Biography of Msgr. Chet

(This biographical sketch was written by Marie Norrisey and W. Rosser Muir in April 1992.)


“People can’t die, along the coast,” said Mr. Peggotty, “except when the tide’s pretty high out. They can’t be born, unless it’s pretty high in — not properly born ’till flood. He’s going out with the tide.” He remained there watching him a long time — hours . . . “Barkis, my dear”, said Peggotty, “look here’s Master Davy!” He opened his eyes. I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he stretched out his arm, and said to me distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

[David Copperfield, Chapter 29 ]
Monsignor Chester P. Michael is far from ready to got out with the tide, but there certainly have been ebbs and flows in his life. How often have we heard him say, with a smile, “Barkis is willin!'” We have always understood this to mean that he is open to whatever God wills for him.

Now, after fifty momentous years of service in the priesthood, Chester Paul Michael is at the crest of the tide. It is appropriate to salute him with a review of his long and distinguished life. Consequently, we have contacted some of those who know him well and they have shared their memories.

Given a time frame of three months, this search has been limited, but we wish to thank the following persons who have assisted us: Marie Michael Zacharias (his sister); Reverend Vernon Bowers (co-worker on the Mission Band); Doris S. Peet (parishioner of Saint Bede Church, Williamsburg); Mary and Roy Alexander (past Diocesan Chairpersons of the Cursillo Secretariat); Laura and Robert Bookheimer (friends of Genesis House and the Cursillo Movement); Mary Jo Muir (redactor).



G. K. Chesterton once said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews!” God’s call of one person to the priesthood is equally puzzling. Some of the most unlikely of men, given their background and temperaments, have become priests. Many fit into the mold: both parents Catholic, middle class, urban, educated by the nuns. Chester Michael’s situation was quite different.

Though he did not practice a specific religion, his father, Luther Michael, was a baptized Methodist, who had promised his mother, on her deathbed, never to convert to Catholicism. Chester’s mother, Carrie, was a very devout Catholic. The family lived on a farm in remote Rock Gap, West Virginia; and travel to the church in Berkeley Springs, ten miles away, was difficult. Therefore, although Chester was born on October 17, 1916 on the family farm, he did not arrive at the baptismal font until March 25, 1917 because the roads in this rural community were so bad. Their church, St. Vincent’s, was a mission of St. Joseph’s in Martinsburg. Priests from Martinsburg took the train to Berkeley Springs twice a month to do what they could to keep the faith alive in the largely non-Catholic area.

Chester’s formal education took place in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse. He was not yet five years old when he trudged off to West Branch School. His teacher was Milo Henry, whom he came to look upon as a second father during the six years he spent at West Branch School. Chester was precocious and did very well in his studies. He skipped not only third grade but also eighth; having passed the diploma test in the seventh grade, he was promoted directly into high school.

Of the five Michael children: Rodwell, Belmont, Bradford, Chester, and Marie — only Chester and his younger sister had the privilege of a secondary education. “Learning,” however, was a valued pursuit in the Michael household. Luther Michael, whose schooling had ended after the sixth grade, continued to study on his own; and in the evenings, by the light of the kerosene lamp, he read to his young children. As they grew older, he presided over lively discussions about current events, extending the noonday meal by at least an hour. He also taught them, by example, the importance of hard work and self-discipline.

The family livelihood came from a hundred-twenty-acre farm and a tomato cannery. Luther was in partnership with his brother Milton. Milt took over the business management; Luther and his family worked the farm. Needless to say, the young Chester worked around his school schedule and throughout his vacations doing the necessary farm chores and helping with the summer canning of tomatoes. Habits of growing up don’t leave us; and even to this day Chester Paul Michael grows his own tomatoes and cans enough to carry him through the winter. His great joy is to get out and till his acre as soon as March appears.

On January 4, 1927, Chester’s sixteen-year-old brother, Belmont, died of quinsy, a severe inflammation of the throat. The Michael family was devastated. Marie remembers that Saturday morning well. “Chester and I were doing the dishes. When he heard the activity in the dining room, he went back in and returned to the kitchen crying. I did not understand death, of course, but cried because he cried. Belmont was a living saint. I feel he had a lot to do with Chester becoming a priest.” Undoubtedly this traumatic event had a deep and lasting effect on the sensitive ten-year-old Chester. Surely precocious as he was, he struggled with thoughts of life, death, and eternity. His father Luther, who had previously kept apart during evening prayer now, joined the family.

In 1928, for his first year at Berkeley Springs High School, arrangements were made for Chester to hitch a ride to classes with a neighbor in his Model T Ford. During his sophomore year, since his neighbor had graduated, Chester boarded with his paternal Uncle Albert in Berkeley Springs. Then in 1930 the Michaels bought a new Chevy automobile for $675. Because his father realized how lonely Chester had been staying away from family life the previous year, he was allowed to drive to and from school during his junior and senior years. On the coldest mornings, Luther would have the car warmed and ready to go for his studious son who had been up late poring over his books. Unbeknownst to him, the books that consumed Chester were novels which he devoured at the rate of one a night!

Luther’s love was shown in many other quiet ways and was a strengthening force. He demanded and received respect and obedience. Chester usually was a compliant son; but on one occasion, during his freshman year, he risked his father’s displeasure. Despite his father’s objections, but with his mother’s connivance, Chester met secretly with Mr. Scharmann, a Latin teacher, to learn the responses for Mass in preparation for becoming an altar boy. One Sunday morning, Luther, who regularly sat by himself in the rear of the church, was startled to see his fourth son emerge from the sacristy dressed in cassock and surplice. Nothing was said on the way home; but Luther’s pride was evident whenever someone complimented Chester on his new accomplishment. From that time on, Father Scanlon, the associate pastor, referred to Chester as a future priest.


It was no secret that Chester’s mother wanted him to enter the priesthood. She even introduced him as “my son, who one day will be a priest”; but beyond that she did not push the idea. However, a mother’s influence on a boy’s vocational choices is often quite subtle. Also, her deep faith and good example were bound to have an effect on the pious young man. In the summer of 1931, he wrote to the Third Order Regular in Loretto, Pennsylvania, expressing his desire to become a Franciscan monk. When Father McConnell, the new pastor, heard of this, he reacted quickly. To re-direct his young protege’s thinking, he took him to visit St. Charles College Seminary saying, “Virginia needs priests!”

