When Steven and I first joined St. Paul the Apostle Church in Flour Bluff in 2006, Father James Stembler was our beloved, joyful priest.
What a glorious time for us! Everyone was so thoughtful and caring that, for the first time in our lives, Steven and I felt that we truly belonged! We were more than just parishioners; we were part of a church family, a God-given gift so immensely gratifying that we couldn’t imagine life without this intricately woven church community.
Father John Xaviour arrived at St. Paul’s in January 2007, and everyone loved him. But, as Father Stembler likes to recall, “he was in Flour Bluff only three months before Bishop Carmody reassigned him.”
At Father Stembler’s gentle but insistent nudging that Steven and I return to our home parish to “assist Father Xaviour” however we could, we relented after the third attempt. Late April 2008, our very strong desire to remain with our church family finally gave way to our rejoining St. Joseph Church with Father Stembler’s enthusiastic blessing.
Our heartwrenching departure became a heartfelt mission that called us— me in particular— to build community within God’s kingdom in ways we’d never imagined… until Father Xaviour was reassigned again in July 2013, and the door to St. Paul’s opened for us once more all on its own.
Only, by then Father Stembler had also been reassigned— twice during our absence— first as full time vocation director for the diocese and then as pastor of St. Gertrude Parish in Kingsville where he’s happily fulfilling his call of service at the present time (South Texas Catholic, September 2011).
Yet the spirit of the St. Paul family knows no bounds!
Regardless of time apart, lack of communication, distance, and/or proactive engagement at our respective parishes, we’re forever linked within this uniquely festive body of Christ: A veritable fan base, delightful, nurturing, always present.
No matter where we’ve ended up or how we happen to come together— for a brief encounter at the HEB on Waldron Road or for a very special event within the diocese— every shared instance is a memorable occasion.
Beloved, joyful priest
So, without missing a beat, the moment the collective we heard about Father Stembler’s upcoming celebration to commemorate the anniversary of his ordination (January 21, 1989), we made plans to attend. Eagerly carpooling to St. Gertrude’s in Kingsville, the St. Paul family paid tribute to our beloved, joyful priest for his twenty-five years of faithful service to God and his people!
Father James came to me for the blessing before the homily. I think I should’ve asked his blessing before I say what I’m going to say.
I think those are the last two things I told you when you left the seminary: “Don’t be snooty, and don’t think you know it all ’cause, even if you do, they’ll teach you different.”
No. I want to thank you, Father James, for your friendship first of all, for being a priest of our diocese, and for being such a good and faithful pastor. Wherever you’ve been and, again, the church reflects all those places and people that you have served. And I want to thank you for that.
He was so right in saying what he said in those few little gestures, that it is true that the young priest leaves the seminary and he does think he knows it all. And he might think that he’s a bit cut above the others. But as Pope John XXIII used to say— soon to be saint— Pope John XXIII used to say that the people were not given to the priests. Priests are given to the people: To walk with the people; to shepherd the people; and, as our present Holy Father puts it, “to smell like the people.”
But it takes a true act of an open heart, an expanded heart, of a sincere and noble heart to be able to accomplish that: To know that we don’t know it all, that we don’t have it all, that we’re not better than anyone else. We’ve been called. And you were called to be a priest of the Church, to be a good shepherd to your people. And when we come to these moments in our life when we celebrate anniversaries, it is so wonderful and moving, I would say, to be able to look out over the flock that you have walked with and shepherded and have become one. And that is also a tremendously humbling experience, but it is also an experience that I’m sure tonight you have joy in your heart to experience it.
And so, as Father James says, we want to thank you, people of God, who form us and form him.
We also want to thank him for his fidelity and his deep concern for the Church and his faithfulness.
And I want to say something to Wally and Virginia because we don’t just learn to be faithful. We don’t just learn to be dedicated priests. We learn that from where we come, from our homes, from our families. And I’ve witnessed over the last few years your fidelity to your parents who now are not able to travel to be with us. But you and your siblings have been so faithful to your mother and father, and that was obviously instilled in you so that you could be faithful to them and that you could also be faithful as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a disciple of the priesthood and of this particular church in the diocese.
