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A father twice

Husband, father and grandfather ordained to the priesthood

by Marc and Julie Anderson

WATHENA — Lots of Catholic boys consider the priesthood before meeting the loves of their lives and settling down to a different vocation.

Very few get a chance at both.

The road that led 63-year-old Henry Wertin, a native son of St. Joseph Church in Wathena, to both marriage and the priesthood was definitely an unusual one. The fact that two of his sons had already been ordained makes the story one for the record books.

Father Wertin, who was ordained Feb. 5 to the priesthood for the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, sat down with The Leaven to tell that story when he returned to his home parish May 21 to celebrate Mass for the first time since his ordination.

“He’s the man”

Growing up, young Henry Wertin’s life revolved around his parish — but even more so, its patron, St. Joseph.

Born Jan. 18, 1953, at St. Joseph Hospital, Wertin was baptized at St. Joseph Parish and attended St. Joseph Grade School — located on St. Joseph Street.

While at Mass, the boy often gazed at the stained-glass window depicting the death of St. Joseph.

“He’s the man,” said Father Wertin.

The parish was the focus of his family’s life.

“I remember when my grandmother would baby-sit me while my mother (Agnes Wertin, still a member of the parish) was in the hospital delivering another sibling. This was before I was old enough to go to school.

“My grandmother and I, hand in hand, would walk up the hill to the church to attend daily Mass,” he said.

“I also have precious memories of families from the church getting together with us on Sunday at each other’s houses for the whole day,” he added.

Wertin, taught by Benedictine Sisters at St. Joseph Grade School, was already considering a vocation to the priesthood in eighth grade, and, after graduation, headed off to Savior of the World Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas. It was only after his graduation from there in 1971 that his life took an unexpected turn.

While at Benedictine College in Atchison, a place he chose for the opportunity to pursue monastic life at   nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey, he met a young woman named Mary Beth Cavanagh. The two married in 1973. In 1976, Wertin graduated from Cleveland Chiropractic College and established an office in Lamar, Colorado, where his wife had grown up.

Wertin’s marriage was every bit the vocation his later priesthood would be.

“God has always been a part of my life,” he said. “And prayer and the church have kept my relationship with him alive.”

His son Mark saw plenty evidence of that growing up.

“Dad’s always been a man of prayer,” he said.  Whether it’s been as a member of the Knights of Columbus or his attendance at daily Mass, his dad never failed to serve.

Sunday Mass, according to Mark, was an absolute priority. He and his brother Henry, along with their sister Colleen Auchenbach, shared that prayer was an integral part of their faith formation.

Grace before meals, bedtime prayers and family rosaries were important, but equally important to Henry Wertin were spontaneous prayers offered whenever they heard ambulance sirens or those offered after talking with their mom while she was preparing a meal in the kitchen.

Mark, Henry and Colleen — all who now live in the archdiocese — said prayer was just a natural part of their family.

And they were not surprised, they said, when their father, with their mother’s support, made the decision to pursue the permanent diaconate.

“I used to go to daily Mass in Lamar, Colorado, and we had a wonderful priest,” recalled Father Wertin. “His name was Msgr. Holland, and we would go out to breakfast after Mass.”

When Msgr. Holland learned that his bishop was planning to start a permanent diaconate in the diocese, he invited Wertin to consider applying.

Ordained in 2000, Deacon Wertin spent four years witnessing marriages, baptizing children and adults, and preaching. He planned to continue that way indefinitely.

“That plan failed in favor of God’s plan,” Deacon Wertin wrote in an account of his vocation.

The road less traveled

In June 2004, after 31 years of marriage, Mary Beth Wertin died as the result of a car accident.

In the ensuing years, the widower devoted himself to raising the youngest five of his 10 children.

But by 2013, with his children safely launched, the deacon was being encouraged — and drawn — beyond the permanent diaconate. He started considering the priesthood. His two sons Matthew and Carl, were already priests for the Diocese of Pueblo.

“You feel called from the outside and called from the inside,” he said.

Eventually, he made formal application to the diocese and was accepted to study at Sacred Heart Seminary in Wisconsin, a seminary geared for the vocations of men ages 35 and older.

His ordination to the priesthood on Feb. 9 was a bit unusual.

His children attended. His grandchildren attended. And two of his sons — Fathers Carl and Matthew — vested him.

But for all its unconventional nature, it was a moment 86-year-old Agnes Wertin relished with great joy.

“I’m so proud to be the mother of a priest and the grandmother of two priests,” she said. “They all three had a calling, and they listened to what God had to say to them.”

The road ahead

For his part, though much has changed for Father Henry Wertin, much has remained the same.

Mass is still the most important thing in the world to him.

“The celebration of the Eucharist itself is life changing,” he said.

And he still leans heavily on his longtime patron.

Which is only appropriate. Father Wertin’s first assignment is as pastor of a parish in Grand Junction, Colorado, named — of course —  St. Joseph’s.

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

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