The Journey of My Priesthood

by Fr. Tom Zoeller

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in a German-American family, I was the second of ten children.

Almost from the beginning of my school days, I was active in the parish. I served Mass and sang in the choir, and by fifth grade, I was already thinking about becoming a priest.

I also enjoyed helping our teachers, the Sisters, and in the seventh and eighth grades, a classmate and I cleaned all the windows in their three-story convent and painted the basement.

My vocation was nurtured by the young priests and Sisters at our parish, and at age fourteen, I entered a minor seminary. After that, I studied at a seminary in Baltimore.

There I met Bob Pelton (now Fr. Pelton), who later joined Madonna House. There I visited him and found a community of people with living faith. Christ was the centre of their lives, and since He was here, love was here. I knew I needed both.

After a year of much thought and prayer, I took a leave of absence from the seminary and left home, diocese, and country, hoping to join Madonna House and be sent back to the seminary. Both happened. I continued my seminary education at St. Augustine’s in Scarborough, Ontario, and was ordained a Madonna House priest in May 1967.

I didn’t have a lot of feeling during my ordination, but as I lay on the floor and the Litany of the Saints was prayed and sung over me, I felt great gratitude, gratitude that God had gotten me through some rocky places to get me to this day.

For I knew that it was God who had gotten me ordained, not my work or effort or merit. I was grateful to God but also to my diocese, my Madonna House family, and my blood family.

The next day was my first Mass, which I said at our parish church, and that day, our pastor asked me to baptize a newborn baby. That was a gift and very exciting.

Then as is true of most Madonna House members, I served in a variety of capacities and locations.

My first summer as a priest, I worked with families at our Cana Colony.

Then I was sent to our newly-opened house in Regina, Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies, in the words of Fr. Callahan, director general of priests at the time, to get experience of living in one of our houses as a priest and of serving at a parish.

Marian Centre serves what we call Brothers Christopher, homeless and poor men, and among my fondest memories of that time is playing Cribbage in the recreation room with some of these men. They were sharp players, and they taught me all I know about the game. They were also serious players; there was no fooling around.

I was also chaplain to one of the CFM (Christian Family Movement) groups, which fosters gospel-living in families.

After Regina, I was assigned to Marian Centre Edmonton, which does the same kind of work as Marian Centre Regina and where my responsibilities mirrored those in Regina. I also worked with some families who, in those Post Vatican II years, had permission from the archbishop to form an experimental community.

I feel that I “grew up” as a priest in those three years. Edmonton, especially, holds a warm spot in my heart, and I was later assigned there two more times.

After I was at Edmonton the first time I went to our Cana Colony in northern Virginia. Then, in 1973, it was back to Madonna House Combermere. Here I lived at Vianney House, our guest house for visiting priests, welcoming them into our Madonna House way of life and praying that it would bless them as it had blessed me on my first visit.

In those fifteen years at MH Combermere, I did frequent weekend work at the parish in nearby Latchford Bridge, thus beginning a long relationship with the parishioners. I watched many families grow up, and when the children came of age, I married some of them and baptized some of their children.

I also served in two faraway houses: Robin Hood’s Bay in England and Whitehorse in the Yukon.

I returned to Combermere in 1999 and have remained here ever since—joyful in what I call “a living faith” which began when I was an applicant back in 1964-65 and which pursues me to this very day.

Yes, since 1999, I have been stationed here at our training center for the formation of staff and the many guests who are seeking to know God and to deepen their lives in Him. Walking with people in their faith journey is done, on one level, so very simply, but it is absolutely and vitally necessary work.

Madonna House has likewise brought me closer to God, whom I have been consciously pursuing since university. Madonna House affirmed and fostered this journey in me, a journey that has been pure gift. For without the sheer grace of God, I would never have been ordained or stayed a priest these fifty years. For this, I cannot thank God enough.