At Berkeley Springs High School, Chester had been a brilliant student. He won honors in mathematics and was valedictorian of his graduating class. Throughout the four years he had alternated between three career choices: the federal government, teaching, and the priesthood. Through Father McConnell’s intercession, Chester was awarded a scholarship to St. Charles Minor Seminary in Catonsville, Maryland. For him, it was God’s call. In the fall of 1932, just shy of his sixteenth birthday, he set off for what was to be the worst year of his life.

At St. Charles, the faculty treated the seminarians like children. The food, or what there was of it, was unappetizing. They were not free to leave the campus without permission. During the school year they were allowed only rare visits from their families. It was the time of the national depression, and the Michael family made the trip only once. Needless to say, Chester’s feelings of homesickness were intense.

His father had given him an allowance of thirty dollars which was to last the year. Therefore, Chester rarely joined the parties and trips to the dairy for ice cream. The boys, most of them from the city, saw the “country hick” as fair game for jokes and pranks. To top all this, Chet, who had done so well all through school, was put back into third year high level because of deficiencies in Latin.

Years later, when he was appointed the first Rector of St. John Vianney Minor Seminary in Richmond, he drew on these memories to develop his leadership style.

The next year, having made up his two-year deficiency in Latin in one year, Chester was moved to the college level and things became a bit better. As ever, Chester was diligent at his studies; but he often felt lonely. Most of his classmates had previously formed fast friendships; and though he could relate to one or two lads, he never felt accepted. “Here,” says Father Vernon Bowers, “the good Lord was preparing Chet, in his early life, how to be a champion of the lonely, the different, the outcast, the under-dog of life.”

During Chet’s last year at St. Charles, Father McConnell once more intervened. He pushed Chester Michael for the prestigious Basselin Institute Scholarship, a coveted prize awarded only to the top fifteen applicants nationwide. This award entitled one to a three-year program in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Thus, in the fall of 1935, Chester Michael moved into Theological College under the direction of the Sulpician Fathers. “As with everything he did,” Father Bowers writes, “Chet entered into his studies with such abandoned energy, eager to learn about the great truths of nature and the nature of God.”

A professor at Catholic University of America, Speer Strachan, was not particularly popular but he was an exceptionally good writer. Chet persuaded Strachan to give him and two others a class in composition three times a week. Strachan required an original composition for every class. Chet’s facility in typing, learned in high school, along with this training gave the impetus for his career as writer.

As the 1937-38 school year came to an end, Bishop Peter L. Ireton made a visit to his protege at C.U.A. and asked: “Where would you like to study theology? Roland Park? Rome? Remain at Theological College?” The presence of Rector Anthony Vieban and Father Jules Baisnee, his spiritual director and also a superb teacher tipped the scales. He chose Theological College. Furthermore, a course leading to a Licentiate in Sacred Theology with emphasis on catechetics appealed to Chet. He felt this to be an important, though neglected, field. An added incentive came from the fact that “Jus” Vieban ran a rather relaxed seminary when compared with the others in the 1930s. There was time for extracurricular activities such as plays on campus, sightseeing trips, and even movies at a downtown theatre. Later, things tightened up a bit when a western bishop in Washington for the annual bishops’ conference met one of the seminarians in front of the Earl Theatre on Thirteenth Street. He asked the young man where he was going. The truthful answer brought predictable results.

There were only two big exams during the year: one in January, the other in May. Daily attendance in class was not a matter of scruples as long as one kept up with the work. Time saved this way was used by Chet to delve into the theological classics written by St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of The Cross, St. Francis de Sales, and others. His interests began to center on the spiritual life and spiritual direction, a predilection he was to have ever onward.

His time was full; and Chet was happy and absorbed in his studies. Summers, however, were another thing. When back at home in West Virginia, he was pulled in two different directions. Father “Mac” wanted him to teach religious education all morning. Then, from noon to dark, he worked on the family farm. By the fall of ’39 he was so exhausted that he suffered a breakdown and had to rest before resuming his studies. Concerned, Father Vieban sent him to a doctor in downtown Washington. As the fatigue lessened, Chet began to enjoy this freedom and would frequently delay returning to T. C. until he had done a bit of sight-seeing. It wasn’t long before Father Jus caught on. He threatened to send him home unless his health improved. A cure was effected immediately.

The following summer, Chet applied for the job of counselor at Camp Wakeham near Columbia, Virginia. It was run by the Diocese of Richmond under the direction of Father Bernard Moore. He was excited at the prospect of becoming a counselor, but “Barney” didn’t reply to his application. Finally, Chet received a telegram telling him to report the very day the message was delivered. He arrived at Camp Wakeham one day late. “Barney” immediately named him Head Counselor and promptly announced his own departure, leaving the astounded Chet in charge of a camp full of high-spirited boys. Chet re-enacted “Barney’s” coup many years later when he handed the keys of his church to a newly ordained priest and headed off for Notre Dame.

During the summer of 1941, after receiving the SubDeaconate, Chet alternated his vacation-from-studies period with some time with the Diocesan Mission Band and with the family at home.


Fr. Chet Michael
The sudden onrush of world events of December 1941 propelled Chet into an early ordination. With the country at war, priests were entering the service as chaplains, creating a vacuum in the parishes. Chet received notice that he would be ordained in April 1942. He had one month to review four years of theology. On March sixth, he took his Orals, was dispensed from the final semester, and was granted a S. T. L. in Catechetics. The following month on April sixth, Chester Paul Michael was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia.

Father Chet said his first Mass in his home parish in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. One can surmise the joy and pride that swelled his mother’s heart. Luther, no less happy and proud, when asked if he thought Chet did well, quipped: “Oh, anyone who can run a grain reaper and farm machinery should be able to do that pretty easily.”

At this time, The Ordinary of the Diocese, Bishop Peter L. Ireton, had a pet project. His goal was to break down prejudice and familiarize the people in the rural areas of Virginia with the Catholic religion. To that end, he organized a group of priests to serve as a Mission Band under the direction of Father Edward Stephens, who had been traveling throughout the state since 1936 in an attempt to accomplish this.

