Long ago, Gene Schaeffer and Allen Boedeker knew that God was calling them to ordained ministry.
They answered by becoming permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Between the two of them, they have served more than three-and-a-half decades as deacons, in a ministry of liturgy, Word and charity.
But after going through personal life changes in recent years, both have discerned that perhaps God is calling them to service through the priesthood. Deacon Boedeker, 64, and Deacon Schaeffer, 55, have headed back to the classroom, this time as seminarians at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts.
Founded in 1964, Pope St. John XXIII became the first seminary in North America for the formation of men answering the call to priesthood at a later time in their lives, typically between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. Many of them come from previous professional backgrounds, including law, medicine, business, teaching, sales, banking, social work and military service. And many of them are responding to a seed that God planted long ago.
Most seminarians will complete a four-year period of formation. However, the two from St. Louis will complete their studies in three years, because of the formation they received as deacons. Deacon Schaeffer is in his second year of studies, with an anticipated ordination date of 2022. Deacon Boedeker entered this fall and anticipates ordination in 2023. Both will be ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
“I truly believe that there are probably a lot of guys out there like us,” said Deacon Schaeffer. “Maybe they were younger vocations, and in our human nature, we said ‘no.’ But our life situations have changed, and now we’re in a position to say ‘yes.’”
The opposite of a ‘burning bush’
“It’s a slow story, not a burning bush kind of story,” Deacon Schaeffer said, describing his discernment. In high school, he attended St. Louis Preparatory Seminary-North, but that was where the discernment took a pause. After his father lost his job, Deacon Schaeffer went off to college, eventually starting a career. He was married and had two daughters, who are now in their 20s, both of whom have been supportive of their father’s decision to enter the seminary.
Deacon Schaeffer was employed in health care IT for nearly 30 years, mostly as a leader of application developers and business analysts. He most recently worked for Centene Corp. in St. Louis.
Around the time he and his wife divorced, he became more active in his parish, All Saints in St. Peters. He also served as a teacher with the Parish School of Religion. Someone suggested that he consider the permanent diaconate, and several years after his annulment was finalized, he entered the diaconate program. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2007 and has served his entire diaconate at St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville.
In addition to his traditional duties as a permanent deacon, Deacon Schaeffer has helped Catholics through the annulment process as an advocate, assisting with several dozen annulments over the course of his 12 years as a deacon. It was through this work that God was planting the seed once again.
“For me, it was about not being able to hear confessions,” he said. “When you are dealing with an annulment, you are going through some of the most difficult moments of a person’s life. I thought about how I would like to be able to offer confession as an additional part of the healing for them.”
The priesthood came up during a conversation with his spiritual director, Father Mark Chrismer. “He was the one who put a bug in my ear,” Deacon Schaeffer said. “I told him, ‘I’m too old to be a priest, I’ve got too much baggage.’” The priest helped him research seminary programs that focus on older vocations, and they came upon Pope St. John XXIII.
Father Chrismer and Deacon Schaeffer got to know one another when they were both assigned to St. Joseph. The priest knew Deacon Schaeffer had previously attended the seminary, and he began asking him whether he’d consider the priesthood. “He had a full-time job and was relatively successful,” Father Chrismer said. “It’s like the Apostles, leaving everything behind” to follow Christ.
“He’s very genuine, and I think that is such an essential quality for a priest,” Father Chrismer said. “In my mind’s eye I just so easily could see him as a pastor of a parish — just because he would not only be able to manage a parish, but also that he has a warm affability and a desire to serve. It’s clear that he has an integrity in his faith.”
During an exploratory visit to the seminary, Deacon Schaeffer met with faculty and students. “I am pretty aggressive with my business background, and I started interviewing all of the students as they were coming in and out of the cafeteria,” he said with a laugh. “I was attracted to the overall sense of peace that was there. One of my sayings is, ‘where peace is, there Christ is.’ I knew I needed to come here.”
‘When do you think Dad is going back to the seminary?’