So I am also very grateful and very joyful tonight to be with you and to share this moment with you. And, as you continue this journey of faith, this journey of being a good shepherd, we learn more and more of the heart of this shepherd, Jesus Christ. God bless you (Bishop Michael Mulvey; January 25, 2014; transcribed audio recording).
Well, um. You won’t believe this, but I don’t know what to say. [Everyone burst into laughter.]
One thing I do want to acknowledge. One of my assignments was to be the secretary to Bishop Gracida for five years, and I learned in those five years that being a secretary is a very important role, a very important function. So I want to acknowledge the secretaries that I’ve worked with over the years.
Jeanette Vela at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She was a parishioner at St. Paul’s, too. There was Anna de Leon Ramos. She was not able to be here this evening. For three years we worked with Bishop Gracida in the various responsibilities. I want to acknowledge— she’s not able to be here; she lives close to her daughter now— Bertha Bedellin who worked at St. Elizabeth’s, a wonderful person. Carol Wondolowski right here, the secretary at St. Paul’s. And Kathy— you’re back there, aren’t you? Yes. Kathy Taylor, who’s the secretary here at St. Gertrude’s.
I thank you all very much for helping me along and all of that. I do believe the statement that says, “Do you want to talk to the boss? Or do you want to talk to the one who knows what’s going on?” They know what’s going on.
Well, there are a lot of people waiting to be thanked tonight. I want to thank the choir. Rachael [Bustamante] for the music and the musicians up there [in the choir loft].
I want to thank the Knights of Columbus for falling out this evening. This is a wonderful attendance of the fourth-degree Knights. I worked with the Knights of Columbus in parishes over the years. It’s always been a very good association. It’s very good here at St. Gertrude’s, so you Knights keep up the good work.
I want to thank the ladies from the National Council of Catholic Women. I know they’re back there. It was one of you, Delma Guerrera, who urged me to continue with the NCCW. And I have. It’s been a wonderful association. It took me all the way up to now a national office. It’s been wonderful working with all for twenty-three years, so thank you for your friendship. You all are wonderful people, and it’s good to get together. It’s good to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Something we need to do through prayer and through financial support, too, huh?
It’s wonderful work that you all are engaged in. Certainly, it’s been a pleasure to be with the Knights and the ladies….
Then there’s my older brother. I’m the youngest in the family— can’t you tell? Paul and his wife, Mary are here. This is warm weather to them, so that’s why they’re in short sleeves. It’s great to have you with us this evening.
I mentioned all the priests and all the deacons earlier.
Thanks to the servers for serving. To Benencio— where are you? Back there somewhere. Benencio is the housekeeper. He does a good job. Thank you for your presence here this evening. It’s so great to see all of you from these past twenty-five years. It’s truly a great joy, as the bishop said.
We’ll see what God has in store for the next twenty-five years. But, if it’s been like the first twenty-five years, it’s going to be wonderful as well.
Thanks for everything (Father James Stembler; transcribed audio recording).
Thanks to our dear friend, Sam Apiado, for his photos in the “faithful shepherd” and “acknowledgments” sections. The pictorial, “relic of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” in the introduction is a much appreciated gift from the Legion of Mary (through Luz P. Garcia; October 23, 2007). Thank you!
Links of interest… Bishop installs seven new pastors… Catholic, Baptist churches unite for Christmas pageant… Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (prayer / vision & faith)… National Council of Catholic Women: article (Father James Stembler)…
St. Gertrude Parish: website / diocesan page… St. Paul the Apostle Church: facebook / parishes online / website…
St. Joseph Church pages… Father Stembler: homily (16:25) / photos (August 22, 2010)… Home… KC… Kids… Library… Messages / Petitions… Praise… Prayer… Saints… SJC… SJM… Special… St. Joseph… Weblinks: A-L / M-Q / R-Z…