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The call came slowly, but the resulting ministry passes 50-year mark
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

froeschel.JPG
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Msgr. Martin Froeschel and friends concelebrate at a Mass marking his 50 years as a priest.
There isn't a Catholic church in this community of 1,000 people north of St. Joseph. But there is a towering Catholic presence.

Msgr. Martin Froeschl has lived in a spacious country home smack in the middle of downtown Oregon since he retired in 1992. And everywhere he goes, he makes sure he wears his Roman collar - even to the local truck stop for dinner.

"I always wear my collar, except when I'm working in the garden," said Msgr. Froeschl as he sat, Roman collar in place, at his kitchen table, tamping the tobacco in the first of three pipes he smokes daily.

Oregon, nestled among the rolling hills of the Missouri River bluffs, is the kind of place where people don't have to lock their doors, where everybody greets everybody else by name.

He discovered the town during his last pastorate at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Savannah, and St. Patrick Mission in Forest City, just down the road from Oregon. With family just 27 miles away in Falls City, Neb., Msgr. Froeschl figured the peace, quiet and beauty of this tiny town was perfect for a retired city boy from Kansas City.

"I'd love to get myself a go-cart and go up into these hills," said Msgr. Froeschl, who on June 4 celebrated 50 years as a priest - his entire career spent serving the people of the Diocese of Kansas City, later the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

On June 13, a few hundred of his friends and fellow priests gathered at Holy Cross Parish to celebrate the Eucharist and Msgr. Froeschl's career as a priest. And as is his custom, the guest of honor tried to deflect attention away from himself, instructing the homilist for the Mass, Father William Caldwell, to focus on the Eucharist and on vocations to the priesthood.

"I didn't want to have a great big show," he said. "I really wanted it (his celebration) to get vocations."

His own vocation, he admitted, didn't come as a bolt of inspiration from the heavens. Instead, it was a response to sibling rivalry.

Msgr. Froeschl is one of seven children. His older brother Paul, he said, was always better than he at everything - athletics as well as academics. Shortly before his eighth-grade graduation from Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Kansas City, his principal, Sister Januarius, had a talk with him.

"It was right after Easter, and I was staring out the window," he said. "She said, 'Where are you going to high school?' I said, 'I don't know, probably DeLaSalle, where my brother goes.'

"She said, 'If you went to St. John's (Seminary) you wouldn't have to go to DeLaSalle with your brother,'" he recalled. "That's when the lights went on. I didn't go out there to be a priest. I went there because it sounded better than competing with my brother. But once I got there, my vocation grew."

He also remembers the moment when he was certain he would be a priest. Ironically, it occurred during a talk he had with one of his seminary instructors when the future priest decided he wasn't really cut out for the priesthood.

"I told him all the reasons, and I thought I had it all laid out," Msgr. Froeschl said. "He said, 'I've heard all that, and I still haven't heard why you shouldn't be a priest. But you better make up your mind.'"

During a retreat shortly after that meeting, Msgr. Froeschl said he made a decision to go ahead with his studies through ordination and to find out that way if he was cut out for the priesthood.

"I told God that I'll go ahead and be the best priest I can be," he said. "I promised God that I would give it 100 percent effort. Maybe I wouldn't be the best priest, but I would be trying."

He doesn't regret that decision at all. In fact, he said, any other road besides the priesthood would have been wrong for him.

"I'm particularly happy," he said. "In helping people, in baptizing them and their children, in bringing them back to the Church, in teaching their kids, you feel good."

Even in times of sorrow and grief over the death of a loved one, people can find comfort from a priest in ways that no one else can provide, he said.

"A priest can do more than anyone else in those times," Msgr. Froeschl said. "A priest can tell you, like no one else can, that now you have another saint in heaven, someone you can pray to."

Msgr. Froeschl recalled the advice his father gave him shortly after he was ordained.

"Shortly after I retired, it dawned on me what my Dad had said: 'In the first 10 years of your priesthood, you are going to convert the whole world. In the next 10 years, you are going to be a pastor and you are going to convert everyone in your parish. And in the years after that, you are going to work on saving your own soul,'" Msgr. Froeschl said.

He said he divides his career in decades: the '50s were his years as an associate pastor, primarily at St. Louis Parish in Kansas City; the '60s were his first years as pastor, all of them spent at St. Mary Parish in Independence during the transition of the Second Vatican Council; the '70s were marked by his years pastoring Guardian Angels Parish, near his boyhood neighborhood; the '80s were spent at Holy Cross Parish in Kansas City, and at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Savannah.

He made friends that remain friends to this day at every stop, he said. But he especially remembered the children. Even in retirement, he teaches religion classes at St. James School in St. Joseph just to be able to teach children, he said.

But there is one child, about 10 years old at the time, that he especially remembered.

Carol - he couldn't recall her last name - was walking home with friends from a public school past St. Louis Parish when she met the young Father Froeschel, dressed in a cassock, on the church steps. A Protestant, Carol asked the priest what his unusual attire was called. "I told her it's called a cassock. It's my uniform," Msgr. Froeschl recalled.

He and the girls exchanged small talk for a few minutes, and the young priest invited them to visit him anytime they wanted to.

A few days later, Carol knocked on the rectory door, full of questions about the Catholic Church.

The young Father Froeschl took her to the sanctuary, showed her the tabernacle and explained to her the way Catholics believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist.

"I told her Jesus is really there. We can come in anytime and talk to him," Msgr. Froeschl recalled.

"Then I noticed she started coming to the Church regularly. On All Soul's Day, she asked me what that was all about," he recalled.

"I said, 'There are people who are waiting to be cleaned up before they can get into heaven," Msgr. Froeschl said. "I told her about how Catholics pray, and offer up their sufferings for the souls in purgatory. I told her, 'If there is anything you really don't like doing, go ahead and do it and offer it up for the souls in purgatory.'

"The next day, she came running up to me all excited: 'I got somebody out of that place!' she said. I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'I just hate peas. Last night, Mother put peas on my plate, and I went ahead and ate them.' She picked up what I said just that quick, and she wasn't even Catholic," Msgr. Froeschl said.

"Her family moved away soon after that. She would have to be almost 60 years old by now," he said. "But I would love to know what became of her, if she became a Catholic, or maybe even a sister. Or whether she has forgotten all about it. I'd like to know that before I die."


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