Msgr. Chester Michael marks 70 years as priest
It’s rare when a priest lives long enough to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his ordination, but this is what Msgr. Chester Michael did on May 20 with a congregation of at least 300 people at Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Palmyra. The actual date of his ordination was April 6, 1942.
The late Bishop John J. Russell, 10th Bishop of Richmond, died March 17, 1993, at age 95, just four months shy of his 70th anniversary of priesthood ordination in July 1923.
Msgr. Michael, now 95, lives in an apartment at Our Lady of Peace retirement community in Charlottesville. He is in fairly good health, but fell back in December and was sent to the hospital where he was under observation for a few days and then came home.
“I’m very happy to be there,” Msgr. Michael said of his life at Our Lady of Peace the past two years. “They do a good job of taking care of me.
“I was getting very lonely on the mountain (in Afton) where I had lived for 30 years.”
He has dinner each night with two other retired priests at Our Lady of Peace — Father William O’Brien and Father Ralph Hamlet. The three priests take turns celebrating Mass each morning at 10 in the chapel.
In addition to the staff at Our Lady of Peace, Msgr. Michael has frequent contact with his nephew, Paul Zacharias, and his wife, Judy.
“They check on me every day,” Msgr. Michael told The Catholic Virginian.
Bishop Emeritus Walter F. Sullivan presided and preached at the 70th anniversary Mass.
“I first met him when he was pastor of St. Bede’s in Williamsburg,” Bishop Sullivan said. “He’s been a friend ever since.”
Recalling that Msgr. Michael had once been retreat master at the former Genesis House in what was previously known as the White House on the grounds of St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland County, Bishop Sullivan said he went on a retreat there in the 1970s. Msgr. Michael advised him to get plenty of rest and he followed his advice.
“I slept for 24 hours, then got up and returned to Richmond,” he said, as the congregation laughed. “It was the best retreat I ever had.”
Bishop Sullivan also mentioned the 10 summers Msgr. Michael had on what was then known as the Diocesan Mission Band back in the 1940s and early 1950s. At least two younger priests traveled in a van to rural areas of the diocese where there was little or no Catholic presence and had evening prayer meetings similar to a revival. The meetings drew large crowds and included many who had never seen a Catholic priest.
“Monsignor Chet Michael was ordained to go into the whole world proclaiming the good news of salvation,” Bishop Sullivan said, pointing out that the Sunday celebration focused on the Ascension of the Lord.
“That has been the role of Msgr. Chet Michael with enthusiasm for our faith and the importance of Christ in our life.
“It’s in that spirit that we have come together this day,” Bishop Sullivan continued. “Just think of all the lives he has touched in his 70 years as a priest.”
Later, seated on the altar, Msgr. Michael reflected on his prayer life with the Lord which began in his childhood in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. He was the fourth of five children and the fourth boy. His three older brothers and younger sister, Marie Zacharias, have all gone before him.
Msgr. Michael spoke of the three parts of his prayer life which begins with what he called his Christian mantra: “Anything, Lord, everything.”
The second part is the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the phrase: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The third part Msgr. Michael mentioned is the Oblation of St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Take into your hands my entire liberty. Receive my memory, my understanding, my whole will. All that I am, you have given to me. I give it back to you to be disposed of, according to your will.
“Give me only your love and your grace. With these, I am rich enough and desire nothing more.”
These words of St. Ignatius are given to retreatants at the end of the 30-day Ignatian retreat.
Of his future, Msgr. Michael says, “I’m willing to live. I’m willing to die, whatever God chooses.”
He is able to simplify the goal of his prayer life with two key words — gratitude and confidence.
“I have gratitude for the past and trust in God with confidence to take care of me in the future,” he said.
A reception with a potluck supper followed the 6 p.m. Sunday Mass in the commons of the Palmyra church. He was asked why he chose Ss. Peter and Paul for the site of his jubilee Mass.
“The women here have been so good to me,” Msgr. Michael said. “This seemed a good place because they were willing to do the work.”
In addition to St. Bede’s in Williamsburg, other assignments Msgr. Michael had over the years include being pastor of Holy Comforter, Charlottesville, and rector of St. John Vianney Seminary, both in the 1960s.
But perhaps he is best remembered in the Diocese of Richmond for his role with the Cursillo movement and the Spiritual Direction Institute, a formation program which seeks to train spiritual directors.
He has been “officially retired” from active priestly ministry since 1984 on the advice of his doctors after having heart trouble. Bishop Sullivan agreed.
But not having a regular parish or diocesan assignment allowed him to spend more time with the Cursillo movement, giving other spiritual retreats and guiding the Spiritual Direction Institute. Msgr. Michael estimated that about 700 people have participated in the SDI, a two-year course which trains spiritual directors.
“There were times when I had as many as 80 people in the class,” he told The Catholic Virginian.
Recalling his early years growing up in Berkeley Springs, then part of the Richmond diocese, Msgr. Michael said he told his parents while in high school that he wanted to be a priest. His Catholic mother was delighted.
Mrs. Michael took pride in all of her five children, but she always said of Chester that “this is the one who is going to be a priest.”
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