By Margie Wuebker
MINSTER -- The Rev. Louis Schmit traditionally dons colorful vestments when celebrating Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church.
He reserves a U.S. Army uniform with assorted medals and ribbons for special occasions such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Schmit, who is retiring June 30 after 43 years in the priesthood, spent the lion's share of that time as a military chaplain.
"I think Grandmother (Elizabeth) Roessner played a role in my decision to enter the priesthood," he admits with a smile. "And so did two neighbor women we affectionately called Grandma Sutter and Grandma Wendel. They all prayed for me, so the groundwork was already laid by the time I left for Brunnerdale in the eighth grade."
He recalls walking to St. Peter Catholic Church in Mercer County each morning -- even in the summer -- for Mass. More youngsters fell in step with the "grandmas" asking he and the older ones to be protectors. "The grandmas adopted me," he says. "They must have thought I was a good one to pray for or maybe that I needed more prayers than the rest."
Following completion of high school studies at Brunnerdale, he enrolled at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Ind.
Schmit faced a momentous decision prior to enrolling at the Precious Blood Novitiate near Burkettsville. He had remained close over the years with a childhood friend, and she wanted to know whether their relationship had a chance of moving to a new level.
"Dad reminded me I was not the only pebble on the beach," he says. "I made a commitment to the priesthood, and my friend eventually married someone else."
Ordination took place June 8, 1963, at St. Charles Seminary in Carthagena. Following pastoral work in Michigan and Kentucky, he taught at Carroll High School and served as a contract chaplain at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.
The desire to enter the military surfaced after his return to Brunnerdale as a teacher and later rector and business manager.
Schmit, who turns 70 on Monday, believes the death of one of his former Carroll students lead to his decision to don a military uniform in August 1970 as a member of the Army National Guard and then six years later as an active-duty Army officer.
His student, the Rev. Clement Falter, was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam. Falter became the first Catholic priest to die in World War II.
Schmit was told that Falter had asked for permission to accompany his unit to a scheduled beach landing, which many of the men feared.
"The men believed Father Falter would protect them even though he carried no weapon," Schmit explains. "He was hit by shrapnel and died in their arms."
Calling himself a mere tool in the hands of God, Schmit served soldiers and their families at various places in the United States as well as Bosnia, Korea, Africa and Germany during 24 years of active duty.
He had an opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II several times while stationed in Germany, once at the cathedral in Falda and again on the tarmac at Stuttgart Air Force Base. He also met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the bishop of Munich, at the same cathedral and marveled at the man's sense of humor. He had no idea Ratzinger would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Schmit retired from military service June 30, 1998, as a colonel and was brought back to full-time status the very next day for a two-year hitch. He became pastor at St. Augustine in 2001.
He witnessed many changes in faith practices since seminary days. Priests now face the congregation and use English in the celebration of Mass and sacraments. The laity takes an active role in parish life as ordained deacons, Eucharistic ministers, pastoral assistants and CCD teachers.
Schmit admits the dream of pastoring a small country church in later years is no longer attainable. Churches throughout the area have formed clusters and share pastors due to fewer men entering the priesthood.
"I reached a point of knowing my time had come," he says with a sigh. "My memory is not as good as it used to be."
His immediate plans include moving to an apartment at St. Charles Center in Carthagena. His drill press and tools will go along because he still enjoys assembling and fixing things. His collection of German military insignias, except for those on loan to the an overseas museum, and his World War II books will also acquire a new home.
"I am sure there will be churches in the area who will need me to celebrate Mass," he says. "A priest is a priest forever even in retirement."