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After a Half Century, Jesuit Father Joseph Retzel Retiring from Native American Ministry

May 22, 2015 — After 53 years of pastoral care for Native American communities across Montana, Jesuit Father Joseph Retzel is retiring. For the past 21 years, Fr. Retzel has served at St. Paul Mission — a steady presence on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation through times of joy and sorrow.

With Fr. Retzel’s departure, a 128-year history of Jesuit residency at Fort Belknap will conclude. "Our provincial (Father Scott Santarosa) came last October to talk about retirement," Fr. Retzel said recently. "He said, 'Joseph, I know it's in your mind to die here, but I want you to pray about it, and start thinking about retiring.'"

Fr. Retzel's prayers ended in quiet humility. "It is difficult — and I grieve — yes," he confessed. "These people are my family, and with my leaving — I'll be leaving my family. But following the provincial's lead, I've been praying about it, and I've come to the point that I see it's going to be OK.”

After graduating from Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, in 1945, Fr. Retzel enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He next graduated from Gonzaga University and entered the Jesuit novitiate. As a newly-ordained Jesuit priest, he was assigned to serve as the assistant pastor at St. Jude Church in Havre, Montana, in 1962. He was next assigned to St. Paul Mission on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

"It's not just that he's a special priest, he's a special person," said Mary Byrne, a teacher at the St. Paul Mission school. "Some people come here and feel like they belong. Some people come and always feel out of place. Fr. Retzel is comfortable with all the people. He's just so in tune with the people around him — he is there for all of them."

On July 15, Fr. Retzel will make a short journey to Spokane, where he will join a community of retired Jesuit priests on the campus of Gonzaga University. Those who know him best are saddened by his departure.

"I had to get my heart OK with him retiring," said Byrne. "I think if he stayed, he couldn't slow down. … I believe now that retiring is probably better for him, because if he didn't, he would never ever have a chance to just stop and relax — to just pray and be with other Jesuits."

“The people here — especially some of the elders — have taught me the importance of being present," Fr. Retzel said. "Just to be present in the moment, wherever I am. They've taught me the gift of that, the meaning of that." [Source: Great Falls Tribune]

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