (Fathers Joseph Heye, John McGilley and William McGonigle). The ordination date had been moved up because the country had entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“A number of priests had to go into the service because they were Army Reserve,” Msgr. Michael explained. “They had been chaplains with the Civilian Conservation Corps.”

His first priestly assignment was on the Diocesan Mission Band with residence at the old St. Mary’s parish in downtown Richmond. The project involved three priests who would travel to rural areas of the diocese where there was little or no Catholic presence. The effort sought more to dispel anti-Catholic bigotry than to promote conversion to the Catholic faith.

“There were some people who had never met a Catholic. You never knew what it would be like when you went to a new place,” Msgr. Michael said. “Each community had its own distinct personality. In some places you encountered hostility and in other places they’d welcome you with open arms.”

He recalled an elderly Czech Catholic woman, Mrs. Kabel, who spoke broken English but was beloved by the entire community of Green Bay in Prince Edward County because of her kindness to people.

“Everybody knew that Mrs. Kabel would sit up all night with someone who was sick,” Msgr. Michael said.

The three priest would stay two weeks in a community during the summer and show movies each night to crowds of people in those pre-television days. The project was disbanded in 1960 because crowds thinned when most people had TV at home.

The priests initially began their two-week missions on a Saturday, but soon learned that on Sunday mornings some of the Protestant ministers would urge members of their congregation to avoid the Catholic priests. “So we would begin the missions on a Monday and more people came,” Msgr. Michael said.

Among his many memories of the Diocesan Mission Band was an invitation from a black Baptist minister to speak to his congregation about the role of the pope and his ascendancy from the reign of St. Peter. He and Father Vernon Bowers, another of the priests assigned to the Mission Band, spoke at the small church in Zuni.

“As we spoke people in the church would shout “Amen! Amen!'” Msgr. Michael said. “Vernon and I had a contest to see who would get the most ‘Amens.'”

His next assignment was at St. Vincent’s, his home parish in Berkeley Springs, where he went in September 1952. His father, who had never become a Catholic although he went to Mass and sat at the back of the church with another non-Catholic man each Sunday, had died in 1947.

“Dad had a policy, ‘You never go back on your word,'” Msgr. Michael said. “He promised his mother on her deathbed that he would never become a Catholic and he didn’t.”

Msgr. Michael was named pastor of St. Bede’s in Williamsburg in June 1953. After six years there he was asked by Bishop Russell to become rector of the new St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland County. The seminary was opened in September 1960 for high school boys who showed an interest in becoming priests. He served at the seminary four years until 1963 when he was assigned as pastor of Holy Comforter in Charlottesville for nine years.

After serving as a priest for 30 years, Msgr. Michael studied for a doctorate in theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He was away for three years and on his return to the diocese he was assigned as director of Genesis House, a retreat center on the grounds of St. John Vianney. (The minor seminary closed in 1978.) Msgr. Michael remained at Genesis House until 1984 when he retired at age 67.

“I was having constant chest pains,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘you’re going to have to get out of here if you’re going to survive.'”

As he looks back on 60 years of priesthood, Msgr. Michael sees three aspects of the vocation.

“First the priest is a reconciler and peacemaker,” he said. “The priest brings together people who’ve been alienated.

“Second, the priest is a prophet, a teacher. And third, the priest is the servant leader, the administrator.

“Of the three, I feel it’s the second one to which I’ve been especially called by God.”

The years since his retirement have been the happiest of his priesthood, Msgr. Michael says.

“I’d say my years of retirement have been the happiest years because I’m free to choose my own ministries and I’ve chosen ministries that have been productive,” he explained. “It’s the response that you get from the people that’s so meaningful.”

He is excited about the Spiritual Directors Institute in which students meet at all-day sessions monthly at Incarnation in Charlottesville.

“I currently have 76 people in two classes,” Msgr. Michael said. “There are four Methodist ministers, a Baptist minister and a Church of the Brethren minister in my classes right now.

“I’m pretty much booked up for the whole year,” he said, pointing out that he will be giving a retreat all of Holy Week at Tabor Retreat Center in Lynchburg, one of five retreats he will give this year.

He continues to write and published four books last year. His Open Door booklet is published once a year and sent to 900 people on a mailing list.

“I got tired of the high cost of books so I decided to publish them myself and sell them at a reasonable rate,” he said.

Although he retired early because of potential medical problems, Msgr. Michael is in relatively good health today at 85. He holds to a good diet and gets plenty of exercise and sufficient sleep at night.

“I say 15 decades of the rosary every morning when I take my walk,” he said. “I walk to the top of Ennis Mountain or I walk down to the bottom of the hill and back. I haven’t had a cold all winter.

“I need exercise every day, but I can’t overdo it,” he continued. “The only medicine I take is an aspirin every other day to keep my blood thin.

“The thing I’m most thankful for is I have my good health and my memory. I can’t thank God enough. As long as the Lord continues to give me good health, I’ll continue to minister.”