By Tracey Primrose
June 27, 2014 — Jesuit Father Michael Rozier, who was ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, June 14, is a small town boy with a big horizon. He hails from Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, a farming community of 4,000 residents, a place the Roziers have called home since 1810. His ancestor, Ferdinand Rozier, laid down roots here, opening a general store in Ste. Genevieve with business partner John James Audubon. When Audubon, who later earned fame as a great ornithologist, naturalist and artist, flew the coop early on, the Roziers stayed. They operated the family business for the next two centuries, with young Michael and his siblings lending a hand, sweeping and mopping the aisles and unloading deliveries after school and on weekends.
Ste. Genevieve is a picturesque place that boasts the nation’s largest collection of intact French colonial architecture, but for Fr. Rozier the heart and soul of his small town is the parish where he grew up, also named for the patron saint of Paris. Here, he attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and began to experience an early call to the priesthood.
“Our church sits at the center of the town square and seats 960 people,” Fr. Rozier says. “It’s amazing that in such a small town, the Catholic Church not only survives but thrives. Our parish was literally and figuratively the center of my life and the town’s activity.”
Traveling an hour from home to attend college at Saint Louis University, Fr. Rozier, who hoped to become a doctor, pursued pre-med studies while working in campus ministry, serving in student government and playing the French horn in the school’s pep band. It was a busy and happy time and, importantly, a period in his life that helped confirm his vocation because Fr. Rozier came to know the Jesuits, and that changed everything.
Recalling that moment 11 years ago when he decided to enter the Jesuits, Fr. Rozier says, “I really fell in love with the life. I spent very little time daydreaming about being a physician, and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about my life as a Jesuit.”
After two years at the Jesuit novitiate, Fr. Rozier was assigned to Regis College at the University of Toronto, where he earned an advanced philosophy degree and spent a summer in El Salvador learning Spanish and working with the poor.
When it was time to consider the next step in formation, Fr. Rozier was encouraged to “dream big dreams,”which led the former pre-med student to consider his growing interest in public health. Excited about the prospect of helping people lead fuller lives on a massive scale, Fr. Rozier headed to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University to pursue a master’s degree. “What I love about public health is that at its best, it makes the healthy option the easiest option to choose.”
His next assignment was a fellowship at the World Health Organization in Geneva, where he met and befriended public health workers from around the globe. Fr. Rozier recalls that his new friends, many of them disaffected Catholics, were anxious to talk about faith. “The conversations I had about faith when we were all there essentially for a very secular objective were astounding. I am very confident that the work of God is being done by these people.”
After his time in Geneva, Fr. Rozier returned to his alma mater, Saint Louis University, to teach global health and public health ethics. The longtime student was back in the classroom, but this time, he was at the front of the lecture hall, inspiring a whole new crop of public health workers. He says, “Public health and Jesuit education go hand in hand. In both, we ask critical questions and put forth creative solutions. What I love most about public health is that it’s one of those fields where young people can make a huge difference right away.”
Fr. Rozier teaching at Saint Louis University during his Jesuit formation. Photo courtesy of Saint Louis University.
When he arrived at Saint Louis University, the school only offered graduate degrees in public health, but Fr. Rozier leapt at the chance to help develop an undergraduate program, which meant designing the curriculum and recruiting students. Three short years later, when he moved on for theology studies in Boston, there were upwards of 200 undergrads enrolled in the school.
At the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Fr. Rozier earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology and a Master of Divinity degree while serving as a deacon at a local church. His 11-year path to the priesthood included assignments near home and across the globe, but as he contemplated his ordination, there was only one place on his mind: Ste. Genevieve. The church and the town.
“For years, parishioners I don’t even know have come up to me and told me they’re praying for me and are excited about my ordination and how they can’t wait for me to come back and celebrate my first Mass. It is truly a humbling experience every time I go home,” says Fr. Rozier. “Growing up in a small town was in some ways challenging, but in most ways, it was incredibly supportive. Everyone knows your business, but it also means that people are there to celebrate with you.”
Fr. Rozier surrounded by family after his ordination. Photo by Thomas Rochford, SJ.
As he heads off to his next assignment, doctoral studies at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Fr. Rozier says that he “can’t imagine being happier than I am today. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 11 years, what I imagined doing pales in comparison to what I’m asked to do.”
Fr. Rozier celebrating his first Mass.
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