Deacon Allen Boedeker felt a calling to ordained ministry from the time he was in the sixth grade. He attended St. Louis Prep Seminary, Cardinal Glennon College and Kenrick Seminary. But he left the seminary and eventually married his wife, Mary, and started a family. Their five children are now grown, ranging age from 39 to 49.
By the time he left the seminary, the archdiocese had started the permanent diaconate program, and years later, he considered that as a possibility. But he didn’t want to apply on his own accord.
“I wanted other people to see it in me,” said Deacon Boedeker. “I heard from several priests, as well as Mary, who said, ‘Have you considered the permanent diaconate?’ or ‘It’s time we think you do.’”
He was ordained to the diaconate in 1997. He first served at Most Precious Blood Parish in St. Louis, and then in 2001 was reassigned to St. Andrew Parish in Lemay. In 2011, he became parish administrator at St. Andrew, overseeing the day-to-day pastoral and operational needs of the parish. He and Mary, who served as a director of religious education, were the lifeblood of the parish, becoming close with families and watching their children grow over the years.
When Mary was diagnosed with terminal illness, she and Allen talked about his role as a permanent deacon and his calling to ordained ministry. “I was so active in many aspects of parish ministry as a deacon,” he said. “She was like, what are you waiting for? Just take the next step.”
Mary passed away in January 2019. Several months later, Deacon Boedeker sought out Archbishop Robert J. Carlson for guidance on the next steps in pursuing the priesthood. In May, he retired from a 30-year career teaching theology at Saint Louis University High School, clearing the way for him to enter the seminary at Pope St. John XXIII in late August.
Deacon Boedeker’s children have been fully supportive of their father’s journey. Not long after Mary died, some of his kids started asking, “When do you think Dad is going back to the seminary?”
His daughter, Carrie Kleen, said she wasn’t surprised that her dad decided to pursue the priesthood. Kleen said her daughter especially misses her grandpa being away at the seminary. “It was hard to lose grandpa right after we lost grandma, but we know he’s going to make a great priest,” Kleen said. “He and mom dedicated their lives to each other, but more importantly, I think, to the Church.”
As a St. Andrew parishioner, Kleen has had a unique perspective seeing her father’s numerous roles. “One of the things he thought was very important was that the parishioners really made the parish,” she said. “He knew he couldn’t do it himself. He was very open — strong when he needed to be but also very approachable. It was never about him. It was always about leading the people.”
While some might assume that the path to the priesthood comes from a desire to celebrate the Mass, Deacon Boedeker said it was another sacrament that he’s been drawn to — Anointing of the Sick.
“As deacons, so often we’re one of the first ones there,” he said, referring to being called to the hospital or home of someone who is gravely ill. “As a deacon, I couldn’t provide the sacrament, and that was frustrating for me.
“I view the priesthood as an extension of my permanent diaconate service,” he said. “Even though you wind up being a priest forever, you are a deacon first. You don’t ever lose the diaconate … you’re expected to be a servant” to others. “There was a feeling of wanting to be of greater service to the Church and to the people.”
>> Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary
• Cardinal Richard Cushing saw the need for a Catholic seminary dedicated to the formation of seminarians 30 years of age and older who are responding to a call to priestly ministry;
• In 1964, with the encouragement and blessing of Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary became the first seminary in North America established for the formation of men answering the call to priesthood at a later time in their lives. The seminary is located in Weston, Mass., in the Archdiocese of Boston;
• In 1972 the seminary was chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to grant a Master of Divinity degree;
• In 1983, the seminary became an accredited member of the Association of Theological Schools;
• In the fall of 2007, the seminary introduced an optional pre-theology program;
• The program is geared toward men between 30 and 60 years old, and the current average age of men in formation is 47 years old;
• To date, candidates have come to the seminary from more than 150 dioceses and 23 religious communities. The seminary has more than 700 alumni, who serve in dioceses and religious communities throughout the world.
>> Interested in the priesthood?
For more information about becoming a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, contact the archdiocesan Office of Vocations at [email protected] or (314) 792-6460. Father Brian Fallon is the director and may be contacted at [email protected].