Ride the pony

Mustang deferred for pastoral duties
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by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

SENECA — When Father Michael Koller decided to enter the seminary in late 2000, he had to unload a lot of stuff.

Nearly everything had to go — from frying pans to furniture. Some of it was nice stuff, too, picked up overseas during his 23-year career with the U.S. Air Force.

There was one thing, however, with which he simply could not part: his silver 1965 Ford Mustang GT Fastback.

Call it a hobby deferred.

Ever since he was a kid and his father introduced him to the joys of being a shade tree mechanic, Father Koller has worked on cars. “I used to love to tinker with old cars when I was in the Air Force,” said Father Koller. “That was my favorite pastime in the evenings, just to relax and work on one.” Then by a twist of fate and a little bit of blackmail — though not his own — Father Koller acquired the car of many a grease monkey’s dreams.

He was living at the time in Riverside, Calif., and already in the Air Force. The year was 1983.

“There was an NCO out there who was in the Air Force Reserves, and he had been selected for graduate school,” said Father Koller. “His wife agreed to support the family while he was in school, but he had to give up this car.”

To truly understand how cool this car is, go rent the movie “Bullitt,” staring Steve McQueen, and co-starring his car: a highland green 1968 Mustang GT 390.

The NCO’s Mustang had the Pony custom interior (few models that year had it), fog lights, four-speed transmission, and 289 cubic inch engine with four-barrel carburetor.

So Father Koller didn’t hesitate when the NCO was ready to seal the deal. And it was a heart breaker.

“As I was driving off, he just had tears in his eyes,” said Father Koller. “He hated to give it up.”

The car was in good shape and had 77,000 miles on the odometer. Father Koller drove it until he received an overseas assignment, then into storage it went.

And that’s where it’s stayed, resting quietly somewhere in Topeka, waiting for “someday,” when Father Koller can make it road worthy again.

Father Koller checks up on the car every now and then, but he hasn’t turned the engine over in 10 years. Getting it ready for the road would take some time.

As the pastor of the only Catholic church in a town almost 90 percent Catholic, Father Koller doesn’t have much time these days for tinkering — whether with cars or with computers, another hobby he used to enjoy.

When he became pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca in July 2005, it was a big adjustment. The parish was welcoming its first non-Benedictine pastor in its entire history. He still gets notes, he said, with “OSB,” for Order of Saint Benedict, tacked behind his name.

“I still have to explain the difference between Benedictine and diocesan priests,” he said.

And Father Koller had to get used to small town life. Although there were times when the rectory housed four or five Benedictine priests, now it’s just Father Koller. In a town of 2,100, his parish serves 800 families . . . and is growing. Retirees are moving off the farm and into town, and a lot of young couples are starting families. Father Koller easily presides at about 45 funerals and 25 weddings a year.

“When I get through at the end of the day, I watch a little bit of television, the news, and I go to bed,” he said. “Free time is a matter of getting caught up on personal things, and running errands when you have a day off — when you can get a day off and you don’t have a funeral.”

“Eventually, you find your whole life revolves around the church, which is great,” he continued. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love it.”

The press of pastoral duties hasn’t put an end to all of Father Koller’s hobbies, however.

Father Koller caught the travel bug while he served in the Air Force. Half of his 23-year career was spent in Europe, so he had plenty of opportunities to travel: to Greece, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and parts of Russia you won’t ever see or hear about — ever.

“Being able to travel on a train in Egypt is an experience in itself,” he said.

One of his last assignments with Air Force was in Athens, he said. Although all American personnel there had to be very, very careful, it is now one of his favorite places to visit.

“We were targets, let’s put it that way,” said Father Koller. “We worked in an office building downtown that had, at one time, been the office of the CIA, and it still had the connotation of being an intelligence agency operation out of there. There had been a couple of assassinations that had taken place in that building, so it was kind of a wild place.”

But for tourists, Greece was — and is — a relatively safe place, especially so in the countryside and the islands. Last April he led a group of parishioners on a vacation to Greece, and they had a great time.

Father Koller intends to hit the road in the near future, but not with his beloved Mustang. Rather than the throaty roar of his stabled Pony, this coming April he and other pilgrims will relax in the sedate ride of a tour bus as they visit the shrines of Italy.

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