The Mission Band was given a specially built trailer, which opened in the back, displaying an altar and a pulpit. Appropriately, it was named “St. Mary of the Highway”. Bishop Ireton assigned the old St. Mary’s Church in downtown Richmond, which was going to be closed, as an operating base. From May through September, two of the priests took to the road for four weeks at a time. They returned for two weeks to St. Mary’s to assist in hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction, celebrating Mass, and leading novenas until it was time to go off on the next mission.

Father Chet’s first priestly assignment was to this Mission Band. He served enthusiastically and with total dedication for ten years. During that time he made many friends throughout the state of Virginia.

The Reverend Vernon Bowers, who worked alongside Father Chet during these years, gives this account of one particular mission. “We were concerned about how we would be received in Capron. Two priests with a mobile chapel, parking and preaching, were suspect,ยท especially in tobacco and peanut country. When the town appeared off in the distance, Chet solemnly made a great sign of the cross in the sky, covering the whole town.” And, all went well.

In fact, one day after Father Bowers had delivered a sermon on St. Peter; they were invited by the pastor of a nearby black Baptist congregation to repeat the talk to his flock. When finished with the mission in Capron, they drove over to the Shiloh Baptist Church, parking near a vast peanut field. Night fell, and the priests waited. Silently, one by one, cars began to fill the space in front of and around their chapel. When all movement stopped, they went into their routine. The sermon was delivered, they answered questions from a Question Box (which they themselves often had to stuff since their listeners seemed too shy to speak up), and then they showed the movie, “King of Kings”.

Throughout Father Bowers’ sermon, the air was punctuated with “Amen”, “Yes indeed”, “Yeah Man”, and “Alleluia”. Then, as silently as they came, the cars disappeared. Father Bowers remembers standing in the pitch-blackness wondering if they had made an impression. Then Father Chet said: “I bet in my sermon tomorrow I’ll get more ‘Amens’ and ‘Alleluias’ than you did.” The bet was on!!

Father Bowers continues: “The next night he spoke on our Lord’s love for his friends. He told them the story of Lazarus. Chet was so descriptive that (as he spoke) one could almost see Lazarus come walking out of the dark tomb, pulling at the bandages around his eyes. At this, a roar of ‘Alleluias’, ‘Amens’, and ‘Glory to God’ rose from the darkness. Chet won, hands down!”

In the summer of 1943, the gas shortage created by the war curtailed their trips. The Mission Band found an alternate need just fifty miles southwest of Richmond. Camp Pickett was swollen with GI’s preparing for action overseas. The well-known Redemptorist, Father Jake Schultz, gave the rookie priests on-the-job training in how to deal with the avalanche of dispensing the Sacraments to the thousands of Catholic soldiers. They carried on this duty into 1945.

During the winter months, Father Michael and the other priests of the Mission Band preached parish missions and gave retreats in most of the parishes of the Richmond Diocese. St. Mary’s Rectory in downtown Richmond, the home base of the Mission Band, became a focal point for spiritual direction and counseling for both Catholics and non-Catholics from all over the city. It was also the place where the poor could always receive help when in need.

The early nineteen-forties saw the beginning of the Alcoholics Anonymous Movement in Richmond. Father Michael along with his physician friend, Dr. Joseph Byrne, was among the leaders in establishing AA groups in the Richmond area, including a halfway house for recovering alcoholics.

While studying at Catholic University, Chet had attended the Summer School of Social Action and had been inspired by the dynamic Father John LaFarge. It is not surprising that in 1943 he was made chairman of the Priests’ Social Action Committee for the Diocese of Richmond. Among his responsibilities was the task of getting the speakers for a monthly meeting. Topics explored were interracial matters, labor, and the Papal encyclicals–controversial subjects in the South of the ’40s. At about the same time, Paul Williams, Msgr. Tom O’Connell, and Chet worked with the Catholic Committee of the South. Together they took train trips through the South to meet with other Catholics in an attempt to develop a sense of unity. In 1944 the priests of Motor Chapels from all parts of the South met in convention. The idea was catching on everywhere. Anti-Catholic prejudice was beginning to give way.

That same year, 1944, Chet was also named Director of the Rural Life Movement. Off he went to yet another convention, this time to examine ways to meet the different needs of rural Catholics in their growth in faith.

As Director of Rural Life, Chet came to know Monsignor Luigi Ligutti who had pioneered a rural Christian community in Granger, Iowa. This was part of the back-to-the-land movement begun in England by G. K. Chesterton, Eric Gill, and Father Vincent McNabb. In this country Msgr. Ligutti, along with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, established Catholic communities on the land. With the encouragement of Bishop Ireton, Father Michael endeavored to begin two such Christian communities on the land in the Diocese of Richmond: one on his family farm in West Virginia and the other on property Bishop Ireton bought at Aquia, Virginia. One of the first families to settle in the new community in West Virginia was the daughter and son-in-law of Dorothy Day. They lived in one of the tenant homes on the Michael farm and were frequently visited by Dorothy Day herself.

However, the Movement collapsed after a year or two. Father Michael succeeded in having Bishop Ireton invite Catherine Doherty of the Madonna House Apostolate to establish a Cana Colony for married couples at the Aquia, Virginia location. Madonna House conducted family retreats at the Cana Colony in Aquia for more than twenty-five years.

By the end of World War II, in 1945, there were numerous displaced persons in Europe who desired to come to the United States. Chet became involved when he was appointed Director of Displaced Persons in the Diocese of Richmond. He was able to find homes in the Diocese of Richmond for over a thousand Displaced Persons. Many of them still remember well how he helped them to begin a new life.

Concurrently with his involvement with Social Action, Rural Life and Displaced Persons, he was made Director of Family Life for the Diocese. This entailed much traveling. Each December he attended the Catholic Action Movement Convention which was held in Chicago and out of which grew the Christian Family Movement.

During this period, as a result of his interest in the goals of the CFM, he conducted Cana Conferences for married couples as well as Pre-Cana Conferences for those about to be married. These he gave throughout the Diocese of Richmond but especially in the Northern Virginia Area. A special group called The Christophers, who formed the nucleus of an early social action group to give direct help to those in need, was promoted through his interest and help. Even today the people of this group are still doing good works, and many of their progeny have followed in their footsteps.


