As Father Joe Classen makes the 5,000-plus mile journey to Alaska to start a new assignment, he'll be taking along with him an important piece of his childhood.
In mid July, Father Classen begins his work as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Kodiak, Alaska. Ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2003, he previously had been serving as associate pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Maryland Heights.
Coming along with him on the journey is a decades-old chalice that once belonged to his childhood pastor, Msgr. Michael Owens. Father Classen got to know the priest, who died in 1988, assisting him as a server at Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in St. Charles.
"A huge inspiration"
Known as "Iron Mike" for his no-nonsense ways, Msgr. Owens' example and devotion to the Eucharist left a mark on Father Classen.
"I tell people the original seeds in my vocation were planted in serving Mass for Msgr. Owens," said Father Classen. "When he was celebrating the Eucharist, using this very chalice and patent, going through the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, even as a little kid, I was aware that something profoundly sacred was taking place. That was a huge inspiration to me."
The story of how Father Classen obtained the chalice is laced with providence. Nearly eight years ago as a seminarian, Father Classen had been volunteering his summers helping out at St. Charles Borromeo. There, he began talking to parish employee Kathy Kasprzyk, who had worked with Msgr. Owens for years.
"Kathy was Msgr. Owens' number-one fan," said Father Classen. "As I was getting closer to ordination, we were kicking around the idea of tracking down his chalice." Through the help of Kasprzyk and others, Father Classen was able to track down the chalice to Father Thomas Begley, now a retired priest of the archdiocese.
It seemed that Father Begley had a family connection to Msgr. Owens and received the chalice after his own ordination. Father Classen contacted him and discovered that Father Begley had placed the chalice in storage in the midst of a priest reassignment. Sadly, he was unable to immediately locate the chalice.
Six months ago, Father Classen once again crossed paths with Father Begley, where the conversation turned to Msgr. Owens and the missing chalice.
"As we were talking, (Father Begley) said, 'Eight years ago, a seminarian called me, asking about his chalice.' I said, 'Well, that was me.'" Father Begley told him he had recently located the chalice and would clean it up and give it to him. Father Classen received it on the anniversary of Msgr. Owens' death, Feb. 24.
Father Classen was eager to share the news with Kasprzyk. The day he received the chalice from Father Begley, he returned to the rectory to receive a message that Kasprzyk had passed away that morning. Father Classen used the chalice for the first time at her funeral Mass.
"I kept thinking how excited Kathy was going to be," he recalled. "Like everything, this came full circle."
Moving to Alaska
In his move to Alaska, Father Classen will serve as pastor of St. Mary's Parish, which serves about 300 households and includes a school with approximately 100 students. Kodiak Island is on the southern coast of Alaska.
The assignment came after Archbishop Robert J. Carlson sent a letter earlier this year to archdiocesan priests, asking if someone would be willing to help out the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Father Classen's assignment will last three years.
"I've always had an interest in doing short-term mission work -- something within the United States," said Father Classen. "The idea of serving a smaller community appealed to me very much. And there's a real community spirit on Kodiak Island -- not just the parish but the whole island."
St. Mary's dates back to 1944, after the first Catholic priests and sisters arrived at Kodiak, first to assist with a hospital on the island. A decade later, the school was founded. Father Classen said the parish boasts a mutlicultural presence, including Filipinos, Hispanics and Samoans. There also is a presence of Russian Orthodox and native Yupik Eskimos on the island, he noted.
The avid outdoorsman also should find himself right at home in Kodiak, which is primarily known for its fishing industry. The island also is home to the Kodiak brown bear, the largest subspecies of the brown bear, and the largest U.S. Coast Guard base.
"People tell me that once you get there, if you don't love the outdoors and you don't love fishing, you're going to be miserable here," he joked.
Printed with permission from the St. Louis Review, newspaper for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri.