Fr. Frank Stempfle celebrates one of his last Masses at St. Patrick’s Church in Edmonton. Photo by Lincoln Ho

Priest’s retirement Sept. 30 will also mean the closure of his Edmonton parish, St. Patrick

By  Lorraine Turchansky, Canadian Catholic News
  • September 5, 2018

EDMONTON – When Frank Stempfle was born prematurely in a rural Alberta farmhouse on a winter day in 1926 he weighed just 2½ pounds. His father placed him in a shoebox near the oven to keep him warm, and the neighbours didn’t think he’d live.

But against the odds, Frank not only survived, he grew into a healthy young man with a love for sports and the outdoors, with a fierce competitive streak and a self-deprecating sense of humour. He also became what is believed to be the longest-serving parish priest in Canada.

Archdiocese of Edmonton priests typically serve in active ministry to age 75. But that was way too early for Fr. Frank to retire. At 91, after 66 years of serving as a pastor in the archdiocese, he has decided to retire on Sept. 30. The date will be a bittersweet one because it also means the closure of St. Patrick Parish in central Edmonton, where he has served twice as pastor for a total of 39 years.

The parish has been slated to close for some time, but Archbishop Richard Smith agreed that it could remain open as long as Fr. Frank remained. He’s now making plans to move to an apartment to enjoy visits with friends and family, and maybe get in a few more games of golf. Beyond that, he’s not sure what retirement will hold.

“I don’t know quite what to expect, since my whole life has been with the church beside me and serving people as a priest,” he said. “And of course they were of service to me, by being so kind and good to me. That’s why I stayed, because … of their support and their love. So it wasn’t a hardship; it was a joy and a privilege to be here.”

The feelings are mutual. Last year, his parishioners arranged for the street in front of the church to be named Father Frank Stempfle Way.

“Even though I’ve long admired the man for his commitment, his gentleness, his love for the people, it was all confirmed on the Sunday when I visited the parish to announce his retirement,” Smith recalled. 

“We were coming in the entrance procession, for example, and I don’t know how many little children were reaching out their hands for a high-five, and here was this priest in his 90s giving them the high-five back. The grins of sheer delight on the faces of the children told me a great deal about how people of all ages really have a genuine love for this priest.”

Teresa Kellendonk saw examples of Fr. Frank’s commitment when she was co-ordinating on-call visits of priests to hospital patients. 

“He never, ever said no to a hospital visit, no matter what time of day or night,” she said. “I called him once when he was playing pool with Fr. (Patrick) Baska, and he finished the game and beat him, but then he came to the hospital.

“He really is a model of compassionately accompanying someone who is dying,” she said. “A beautiful presence at the bedside.”

Fr. Mike McCaffery, a longtime friend, said Fr. Frank has always came through for him in an emergency.

“If I ever get called to fill in at a parish at the last minute, I always call Frank to borrow his homily, because he’s always got a good one,” he said. “And I’ve followed Frank’s advice myself: Keep it short. After eight minutes, even God doesn’t hear anything!”

McCaffery has played golf with Fr. Frank for some 50 years, and their rivalry is legendary: “Whenever he beat me, he’d announce it at Mass on Sunday.”

Fr. Frank still likes to hit the links. At the Edmonton Country Club, where he’s a member, a plaque on the wall  attests to the fact that, at age 87, he shot a round less than his age. Smith, who is more than 30 years younger, says “he continues to beat me at the game, anytime I play with him.” 

“That’s a great antidote to pride! Sometimes I wonder if he purposefully flubs some of his shots so I wouldn’t get the mistaken impression that maybe he was spending more time on the golf course than in the parish,” the archbishop joked. 

Fr. Frank says sports have always been a big part of his life. “It helped me stay out of trouble!” he said with a laugh. 

He grew up about 300 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, a son of German immigrant farmers. 

“Both my mom and dad had a beautiful strong faith and that was passed along to us,” he said. 

Thoughts of a vocation came when he was in Grade 12 at St. Anthony’s College in Edmonton. At 18, he entered St. Joseph Seminary, and at 25 was ordained. 

In 1964 he became a chaplain to the military base in Wainwright, where he learned to fly an airplane. “It was a Piper Cub two-seater, and I had a barrel of fun with it!”

In 1970 he arrived at St. Patrick’s, an inner-city Edmonton parish, where the caretaker, Leo Bilodeau, was murdered in 1976 during a break-in and robbery at the rectory. 

He moved to Assumption Parish in south Edmonton in 1977, only to return to St. Patrick’s in 1986. It has been his home ever since. 

Although sad to leave, he felt “it was time.”

“I felt that I didn’t quite have the energy anymore to do the work, and I thought that I should retire before I was unable to do the job properly.”

Father Frank is looking forward to spending time with family — including 17 great-great nieces and nephews — and friends, and not having to worry about preparing a homily. But it will feel strange not to have a “home church.”

“If I want to say Mass in a church, I’ll have to look around and find someone who will let me in,” he said.

Given his popularity with his brother priests, that shouldn’t be a problem.

(Grandin Media)

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