All the aforementioned activities and duties were carried on while he was still an active member of the Mission Band! In May 1952 Father Joseph Hodges, Director of the Mission Band and Chet’s close friend, was made Auxiliary Bishop of Richmond. And Chet, after ten years of missionary work, received a new assignment. He was sent home to Berkeley Springs as Administrator of St. Vincent’s Parish.
Father Philip Brennan, the pastor, had been ill and returned to Ireland to recuperate. Just before Christmas, Father Brennan came back from Ireland to resume his duties. Although still not fully recovered, he insisted on celebrating the Midnight Mass in spite of Chet’s admonitions that it might be too taxing. Father Brennan had a stroke the day after Christmas and died on the second of January. Chet stayed on as Administrator until the spring of 1953.

Much had changed since Chet left. His father had died, the farm had been sold, and Carrie Michael now lived next door to the church. One wonders about the loneliness he might have felt with the loss of the farm as home base and the different status he had on returning home.


St. Bede’s Church in Williamsburg was a little gem of a parish. Built by the Benedictines in true colonial style, it borders on the edge of the campus of William and Mary College. Among the diocesan clergy, it was considered a prize to be had. Bishop Ireton, always eager to reward the graduates of his Mission Band, bestowed St. Bede’s upon Father Chester Michael in 1953.

Father Michael was a sharp contrast to his immediate predecessor, Father Thomas Walsh, who was highly cultured, urbane, and courtly in manner. His sermons had “gravitas.” Chet’s were down to earth and challenging to the occupant of “the comfortable pew.” A parishioner, Doris “Stevie” Peet, says, “Father could cut to the heart of issues.” Once, she protested that she did not get anything out of Mass. Father Chet countered, “Getting something out of it is important, but it is secondary. The primary reason for being there is to worship your God.”

With time the nostalgia for Fr. Walsh waned and Fr. Michael began to make his mark. “As in all parishes”, Mrs. Peet continues, “father relied on the women to supply the church’s day-to-day needs. When all our children were pre-school age and our new pastor was young and full of zeal, he always had some project in the works. We would arrive at the rectory about 9:00 A.M., leading our little ones by the hand and ring the bell. Mrs. Geipel, Father’s housekeeper, would peer out the door at our motley crew, then swing around and shout up the steps, ‘Father, your Holy Marys are here!’ That name stuck.” Even to this day the Holy Marys make the trek to meet with him for spiritual renewal.

Partially through the efforts of the Holy Marys, but also because of his own interest and enthusiasm in learning and doing, he had success in establishing the Christian Family Movement in the Parish. Several units were created and flourished.

As pastor, Chet felt that the Catholics of Yorktown were a forgotten group. Many were in the military. He met and worked with them to give them a parochial identity. Under his direction, land was obtained and a church was built. It was named St. Joan of Arc in honor of the French support at the decisive battle of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.

The children also had a special share of his attention. He often took them on camping trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mrs. Peet remarks: “They had a glorious time, both boys and girls, but none of them could quite keep up with him. He was always first to the top, and not even winded!” One thing they remember well is his “Old Sock Stew” which was served on the last day. Teasing that he used all the old socks as a base, he made a big pot of stew and threw everything that was left over into it.

By 1957 it became evident, especially during the tourist season, that St. Bede’s was too small. What was he to do? Build a new church or enlarge the old structure? The reverence of the parishioners for their church made it a delicate choice. He decided to expand the building and, to preserve its character, he sought out the original architect. Jack Johnson was hired as builder and Father Michael acted as his own general contractor. The two wings off the main body of the church were extended, more than doubling the seating capacity. Everyone seemed pleased with the results.

Father Chet’s mother used to visit him often at St. Bede’s. Writing about these visits, “Stevie” Peet shows a side of him not often seen. “She was a dear old lady, talkative and friendly. She thought of him, I’m sure, as the thirteenth apostle. She spoke to him and of him with a solemnity one might accord the Pope and was most lavish in praising him. This embarrassed him at times, but he was never short with her or impatient. He would just smile and hug her with a tenderness he seldom exhibited.”

These were happy years for Chet. He loved his parishioners and they returned that love. His work among them lasted six years.

By the late ’50s, although unsuspected, an era was coming to an end. There were harbingers of change.

In 1958 two revered leaders of the Catholic Church died: Bishop Peter L. Ireton in Richmond and Pope Pius XII in Rome. Bishop John J. Russell of Charleston, South Carolina succeeded Ireton. At his installation, Bishop Russell noted that while he was in Venice he had seen the local Cardinal’s motto, “Obedientia et pax”. Within a few days, that same Cardinal, Angelo Roncalli, was elected Pope and became John XXIII. Upon hearing this news, Father Chet groaned, “They’ve elected an old man. The Church won’t change for years!”

Chester Michael had been in the forefront of change. At a 1955 retreat in the Great Smokies, he had met the famous Redemptorist, Father Bernard Haring, who steered him toward Notre Dame’s Summer courses by the Jungian psychologist, Father Josef Goldbrunner, and other courses in scripture and liturgy. Through his travels with Rural Life and CFM, he also made acquaintance with some of the well-known liturgists of the U.S. and elsewhere.

Upon his return from studies at Notre Dame, he began to introduce dialogue Masses with singing. Despite his less than average singing voice, Chet plowed through verse after verse of “Praise to the Lord”. The phone in the rectory often rang with inquiries as to the time of “the funny Mass”

When Pope Plus XII promulgated the new rite for Holy Week in 1953, Chet immediately introduced it that year at Berkeley Springs. For the first, and only time, he attempted to sing the Latin Exultet hymn; and consequently, when pastor at St. Bede’s, he recruited a small group of student priests from Catholic University to come to Williamsburg each year and sing the beautiful Latin Gregorian chants for all the Holy Week services. By giving the students free room and board they could spend their Easter vacation touring historic Williamsburg.

Liturgy (public prayer), as well as private prayer and lay spirituality, have always occupied his study and interest. Chet has always felt very strongly that the rituals and symbols of the Mass had to speak to and involve the congregation. He has spent his priestly ministry trying to educate Catholics into a greater appreciation and understanding of scripture and sacrament, ritual and symbol.


