Father Mike hangs up his collar

Father Mike Hohenbrink is shown at the St. Michael’s Festival on Friday evening. The 17-year lead pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish will retire June 30 before returning to assume senior status in November. (Photo by Kevin Bean)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN
LIFE EDITOR

It is Monsignor Mike Hohenbrink’s personal philosophy to take each day as it comes.

As the 17-year leader of Findlay’s only Catholic community, he has learned to cross one bridge at a time, always remaining faithful to God’s will and attentive to whomever he’s working with in a given moment.

And with 10,000 parishioners from 3,400 households to keep track of, along with 500-or-so-odd students ranging from pre-K to eighth grade, dramatic shifts can occur even from one hour to the next. Some days, for example, he might officiate a funeral in the morning, with a marriage preparation session that afternoon. “And in the meantime you might be working with a kindergarten class and you’ve got to put a bag over your head to make them laugh.”

Hohenbrink has steadily and graciously led St. Michael the Archangel parish since the start of the 21st century. He’s seen the congregation through the creation of a second location on Bright Road, complete with a new school and the relocation of the parish offices, and he’s seen the community at large through some tough times.

He’ll hold his final Masses as pastor this month, with his last day set for June 30. At that time the church will welcome his successor and former intern from St. Catherine of Siena, Father Michael Zacharias, as its new pastor. Hohenbrink will spend four months, through Nov. 1, soaking in the solitude at his cabin in the Irish Hills of Michigan “in order to give Father Zacharias some space and for me to somehow separate myself.”

He’ll return this fall and take “senior status,” meaning he’ll step away from his administrative duties but will remain on the payroll part time and be able to celebrate Mass at weddings, funerals and baptisms as needed.

In other words, “I will not really be leaving, leaving, as in goodbye … but gone for a while and back again.”

‘A pastor’s heart’

Separating himself won’t be easy for someone who’s built a career on shepherding volunteers within the congregation — and for using his gentle but persistent nature to help heal the city in times of crisis.

“He is an extraordinary man of grace with just a pastor’s heart” not only for his congregation but for the citizenry, says Pastor William Reist of College First Church of God. (He’s) “just a great, great friend, but also a great pastor for the whole community.”

The pastors have served alongside each other since Reist’s arrival 15 years ago and both are active in the Findlay Ministerial Association, which was re-established in the aftermath of the 2007 flood. Hohenbrink continues to be its chairman. They also served together on the board at Blanchard Valley Hospital. Reist points to Hohenbrink’s involvement in community collaborations targeting the current opioid challenge, along with his leading of community prayer vigils that brought about the Cooper Tire reconciliations in 2012.

Reist notes Hohenbrink’s is not always the loudest voice, but it’s one that’s always heard and respected.

One of the most noteworthy uses of this voice, no doubt, were the 60-plus community meetings he held during the early days of his tenure at St. Michael’s, over the course of about six months.
Hohenbrink recalls arriving at the church during a somewhat divisive time in its history. The church had grown beyond its capacity, and parishioners agreed a larger church was needed. What they disagreed on, however, was where it should be located — and if the downtown structure should remain.

“One of the things the people remember what I did is, I had neighborhood meetings. And I was literally just asking them, ‘What do you need?'” Hohenbrink says. “It takes time, but it works.”

It became immediately clear, within the first five meetings, that the downtown church must stay. From there, the congregation turned its attention to where the new, larger church would be located. The church already owned about 20 acres on Bright Road, a “common ground” complete with ample parking, which became the obvious choice.

“It became a feat to accomplish but when you look back on it, it seems like, ‘Well gee, it’s so obvious,'” Hohenbrink says. “People attribute that to me, but I think we did it all together.”

Blanchard Valley Health System CEO Scott Malaney remembers Hohenbrink’s involvement back in those days with fondness. It’s no secret that Hohenbrink loves building things and has done so extensively at his lakeside cabin, but his enthusiasm for the church building project was contagious and his knowledge unparalleled.

“He has an amazing memory for numbers and facts. I think he knew more about the construction project on Bright Road than even the construction team did,” Malaney recalls. “He even climbed up on the roof with them.”

