by Joe Bollig
Even when it’s God on the line, it seems like someone else has to give you the message. This was certainly the case with Michael Joseph Peterson.
Peterson was a licensed professional engineer, studying for a doctorate in engineering at the University of Kansas in the early 1990s, when his mother laid a bombshell on him.
“It was four months before she died,” said Peterson. “At Thanksgiving , she said, ‘Have you ever considered becoming a priest?’ Right out of the blue. And I said, ‘Yes,’ but I dropped the issue. I had other ideas.”
At the time, Peterson was a partner in a business and had completed all but his dissertation for his doctoral degree. Becoming a priest wasn’t on his list.
But God didn’t let up. He sent other people — a score of women from the Legion of Mary, and an usher at Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Overland Park — to convey to the young engineer the same message.
Finally, even he could see his vocation. So Peterson contacted the archdiocesan vocations director and, in 2007, entered Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.
Peterson was born in Concordia and raised in Clyde. His father Clayton was a plumber. His mother, Irene (Hiltgen), was a schoolteacher before she married. She and her husband had two boys and two girls; Michael was the “baby” of the family.
The family belonged to St. John the Baptist Church, and the children attended St. Ann School in Clyde from grades one through eight. His mother, the devout one of the family, was Catholic. Clayton Peterson was baptized a Presbyterian at age 13, but joined the Methodist Church when he was 93. He was always supportive, however, of his wife’s efforts to raise the children as Catholics.
Peterson graduated from Clyde Rural High School in 1971, and went to Cloud County Community College. He transferred from there to Kansas State University and earned a bachelor’s in 1975 and a master’s in 1977, both in civil engineering.
He entered professional life as a consultant for Burns and McDonald; he later went to work for a small manufacturer. Peterson then became a partner in the Ray Lindsey Company, which sells water treatment equipment.
It was while studying at KU, Peterson now believes, that a fire was lit under his faith.
“Probably [the turning point] was at KU, having to defend the Catholic Church,” he said. “When you’re at a secular university, you’re either called to defend or you’ve just got to bail out of your faith.”
He was challenged about Pope Pius XII’s actions during World War II, and by a Wiccan study mate, and more. He was forced to educate himself in the faith, rather than being a “one hour a week” Catholic.
What really got the ball rolling was a retreat for men considering a priestly vocation. The vocations director at the time was Father Brian Schieber.
“I met him [at prayer vigils] outside Planned Parenthood,” said Peterson. “We used to pray the rosary there. And I always admired his dedication to prolife — the way he’d put himself out there.”
Discussions followed. Father Schieber told Peterson that his age was not an issue. Finally, after settling his affairs, Peterson packed his bags for Blessed John XXIII National Seminary near Boston, which specializes in “late” vocations.
By no means has it been an easy road, even after he decided to go into the seminary.
“You have your doubts and anxieties, even at my age,” said Deacon Peterson. “I was talking to my fellow fourth-year [students], and they said, ‘Do you have butterflies?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”
Nevertheless, the direction has always been forward, and his vocation has been confirmed by others.
“I’ve had many people say, ‘You’ll be a good priest,’” Deacon Peterson said.
He was ordained a deacon on May 22, 2010, at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park and will be ordained to the priesthood at 10:30 a.m. on May 28 at Holy Trinity Parish, Lenexa.
In addition to his past professional experience, Peterson believes he brings to the priesthood an ability to deal with a broad array of personalities. He also wants to defend the church and its teachings.
“I hope I can [offer] some defense of the church when confronted,” he said. “I think that I have that apologetic fervor still in me, even at my ‘senior citizen’ age,” he said.
Last movie seen: “The Great Escape” (on DVD)
Favorite TV show: the History Channel
Favorite musical group/person: Enya
My most notable encounter with the famous/infamous: Pope Benedict XVI in New York (at 15 feet!)
The most inspirational Christian I’ve met: My mother and my Grandmother Catherine
Books now reading: Just textbooks. I like to read philosophy and apologetics, and the works of G. K. Chesterton.
Favorite food: Steak and potatoes
Least favorite food: Oysters
Favorite childhood toy: Road grader and dump truck
Favorite place in the whole world: My parents’ garden, or down by the Republican River
Dream vacation: Tour of European cathedrals
Worst job I’ve ever had: I didn’t mind any of them. Best job I’ve ever had: Working with my dad or uncle, who was a farmer.
Hobbies/Things I like to do: Play golf and read (not at the same time)
If I were sent on a difficult missionary journey, the saint I’d take with me would be: Pope John Paul II or St. Joseph
If I had a church history time machine, I’d: go meet St. Thomas Aquinas.
Best advice I’ve received: Let the church decide if your vocation is true.
Qualities I admire in priests I know: Tenacity, energy and wisdom
My advice for someone seeking their vocation: Prayer and more prayer, and let the church assist you in making the decision.
What I’m looking forward to as a priest: Administering the anointing of the sick and celebrating the Mass.