In the summer of 1959, Bishop Russell revealed his plan to open a minor seminary in Goochland County, West of Richmond. He chose Chester Michael as founding Rector of St. John Vianney Seminary. Undoubtedly, Bishop Hodges had suggested his friend’s name to the newly arrived Bishop Russell.

Opening a new seminary was a formidable task in itself but in addition he was appointed Director of Priestly Vocations and also named Administrator of St. Mary’s Church in Fredericksburg. Chet approached all these assignments with his usual willingness and energy.

Within a year he visited every minor seminary on the East Coast, talked to everybody who was anybody in seminary work, voraciously devoured every piece of literature on the subject of seminaries, went to every Catholic grade school in the Diocese, and sold the idea of attending this seminary.

He consulted with the architect on the new building, chose the faculty of five teachers, and recruited about eighty prospective seminarians through personal contact. St. John Vianney opened on time, in September 1960. A Vice Rector, a layman as Business Manager assisted Chet, and the Benedictine Sisters from Bristow, Virginia assisted as support staff. It was an exciting time and everything went smoothly. Chet was given full powers to set up schedules, establish discipline, plan liturgies, and determine lifestyle. 1960 to 1962 were truly honeymoon years for Chet and the Seminary.

Bishop Russell had loved his days at St. Charles Seminary and he wanted this seminary molded after the older institution. On the other hand, Chet had hated life at St. Charles and tried to make St. John Vianney as different as possible. His handpicked staff supported him in this and in his efforts to promote liturgical change. A certain tension began to grow.

Toward the end of the first academic year a tragic event occurred. One night some of the young men secretly left the dormitory and went for a swim in the nearby lake. Suddenly, one of them sank under the water; and, in spite of repeated attempts to retrieve him, their efforts failed. The Rescue Squad recovered his lifeless body. Chet was scheduled the very next day to be invested at the Cathedral as a Domestic Prelate, with the title of Very Reverend Monsignor. No one can possibly know the pain and anguish he felt as he stepped forward to receive his robes.

As the next year progressed, the Bishop picked up rumors that the seminarians were being coddled and that discipline was lax–they were awakened in the morning by music rather than by bells, they were taken to the mountains and to concerts, they were visiting museums. In July Chet was called to the Chancery Office and was confronted with these allegations.

For the academic year 1962-63 another class was added, completing the four-year program. New teachers were appointed to the staff. The young seminarians grew to love and admire their Rector. He nurtured their spiritual life, which they so needed to pursue a dedicated life in the priesthood, and respected them for the young adults they were becoming.

St. John Vianney wrote, “Life is truly a long winter. The warmth is the fire of God’s love–those flames of love which never go out.” In the 1962-1963 academic year, a frost began to descend. The universal Church was convulsed by the First Session of the Vatican Council. Liberal faced off conservative in the aula of St. Peter’s. On a smaller scale this also happened at the Minor Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

The Church was headed into a greater storm, and everyone was caught up in the churning tide of change. The liturgy became the most disputed area. The length of the surplice, the cut of the chasubles, the language of worship, the placement of the altar, the need for private Masses–all became arenas of contention. In an effort to insure that his concept of how the Seminary should function would prevail, the Bishop appointed a “monitor.” For Chet, it became an impossible situation. He saw himself at the center of the problem. Unwilling to compromise his beliefs and not willing to escalate disharmony, Chet resigned. It was a sad and bitter parting. Sad because he had begun with so much vision and hope; bitter because his many positive contributions went unacknowledged. At the first graduation in June 1963 he was relegated to the sideline, as if he did not exist!

At the recent celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Father Michael’s Ordination to the Priesthood, Father Tom Caroluzza summed up these years in this manner: “No matter whether you are progressive or conservative, for or against minor seminaries, devil’s advocate or promoter of Chet’s cause for canonization–neither you nor he will ever remember those years at the Seminary as devoid of emotion or evaluation. From 1959-1963 Chet Michael was the lightning rod that attracted all the positive and negative energy of the Diocese of Richmond. I was in his force field. I had never experienced anything like it in my life–both in terms of energy, creativity, synergy, spontaneity and in all candor, I missed the significance of what was going on. I am grateful to you, Chet, for uncovering for me the spontaneous, unpredictable, creative God in the Jesus you preached and for teaching me that the failures at St. John Vianney are an integral part of impossible dreams, and that maybe all our God expects from us is just one Aldonza who now feels like Dulcinea.”


Chester Michael’s new assignment was to the pastorate of Holy Comforter Church in Charlottesville. After conducting a Thirty Day Retreat for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namour in Greensboro, North Carolina, he arrived in Charlottesville on August 1 1963 and remained until June 1972.

Holy Comforter, a colonial style church, was situated in downtown Charlottesville with a suburban chapel on an estate called Branchlands on the outskirts of the city. On this property was also situated Holy Comforter School, with a kindergarten and eight grades, run by the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

The intellectual atmosphere of Charlottesville, with the proximity of the University of Virginia, seemed like an ideal place for Chet. He was able to continue exploration of his interest in Jungian psychology with a group of men from the University. And, he also launched himself into the task of bringing the pronouncements of Vatican II and an updated theology to his parishioners.

One of his first projects was to involve the Parish in a Liturgical Arts Fair gleaning paintings, sculpture, copper enamels, crucifixes, nativity sets, books, etc. from places like Grailville; the Sisters of the Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri; Gallery’s of Washington; and local artists, many of whom were well known nationally. Besides being interesting, this Fair also gave the parishioners an opportunity to hear lectures on the liturgy and liturgical changes and to purchase the newer religious art forms. This Fair was repeated several times with much success and much cooperation of both the men and women of the parish.

Earlier in his career through his interest in social action, Chet had established a warm relationship with Catherine Doherty (the Baroness DeHueck), founder of the Madonna House Apostolate. In 1965 and 1967, he made retreats in a poustinia in Combemere, Ontario, Canada where their major house was located. At Chet’s invitation, members of their community in Aquia, Virginia, came to help with celebrations of Holy Week at Holy Comforter and were befriended by parishioners.