Indeed, once he’s retired from his administrative duties, Hohenbrink supposes he’ll stay on the church’s building committee “because I know every inch of this place.”

The total construction cost, about $23 million, was paid off two years ago, again thanks to Hohenbrink’s affinity for numbers and his skill for drawing out the perfect volunteer for any job. St. Michael’s does not pay anyone to mow its lawns, plant flowers or clean. Instead, a group of hand-picked volunteers does it all every Monday.

“We don’t pay anybody to do that stuff. And that’s how we paid the debt off,” Hohenbrink says. “You can do just about anything because, with all these people, there’s always somebody who knows how to do what needs to be done. And they’re interested in volunteering.”

It’s an interest he’s cultivated within the church’s leadership, as well. Hohenbrink explains there are essentially two bodies which lead the church: the finance committee and the pastoral council. It’s no accident that each is made up at least half by young people ages 30-35 who will someday lead the church — each tapped on the shoulder by Hohenbrink himself.

“First of all, you can’t tell Father Mike no — no matter what he asks,” says parishioner Paul Worstell, who first learned this truth as a new Catholic and a new member of St. Michael’s in about 2000. “It’s lessons on leadership just watching him work.”

Hohenbrink appointed Worstell to a committee investigating the possibility of a new school, and Worstell later led the committee to build the school. All three of his children attended it, and Worstell’s wife is still a preschool teacher there.

While he finds it humbling to hear that people can’t say no when they’ve been “respectfully voluntold” (his words) to a certain committee or a specific cause, Hohenbrink says, “It’s their willingness to do it that makes the difference. They see the value in it.” Above all, that is his hope for the church after his time as lead pastor has come to a close — that its members hang onto that feeling of ownership and remain actively involved as volunteers.

“It’s been just an honor for me to help,” he says. “I know they think it’s all me, but I know it’s all them.”

Final Masses

Hohenbrink was ordained as a priest in 1974. He turned 69 years old this spring and says his decision to step down as lead pastor was driven by Parkinson’s disease and a small heart issue.
It is St. Michael’s standard to hold a minimum seven Masses per weekend: one Saturday mornings and one Saturday nights, plus four Sunday mornings and another on Sunday nights. Factor in special Masses for weddings, funerals, baptisms and first communions, and Hohenbrink says, “It’s nothing for us to have 10 Masses in a weekend.”

It takes a core staff of 10, including three secretaries, to manage the church’s busy schedule, and Hohenbrink has five deacons and Father Scott Woods to help him.

Hohenbrink continues to serve on Blanchard Valley Hospital’s ethics board, along with various capacities and committees within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo, including but not limited to the Teens Encounter Christ committee (a spiritual retreat), dean of the St. Francis de Sales deanery; and a longtime board member for Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in southern Indiana.

In his typical humble way, Hohenbrink brushes off all of his community involvement by stating, “When you’re in a town of 40,000 people for 17 years … the minister is often asked to participate in helping” with things like building blessings, National Day of Prayer or high-profile funerals. He insists the church hosts plenty of events that people merely associate with him, although friends and colleagues are quick to point out the choices he makes to serve the community outside the parish walls.

“If there was a high school football game or basketball game, he was there, cheering them on,” Malaney says of Hohenbrink who, amid his busy schedule, has always taken time to form a special connection with the youth of the community. “Our church, our community, has benefited significantly from him.”

As June 30 nears, staff at St. Michael’s and others in the community have wondered how he will mark his “retirement.” It comes as no surprise that Hohenbrink has something simple in mind.

“Of course everyone wants to have a big reception and party. But I don’t want to do this,” he says. Instead, he’s asked members to invite family, friends, neighbors, former parishioners, co-workers and others to pray together during his final Masses as pastor. Those services will be held at 7:30 and 9 a.m. Sunday at the downtown church; and at 4:30 p.m. June 24 and 10 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. June 25 at the main church.

“As they come to church and receive the Eucharist, that’s the reception,” he says.

Griteman: 419-427-8477
Send an E-mail to Brenna Griteman
Twitter: @BrennaGriteman



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