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Four priests to retire
Recall joys and challenges of ministry

By RENEE WEBB, Globe reporter
(Email Renee)

Celebrating the sacraments and working with the people of God are just two of the many joys of priesthood expressed by four priests soon to retire.

The four to retire are Msgr. Roger Augustine, Father Robert Gralapp, Msgr. Michael Sernett and Father John Vakulskas.

Msgr. Augustine, parochial vicar and senior pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Sioux City, said offering Mass and serving God’s people were among the greatest blessings of his priestly service.

“The Lord also gave me the opportunity to serve in many different ways in our diocese – as pastor, as teacher and as administrator,” he said.

Msgr. Augustine had the unique opportunity to serve as the head shepherd of the diocese when he was elected to serve as the diocesan administrator for the two years the Diocese of Sioux City was without a bishop. He found it a privilege to be asked to serve as diocesan administrator and was blessed to have the support of the priests.

“It was a real joy to be able to bring the sacraments to people – through Communion at Mass, reconciliation and baptism,” said Msgr. Augustine, who served a number of years as vicar general of the diocese. Along with joyous occasions, it has been also meaningful for him to serve families during tougher times such as when the sacrament of anointing was necessary.

He recalled the graciousness of the people, noting that raising money can sometimes be a challenge. Citing the building project for Mater Dei School in Sioux City, Msgr. Augustine said they were able to accomplish it through the generosity of the people.

If a young man were considering a vocation to the priesthood, he said, “They should pray and put their trust in God. Prayer is very important.” For men being called by God to the vocation, “they should think about it, prayer about it – at least try it. You never gain anything if you don’t try it.”

In retirement, Msgr. Augustine plans to reside in Marcus. He plans to be available to help his brother priests who are still in active ministry and hopes to have more time for reading.

“I’m in the senior part of my life, so I have to prepare myself and stay close to the Lord,” he said.
Father Gralapp, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Manning and Sacred Heart Parish in Manilla, called his 50 years of priesthood a joyous journey.

“I’ve enjoyed every day and never regretted a day,” he said. “I have experienced the love I feel God has for me and that I try to respond to, and the love and generosity of the people. I really felt that and that’s what made life really worthwhile. Life was worth living.”

Father Gralapp said parish ministry was a highlight. He loved teaching religion, visiting people, offering Mass and sacramental ministry.

In a nutshell, Father Gralapp said he always tried to do what Jesus would do if he was here.

“I tried to imitate Jesus; I tried to project myself into that spot,” he said.

One of the greatest challenges, Father Gralapp added, was helping people realize the love God has for them and the love that each person should have for each other.

“I always tried to make God real to people and let them know that he really loved them,” he said.
For someone discerning a call to the priesthood, Father Gralapp shared: “Don’t be afraid. If God is calling you and you are inclined to serve God and the people in that way – it’s a good life. Looking at myself, I always felt it was the best and easiest way to get to heaven.”

His inspiration to follow the path to priesthood came from priests he encountered in school and at his parish.
In retirement, Father Gralapp plans to reside in Carroll.

“My plan is to help out other priests whenever I can, wherever I can and I plan to do a little traveling,” he said.

In fact, within the first month of retirement, Father Gralapp plans to attend the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of the first couple he married.

Msgr. Sernett, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Estherville and Immaculate Conception Parish in Graettinger, found the greatest joy and fulfilment of priesthood to be sacramental celebrations – offering Mass, celebrating baptisms, weddings and even funerals.

He has found joy and fulfilment in serving the people – both in good times and times of sorrow.

“I’ve always enjoyed the special ministry I’ve had in my 44 years of priesthood working with the diocesan tribunal, working with marriage cases and helping people get back into the church,” Msgr. Sernett said. “The work has always been challenging, but I’ve loved it for the 35 years I have been working in the tribunal.”

Through the years, Msgr. Sernett has had the chance to serve in a variety of capacities.

“When I was ordained, my whole mentality was to serve as a parish priest. I got to do that for a year and then Bishop Greteman asked me to go to Rome where I spent four years. I never expected that to be part of my priesthood, but that was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Acquiring a doctorate in church law, Msgr. Sernett used that knowledge not only in the tribunal but as he served as chancellor and vicar general.

“Being with people pastorally has been a joy and an uplift,” Msgr. Sernett said. “I appreciate all of the kindnesses people have done for me over the years.”

One struggle of priesthood these days, he noted, is trying to meet the demands of the times. In the busyness of life, he said some do not put emphasis on the faith in the same way they do secular activities. Dealing with various administrative tasks and parish finances could also provide challenges.

In retirement, he plans to move to Pocahontas and live in his parents’ home. Along with helping out the local pastor when needed, Msgr. Sernett plans to spend time visiting family and friends. He also hopes to make more time for reading and prayer – slowing down his pace and spending more time in spiritual development.

Father Vakulskas, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Sibley and St. Mary Parish in Ashton, described the priesthood as “an ongoing experience of serving God’s people knowing that it isn’t John Vakulskas doing the work, it’s Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

The teaching aspect of the ministry was always meaningful for him. Given that he mainly taught Old Testament and New Testament Scripture courses, Father Vakulskas encouraged all of his students to learn the books of the Bible.

“Almost 100 percent of them did. It wasn’t as tough as they thought it would be,” he said. “I still get a lot of comments and Christmas letters where they say, ‘I still know my books of the Bible.’”

Despite the many blessings of priesthood, Father Vakulskas acknowledged at times challenges included raising money and administrative tasks, but any burdens were greatly lessened through the help of motivated people and committees.

Early on in his priesthood, he explained he made a commitment to reach out to fallen away Catholics.

“That has been a sweet challenge,” said Father Vakulskas. “I make cold calls and tell them, ‘I am here offering you the peace, love and mercy of Jesus Christ, how can I be of spiritual service to you. Ninety-nine percent of the time I am welcomed with open arms. The Lord has done many wonderful things over the years through that – not me.”

Visiting fallen-away Catholics, visiting the sick and working with youth, he noted, have provided some of the greatest joys of his ministry. Another great ministry love has been his work in carnival ministry, which he has done for many years on his free time/vacation days.

In retirement, he plans to reside in Okoboji. Father Vakulskas plans to help his brother priests when called upon as well as continue his carnival ministry and leading tours around the world.

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