Ever interested in education, he promoted the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and instituted a regular two-week Vacation Bible School for those young persons who were attending the public schools. The Benedictine Sisters of Bristow, Virginia helped in this endeavor. When the parochial school was forced to close because of the withdrawal of the Dominician nuns, he was one of the first priests in the Diocese to hire a full-time Director of Religious Education with a program from kindergarten through high school for the young people and also new adult education programs for their parents.

He initiated Tuesday Morning Round Table discussions for the women and Sunday morning classes for parents while their children attended CCD classes. In them he explored the new Dutch Catechism, Hans Kung’s book The Church, and the works of the French Jesuit, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. To draw the adults, he invited such well-known Catholic writers and activists as Frank Sheed, Maisie Ward, Dan McGuire, Richard McBrien, Monica Helwig, and Geno Baroni to give lectures and workshops. Many Saturday evenings he gathered the clergy and religious, who studied at, or were affiliated with, the University of Virginia, for a dinner at the rectory. Lively discussion usually was also the fare of the evening.

Having been raised in a family where one parent was not Catholic and with his experience of diverse faith expressions while on the Hission Band, it is natural that Chester Michael would be interested in ecumenism. Reaching out to the larger community, he helped form a Council of Churches and was a prime mover in sponsoring the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during his tenure in Charlottesville.

The following incident occurred, probably in January 1968, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Prayer Service was taking place at the First Methodist Church, Rev. Howard Peters, Pastor. The speakers for the evening were Msgr. Chester Michael and Dr. Spurgeon Paschall. The latter was pastor of Belmont Baptist Church and was well known for his anti-Catholic sermons. In the spirit of Pope John XXIII who had asked forgiveness of the non-Catholic observers at Vatican II for the shortcomings of the Church toward them, Father Chet began his address, “As the leader of the Catholic community in Charlottesville, I take this occasion to apologize publicly to the non-Catholic community of Charlottesville for anything we have done that shows negativity to them.” In remembering, Chet recalls: “As soon as I said this, I became aware that Paschall came over and conferred with Peters. When I finished my address, Dr. Paschall got up into the pulpit and made the most beautiful apology for all he had said against Catholicism in the past. And, then we both embraced! With that, the Rev. Howard Peters jumped up and also made a similar apology to all for whatever the Methodists had done to impede Christian unity.”

For those who were in the congregation that night, it was a very moving and unforgettable experience. There were many eyes filled with tears with the joy of this public reconciliation and union of hearts. And, in the years both were in Charlottesville Dr. Paschall and Msgr. Michael remained friends and cooperated in many of the projects of the Council of Churches. Chet and Howard Peters played tennis regularly that summer and a bond was formed between the two men.

Perhaps, the ground work for this greater ecumenical cooperation was started by the fact that Chet was a co-founder of a group of ministers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who formed the Blue Ridge Chapter of Religion and Mental Health. This group met several times monthly to discuss matters of personal healing and growth and the healing of members of their congregations who came to them for spiritual direction and advice with problems in family living.

In the late ’60s, with the country divided over racial and war issues, Monsignor (later Bishop) Carroll Dozier asked Chet to assume the unpopular chairmanship of the Diocesan Social Development Commission. Two Father Sullivans, Walter F. and William, were members of this commission. The purpose of this Commission was to look into cases of injustice within the diocesan borders and to mediate disputes. Its major task was to educate Catholics against racial prejudice and to motivate them to seek fairness in housing and justice in life for black citizens. This Commission soon became styled “Peace and Justice” and is still very active under the blessing and encouragement of its early member, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

Charlottesville still had a “black” church in this tense time of integration. When the Redemptorists, who staffed it, had to leave due to a shortage of priests, the church was turned over to Holy Comforter. Chet worked to make it a viable congregation but there were too few black people attending services. Eventually, the church was closed and the parishioners were integrated into Holy Comforter Parish.

The question then became: “What to do with this piece of property which stood in the middle of town?” Bishop Russell felt that something should be done with it to benefit the black community. At the same time, THE CATHOLIC VIRGINIAN ran a story about what the Archdiocese of St. Louis was doing to develop housing for the poor. The Parish Council of Holy Comforter Church, with the definite approval of the Pastor, decided that this piece of property could be best used to build an apartment complex to rent to low income persons. From 1967 to 1970 when the first tenants were placed, Father Michael was busy meeting with HUD and personally pressing federal officials to clear the paper work to get the project on its way. In fact, with the assistance of a friend Carl Coan, he was able to find where on The Hill the papers were log-jammed and hand-carry them to the proper persons for signing. His persistence opened the way for further public housing for the poor in Charlottesville.

At least two years before this, probably in 1965, Father Chet was strongly exhorting each one in the Parish to sign the Fair Housing Pledge. It was not a popular stand, and those parishioners who did sign did so with much fear and trepidation. When the list of the signers was published in the local newspaper, everyone was relieved to find that neighbors and others in the parish had also signed. In unity, there is strength. Concerted effort, motivated by pastors, opened neighborhoods to fair and integrated housing.


Around this time, the 60s, Chet began to publish his writings. He gathered copies of the many retreat presentations he had given and sent them off to Helicon Press. The Baltimore publishers released his first book, THE NEW DAY OF CHRISTIANITY, in 1965, but went bankrupt several years later, and were thus unable to publish two other books that were hidden in these retreat manuscripts.

In 1969, he began to disseminate a quarterly bulletin on theology, spirituality and psychology called THE OPEN DOOR. It is still being published, not as a quarterly but with regularity at least twice a year. Through this medium, Father Michael has been able to spread Christ’s teachings to many that could not come to hear him and to expand his theories on different approaches to a Christian spirituality. At present the mailing list of recipients of this bulletin nears one thousand.

One of Chester Michael’s lifelong attributes has been his constant quest for new knowledge and new horizons to conquer. It might be said to be a key to his youthfulness of mind, spirit, and body. In the 5Os, he traveled to the Holy Land to acquire firsthand knowledge of the places where Jesus lived and walked. Also, in this time frame he went to Notre Dame to study the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and hear the lectures of Frs. Josef Goldbrunner and Bernard Haring. Here he steeped himself in psychology, scripture and liturgy.

In the 60s he traveled to our national west with his brother, brother-in-law, and their sons touring some of the great national parks and ending up at a liturgical convention in Texas. In this decade he spent a summer period at Villanova in Pennsylvania to update himself in the Documents of Vatican II. He also made a trip to Alaska traveling the Al-Can Highway in a VW van. Here he visited the major towns and returned to the States via the ferry from British Columbia to Seattle, taking time out before returning East to spend eight days climbing Mt. Rainier.

In 1971, while on his way to attend summer school at the University of San Francisco, he stopped at the Grand Canyon and in one day hiked to the bottom and back, a round-trip of 25 miles. While in California, he climbed Mt. Whitney, which is the highest point in the U. S. He has also climbed Mt. Shasta and hiked extensively in the Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks.

From the 50s through the 70s, the turbulence of the civil rights movement, the need for the practice of non-violence, the need for a simplifying of our American lifestyle were all moral problems with which Chet wrestled and about which he felt people needed to be educated in order to work on solutions. In these years, he began to read and study the writings of M. K. Gandhi, wrote and talked more and more on these subjects, and completed the formulation of his own lifestyle.


In an interview with Steve Neil for THE CATHOLIC VIRGINIAN (March 20, 1992, page 4), Msgr. Michael admitted he was tempted to leave the priesthood in the 60s when so many other priests left. He said, “The reason I became a priest in 1942 no longer existed. I had to look for new reasons, and thank God, I found them.”

According to the article, “He (Msgr. Michael) explained that prior to Vatican II many Catholics viewed the priest similar to a magician in that their entrance to heaven or hell hinged solely on the priest granting them absolution when they went to confession. The priest had a sense of control over human destiny no one else had.”

“Msgr. Michael’s renewed hope for (his own priestly ministry and) the priesthood came when he realized that many in the church look to their priests for spiritual direction and that he, in turn, could help train others to provide spiritual direction. ‘We need leaders to dedicate their whole life to bring people to God,’ he said.”

In his retreats to priests, he always maintains that there is no better way to touch the lives of others than through the priestly ministry. At the end of these retreats, he asks the priests, “In what other vocation could you have helped so many people to live a better life?” And, then directs them: “On your way home, think about the countless persons you have helped, and thank God for giving you this opportunity to be of service to so many.”



Chet has always embraced a simple lifestyle. He owns few worldly possessions and whatever monies have come to him have been directed to worthy causes in both the diocese and abroad to both institutions and individuals. Father Bowers once nicknamed him “frugal MacDougall” because he used everything and wasted nothing. A former parishioner notes that he was “close with the dollar” but hastens to point his generosity to the poor by giving the following account. “Father Michael, while visiting a family, discovered that the father was unemployed. He found that they had no heat and five little children. By the time he returned to the home, bearing arms full of groceries, the oil truck was filling their tank. The mother told me he quietly looked after them until her husband obtained work.” This story can be repeated in many variations, for over the years Father Chet has helped many persons and their families with economic and spiritual problems in many overt and covert ways.

Father learned much of a simple lifestyle from a group of women in Loveland, Ohio that back in the early forties formed Grailville. Their outreach was to women, especially in rural communities. They would teach them how to adopt a simple nutrition based on whole grains, no sugars, and many fruit and fresh vegetables. For two summers, Father Michael brought a group of Grail leaders to the Diocese of Richmond to conduct Grail Schools of Apostolate for young women.

From his association with Grailville, he embarked on his own simple eating plan, which in recent years has become a low-cholesterol, low-salt, whole grain diet. Those who visit him are initiated to the wonderful taste and aroma of his own home-baked whole wheat (not one iota of white flour!) bread spread with wholesome peanut butter and pure honey.

In 1970 he allowed himself the “luxury” of his own place of retreat where he could steep himself in simplicity and draw closer to God. He bought a lot on a mountainside, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Afton, Virginia. Then he purchased a pre-fab house, used in World War II for shipyard workers, which was hauled up from Newport News and re-assembled on his property. Here, amidst the solitude and beauty of nature, he spent his free times, ever anticipating the day of his retirement.

Of course, that day of retirement was still in the future. Summer school at Villanova in 1968 and at the University of San Francisco in 1971 convinced him that he should pursue a doctorate in theology. Accordingly, in 1972 he asked and received Permission from Bishop Russell to be released from pastoral duties to achieve this goal. At first he was inclined to go to Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California to study under Father N. M. Wildiers and write his dissertation on Tellhard de Chardin. However, he met with the Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University of Baltimore, Maryland and was offered a scholarship. Naturally he accepted.

The next three years (1972-75) were dominated by intense study and writing. Choosing a subject for his dissertation occupied much of his consideration during the first year. Without the mentorship of Fr. Wildiers, he abandoned the idea of writing on Teihardian concepts. He spent an Easter week in New York City doing some research on John Courtney Murray thinking he might write on his life and opus but finally settled on process theology which was something of a natural avenue considering his interest in the evolutionary thought of Teilhard. His dissertation became “A Comparison of the God Talk of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Hartshorne” (published by University Hicrofilms, Ann Arbor, Hichigan). He successfully defended his thesis and was conferred a S.T.D degree in Process and Systematic Theology by St. Mary’s University in 1975 at the age of 59.

During this interval, always energetic and always searching for new avenues of endeavor, Chet taught classes in Pastoral Theology at St. Mary’s, helped out in local parishes, and made many new friends and acquaintances in the healing ministries in the Baltimore area. He returned to his place at Alton on most weekends where he furiously wrote and rewrote the many revisions of his paper.


Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who had recently taken over its leadership, welcomed Fr. Michael’s return to the Richmond Diocese in 1975. Chet was pleased when the Bishop offered him the directorship of Genesis House, a newly established retreat Center, located on the grounds of St. John Vianney Seminary.

Parochial concerns behind him, Father Michael could fully devote his time to the work he loved best: the care of souls. He focused all his energies on this new task. He gave six-day directed retreats, conducted Thirty Day Retreats on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and held weekend retreats and workshops.

It was a demanding apostolate: scheduling and directing retreats and workshops at Genesis House; traveling near and far to give retreats to parishes, nuns, priests, and laity; overseeing the care and maintenance of the property itself; raising money to make it all possible.

