For many students, college life is rarely easy, usually fun and nearly always demanding. For the seminarians preparing for ordination, this year presented its own unique set of circumstances. When Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order was in place, Thomas Skaja, Brady Keller and Patrick Hoeft were among the men quarantined at St. Paul Seminary.
“We ended our time in seminary by spending 60-plus days in a cloister-like setting,” Thomas Skaja said. “Although it wasn’t an ideal way to end, it provided us with a lot of time of prayer, study and fraternity. I’m going to look upon these last months of my time in seminary with a heart of gratitude.”
And on June 6, in what should have been a fully-packed church, the three men were ordained to the priesthood at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud by Bishop Donald Kettler. With just their families and a few close friends spread out in pews, they donned masks for closer interactions.
“Your priesthood ordination today is, needless to say, unique and challenging — but it still is a joyful experience for us all,” Bishop Kettler told them. “Thank you for your strong desire to be ordained, to begin your ministries as soon as possible. You know that your priesthood is very much needed today. … God called you by name to the priesthood. You are his priests forever.”
MEET FATHER Thomas Skaja
Father Skaja grew up attending Annunciation Parish in Mayhew Lake. It was there he first felt the nudge toward the priesthood. Influenced and encouraged by priests and spiritual leaders, Father Skaja entered the seminary right out of high school.
“The best part of the seminary experience has been the friendships,” he said. “We seminarians aren’t merely classmates or acquaintances, but a band of brothers. Whether it was praying together or playing an intense game of racquetball or cards together, I can easily say that the friendships that I’ve made in seminary are lifelong relationships, and I’m thankful for the chance to have gotten to know such fine men over the years.”
Father Skaja said of all the things he will do as a priest he is most looking forward to hearing confessions.
“Having received so much healing and forgiveness from the Lord in this wonderful sacrament in my own life, I can’t wait to offer the merciful love of God to those who seek it [now that] I’m a priest of Jesus Christ,” he said.
In addition, he is eager to share the Gospel.
“For much of my life, especially in high school, public speaking was never something that I looked forward to,” he said. “But over these years of seminary formation, after a lot of practice and a lot of grace, I’ve really come to enjoy offering homilies. It’s not that I’m totally fearless at the pulpit today, but rather I just love receiving the opportunity to share the love of God through preaching.”
His first assignment will be as parochial vicar at St. Michael, St. Cloud, and St. Joseph, Waite Park, as well as sacramental minister with Hispanic ministry at St. Andrew, Elk River.
MEET FATHER Brady Keller
Hailing from the far western part of the diocese — St. Gall in Tintah — is Father Brady Keller.
Despite the challenges of being quarantined, Father Keller said the pandemic has forced him to rely more heavily on God’s providence for his life.
“Whatever plans I may have for my life, they are futile if they are not part of God’s plan,” he said. And that’s just one of the tenets of his faith that was reinforced in seminary.
“I think the best experience has been the opportunity to dig so deeply into studying our Catholic faith. There’s so much in our Catholic tradition that I never knew that has changed the way I view the world, man and God all for the better,” he said.
During his time in seminary, Father Keller also developed an affinity for teaching.
“Given all that we learn in seminary that helps us know and love God on a deeper level, I love to share what I’ve learned with others,” he said. “There’s so much God has given us in the faith that we can never exhaust.
“My family and friends may be able to attest to the fact that I enjoy sharing little ‘fun facts of the day.’ However, beyond these tidbits, there’s so much that can bring us closer to God who is Truth itself. Through various opportunities, such as in religious education, men’s group, and young adult groups, I’ve experienced a greater love of teaching.”
Father Keller will share that love in his new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Augustine, St. John Cantius and St. Mary’s Cathedral, all in St. Cloud.
“I want people to know they can always approach me with any question, concern or the like that they may have even though I will not have answers for everything,” Father Keller said.
He hopes that everyone who has supported him thus far will continue to support him and all his brother priests.
“You can support me best by praying for me,” he said, “and by growing in holiness together as the Body of Christ.”
MEET FATHER Patrick Hoeft
The youngest priest of the diocese is Father Patrick Hoeft from St. Louis Parish in Paynesville.
Father Hoeft said that he has been strongly influenced by many great role models, especially in seminary.
“The greatest experience in seminary was having many holy and faithful priests, teachers and mentors who have devoted their life and work to serving the Church and forming the upcoming generation of priests,” he said.
He spent his final semester of seminary particularly focused on preparing to hear confessions, something he is enthusiastic about doing.
“Even without hearing real confessions, it was still evident how clearly God works in people’s lives in this sacrament,” Father Hoeft said. “To be present as person after person comes in and opens their heart and soul to the Lord and then hears the words of absolution as their sins are forgiven is a real grace. It makes very clear the reality that through the sacraments God pours out grace in the souls of his people through tangible signs.”
Father Hoeft will serve as parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth, Elizabeth; Our Lady of Victory, Fergus Falls; and St. Leonard of Port Mauritius, Pelican Rapids.
“I’m looking forward to living the daily life of a priest and becoming established in the parishes I’ll be serving,” he said. “I’ve had great experiences of parish life already, but it’s mostly been short-term or part-time experiences. It will be nice to be present full time as a priest.”
(photography by Dianne Towalski/The Central Minnesota Catholic)