In grade school, ‘I knew that’s what I wanted to do,’ says 50-year jubilarian
“The word definitely is ‘call,’” he said. “I understood it. I understand it, more in retrospect than I did at the time. I knew in my heart in second or third grade. I would practice church, make little hosts out of wholesome bread. I would ask the neighborhood kids to come to ‘Mass,’ which didn’t last real long on their part. I knew then, pretty much, that’s what I wanted to do.”
While at Marinette Catholic Central High School, Fr. Bergstadt contemplated three different paths for his future.
“It was between social worker, because I thought they did a lot of good, priest or teacher,” he said. “My mother was a teacher, so I hung around with teachers all my life and knew the kind of people they were.”
He received affirmation for the priesthood from a School Sister of Notre Dame, who taught at the high school.
“I hadn’t told anybody,” explained Fr. Bergstadt. “One day, she stopped me in the hall and said, ‘Well are you or aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Aren’t I doing what?’ ‘Are you going to be a priest or not?’ I said, ‘How do you know that?’ She said, ‘I just know.’ That really firmed it up in my mind. That’s the sign I needed.”
He received another sign while praying in the chapel at Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida during a day for prospective students.
“I remember kneeling there during benediction and seeing the sun coming through on the altar and thinking, ‘This is it. This is definitely it,’” said Fr. Bergstadt. “I honestly have never gone back thinking I should have done this instead. Nor do I ever say that I had a job. It’s not a job. The days are too short sometimes, the possibilities are too multiple, but I’m grateful for it.”
Fr. Bergstadt’s parents, Walter and Anna (Bostedt) Bergstadt, were supportive of their only child’s vocation. His mother was Catholic and his father was Lutheran at the time.
“They both made a sacrifice and they never made me feel guilty,” he said. “The only thing my mother told me was, ‘Now John, if you are ever ordained, remember we are not the movers and the shakers. You are just ordinary people, so you say hello to everybody when you stand outside of church.’ When my mother got to be 94, I think, she sat in back of church and said, ‘Do you have to talk to everybody?’ I said, ‘You are the one who taught me that.’”
Fr. Bergstadt studied at Sacred Heart Seminary before moving on to St. Francis Seminary near Milwaukee. He was then selected to attend Pontifical Gregorian University, North American College, in Rome, where he studied from 1964 to 1968.
His time in Rome overlapped with the Second Vatican Council.
“It was fascinating. Some of the same people who were writing the documents would come to the college in the evening to give a lecture,” he said. “To see busloads of bishops looking like kids going to school was neat. These guys got off the buses with their briefcases in hand.”
Fr. Bergstadt was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Francis Reh at St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 21, 1967. His father received permission to receive Communion at the ordination Mass. When Fr. Bergstadt returned home after completing his final exams, he baptized his father into the Catholic faith.
“That was a terribly humbling experience,” said Fr. Bergstadt. “He had taken instructions and had not told many people that was where he was going. I give credit to one of the Lauermans (Lauerman Brothers Department Store). He knew Dad was the father of a seminarian. He used to come down and sit at the counter where Dad worked in the shipping department and say, ‘Walter, what don’t you understand about the Catholic Church?’ I think that really made it possible for Dad to come into the church. Here was somebody Dad worked for and admired speaking about faith and the church.”
Fr. Bergstadt’s first appointment was as associate pastor at St. Therese Parish in Appleton. He then served at Sacred Heart Seminary for two years before returning to parish ministry at Holy Cross Parish, Kaukauna, where he was associate pastor for four years and co-pastor for three years. In 1979, he was appointed pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Green Bay, where he served for 17 years.
“We built the church at St. Bernard’s. Our generation felt that the church had too much property already. You were not going to put another brick down,” he said. “I got out to Cliff and Ceil’s for a social event. This little committee came up to talk to me. ‘So Father, when are we going to build the church?’ I thought to myself, ‘I can’t build a church.’ They worked very closely with me and made it happen.”
Fr. Bergstadt was appointed pastor of St. Bernard Parish, Appleton, in 1996. He succeeded Fr. Orv Janssen, who had built St. Bernard Church and served the parish for 32 years, which made the transition challenging.
“He was a giant in every true sense of the word,” said Fr. Bergstadt about Fr. Janssen, who died in 1999. “I wished he would have lived longer. I would have loved to have gained more from him.”
Fr. Bergstadt didn’t know much about St. John the Baptist when he was appointed pastor in 2005, other than that the parish was building a new church.
“The staff is just excellent,” he said. “People are dedicated. Sometimes, you have to say, ‘Go home, it’s time to leave.’ They love what they do.
“There is a healthy sense of ownership,” he added. “People see something that needs to be done and ask if it’s OK if we do this. A lot of things happen that way, which is wonderful.”
The parish celebrated Fr. Bergstadt’s 50-year jubilee with Mass and a dinner on Dec. 10 at St. John the Baptist Church. Bishop David Ricken and several priests attended. Fr. Scott Valentyn, parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist, served as the homilist. He said that among the lessons he has learned from Fr. Bergstadt are humility, the need of assistance from others and the importance of listening.
“Fourth and most important, none of this matters if it doesn’t start and end with your prayer life, with your personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Fr. Valentyn. “(Fr. Bergstadt) lives it.”
Fr. Bergstadt is regularly asked how long he plans to stay at the parish. There are “a lot of things poised to happen” at the church and school which he wants to help see through. He said he is also praying for a seminarian from St. John the Baptist.
“More young people are talking about the seminary,” he said. “More and more young people are starting to ask those questions. Hopefully that will bear fruit.”
The call he received so many years ago continues to be renewed.
“You read those passages of vocation and it’s as though you are called fresh every time to something more than you had before,” he said. “You are always beginning, which is a wonderful feeling in a sense. You have not arrived.”