Mrs. Laura Bookheimer, who helped recruit volunteers –including her husband Bob and two sons — for assistance with all sorts of tasks at Genesis House, remembers: “People came from out of state to go on a directed retreat with Monsignor. He in turn went all over giving retreats to bring so many souls closer to the Lord. He knew the gifts and talents we all had, and he made us realize our potential.” Many who read this would probably agree with a loud Amen.

During this period, he also presented classes on spiritual direction to both Catholic and ecumenical groups. The Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care sponsored a workshop on spiritual direction, which he delivered to two groups of thirty students. He offered a workshop on spiritual direction at the summer school of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education.

Monsignor Michael has always had a deep concern for his fellow priests. Many of them have come to him for spiritual direction. From 1975 to 1984, he was Diocesan Director of Continuing Education for Priests. As a member of the Priests Council, he served on the Committee for Priestly Life and Formation from 1976 to 1986. He and five others were assigned about twenty priests each. Their responsibility was to meet with these priests periodically and help them implement a personal growth plan. His participation in a seminar on psychological test interpretation given by Father Vincent Dwyer at Notre Dame University provided the diagnostic tool he needed to be effective. This was a task he fully enjoyed.

Earlier in 1962 Chet had become aware of the budding Cursillo Movement. In 1963 he took some parishioners from Holy Comforter Parish in Charlottesville to both the men and women’s Cursillo Retreat Weekends in Baltimore, where the Movement had begun to blossom. He acted as Spiritual Director for the Weekends. With this core group, he hoped to strengthen the sense of community at Holy Comforter and to encourage lay people to express their personal faith experiences. Two Cursillos in Charlottesville sponsored by this group were the first held in the Richmond Diocese. Unfortunately, the Movement did not get off the ground at first.

However, situations change, and by 1970 Cursillo Weekends were being given in Northern Virginia, in the Tidewater Area, and in Richmond. Roy Alexander, who was involved in the struggling Cursillo Movement, writes: “The Cursillo Movement, in the Richmond Area, was not growing as quickly as the Tidewater Area. At that time, Bishop Sullivan appointed Msgr. Michael as the Spiritual Director, and things began to happen. While he was at Genesis House, he allowed Cursillo Centers to hold meetings there. Realizing that the Richmond Diocese covered much area, he suggested that Centers should be set up for Petersburg and the Valley. Later, after these Centers were up and going, Monsignor felt that we were still not getting to the entire diocese. He approached the Bishop for some seed money, and with these funds the first Cursillo for the southwest part of the state was held … at one time a dream; now a reality. Today all these Centers are thriving and allow the Cursillistas of the Diocese of Richmond to experience God, live in a Christian community, and make life-long friends.”

Mr. Alexander also points out that Chet was instrumental in organizing the first diocesan-wide Cursillo and that he assisted the Episcopalian and Lutheran Churches to set up their own Cursillo programs. Chet has been heard to say that he feels the Cursillo is the best recruiter and trainer of lay volunteers and that any diocesan meeting will have as its attendees a full complement of lay leaders who have made Cursillo.


From 1968 to 1982, Chet had been working with Marie C. Norrisey on a book on Jungian psychology and its relationship to Christian spirituality. This book, ARISE: A CHRISTIAN PSYCHOLOGY OF LOVE was published in 1982 by The Open Door, Inc., a nonprofit organization incorporated in the State of Virginia. This status allows its sale at a minimum charge in order to reach a larger audience. ARISE has received good reviews from lay people, priests, and counselors, especially those in co-dependency programs. Several state Cursillo groups have presented it to candidates of the Weekend Cursillo.

In 1976 a retreat given by Morton and Barbara Kelsey, an Episcopal priest and his wife, was Chet’s introduction to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Through this knowledge and his observations over the years regarding the prayer life of so many people who came to him for direction, he surmised there might be a direct relationship between temperament or type and prayer and spirituality.

To test this hypothesis, he and Marie Norrisey set up a study. Hoping to get at least 200 people (which would allow them to use a bulk mail permit) they were amazed to recruit 457 people from different parts of this country and abroad to participate in a “Prayer Project”. The participants were invited to try different prayer forms to ascertain how they fitted their personality type, how they liked them, or how they reacted to the particular method.

Out of their findings grew the enormously popular book, PRAYER AND TEMPERAMENT. Nuns and priests, who had wondered why meditation was so difficult for them, learned that the Thomistic form of prayer, formerly taught in seminaries and novitiates, was not appropriate for all personality types. Lay people have learned how to use the Scripture in prayer by following the age-old Benedictine method of prayer called Lectio Divina.


Monsignor Chet Michael

On July 1, 1984 Father Chet Michael had to retire from the activity of Genesis House following recommendations from his doctor in order to avoid a potential heart attack. He took up permanent residence on his mountain shelf near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

He is quite content with his garden plot which supplies fresh vegetables and bushels of tomatoes, which find their way into his freezer and on his shelves, and with his wood stove which he feeds with wood that he chops himself. He enjoys the clear, cold water from his well and the view of the cloud formations over Humpback Mountain as he sits at his dining room table. A steep path up Ennis Mountain at the side of his house allows him an invigorating climb to meet the sun almost every morning.

In the past, when his brother Bradford was alive, both he and Chet did a bit of hunting. However, hunting seems to be a thing of the past now for him. Bob Bookheimer, who comes up to his cabin every now and then to help with the woodcutting, tells this story of Father Chet.

“A couple of years ago there was a rat in his garage. Being the hunter that he is, he got out his trusty shotgun and nailed the rat with the first or second shot. But, later in the day Father found out he also got his brand new front tire.”

Retirement is fine; but it is not in Father Chet’s nature to slow down. With the success of the book, PRAYER AND TEMPERAMENT, and with his reputation as a preacher, retreat master, and teacher, in no time people found his address; and Chester Michael was back into a busy routine of giving retreats, workshops, and spiritual direction.

Throughout his many years as a priest, Father Michael has spent countless hours giving individual spiritual direction to priests, nuns, and lay people. He became convinced of the importance of one-on-one spiritual counseling while still a seminarian. Father Chet has been a devoted apostle to the study, writing, and speaking on this subject during his entire priestly ministry.