Read: Happy 67th Anniversary of Priesthood, Bishop Mengeling!

Tomorrow marks the 67th anniversary of priestly ordination for the Most Reverend Carl Mengeling, Bishop Emeritus of Lansing, pictured. Happy anniversary Bishop Mengeling! Ad multos annos!

To mark the occasion, Bishop Mengeling, who turns 94 this year, has been in discussion with Father Dwight Ezop of FAITH Magazine, the official publication of the Diocese of Lansing. Here is their conversation below. Enjoy!

Father Ezop: One of the things that always touched me during your time as our bishop was the great care that you showed for those who were joining the Church as catechumens (those to be baptized) and candidates (those to make their profession of faith), especially at the Rite of Election. Most people don’t know that you became Catholic as a young person. Tell us a little about how you became Catholic.

Bishop Mengeling: My family came from Germany after the First World War. They initially settled in and around Joliet, Illinois, where many of them farmed. None of my father’s family were Catholic — in fact, I later found out that none of them went to church. My father was very much against religion, even hostile at times. But many of my mother’s family were Catholic, and she did what she could to encourage faith in our home. It was her brother, my Uncle August, who taught me so much about my faith. He was a giant of a man and was very involved in the life of his parish.

When I was nine years old, my sisters and I were brought to St. Mary School in Hammond, about five miles from my family’s home, and we were baptized by the pastor, Msgr. Hildebrandt. Several of the Franciscan sisters led my sisters and me from our classrooms and we met Msgr. Hildebrandt in the church, where we were baptized.

One of the big problems was who would be the godparent. We lived five miles from the school, and so we took the school bus every day. There was an older fellow, Mr. Baumgartner, who drove the bus. He was a nice guy, and Msgr. Hildebrandt asked him to sponsor my sisters and me. So that day, when I was baptized, I became a Catholic. It was beautiful, really wonderful.

Father Ezop: When did you start sensing a call to the priesthood?

Bishop Mengeling: I think it was in the seventh grade. Msgr. Hildebrandt and other priests of the diocese had everything to do with me becoming a priest. When the time came, they took me to St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. I studied there and was ordained a priest in May 1957. I spent five years at St. Mark Parish in Gary, the largest in the diocese, before I was sent to Rome to study for a doctoral degree in moral theology. Bishop Grutka made all this happen — I didn’t know anything about it until I was sent for studies. I studied in Rome and came back in 1964. I began to teach in a number of places at both the high school and the seminary level. I was also active in parish ministry. It was a great time and there was never a dull moment.

Father Ezop: It sounds like you were extremely busy. Do you remember what the day was like when you received the phone call from the papal nuncio, Archbishop Cacciavillan, about being appointed to the Diocese of Lansing?

Bishop Mengeling: I was pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Munster, Indiana, at the time. It was the largest parish in the diocese. I was sitting with my three associate priests when the call came. Archbishop Cacciavillan, the nuncio, asked me many questions, and I had a lot of questions for him. My three assistants were sitting there listening to everything and were mystified by the conversation. I was on the phone with the nuncio for more than 15 minutes. When the conversation finally ended, I turned to my assistants and said, “Well, there’s going to be a change …”

Father Ezop: What were your first impressions about the Diocese of Lansing?

Bishop Mengeling: Well, I can tell you two things. First, I knew absolutely nothing about the diocese. I had never been here in my life. I didn’t know any of the priests, and I didn’t know Bishop Kenneth Povish, who was the bishop here at the time. I knew nothing. The second thing I can tell you is that I needed that change. Anyhow, once you’re named a bishop-elect, you have three months. I knew nothing about this place, and I needed to learn about it.

Soon, I came here to Lansing, to this very house. [The home in which Bishop Mengeling resides was, at the time, where Bishop Povish lived.] I met Bishop Povish here. He was a wonderful bishop, and he was so kind to me. I got here and became acquainted with him, and he helped me learn about the Diocese of Lansing. I stayed right here, and Bishop Povish took me around to many places. One day, he told me we would take a little trip. He didn’t tell me much about where we were going or why. It turns out we were going to the dedication of the first group of retirement apartments for senior priests in DeWitt, on the grounds of St. Francis Retreat Center. I didn’t know any priests there, but I soon got to see several of them and eventually got to know all of them.

It turned out to be a blessing that I didn’t know anything about the diocese. I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I learned about the diocese's sense of openness and togetherness. I tried to cultivate that, and I know I experienced it. There’s such a good spirit among the priests here. The priests here helped to open doors for me. They helped me to understand the diocese, its people, and its geography.

Father Ezop: You mentioned earlier that when you were named bishop of Lansing that you needed the change. What do you mean by that?

Bishop Mengeling: Coming to the Diocese of Lansing was the best thing that has happened to me. I lost my mediocrity. I needed a challenge, and I didn’t even know it. When I arrived here, I found priests who were on fire. This was a whole new experience for me, and it has been a positive one. I’m happy here, and there is never a dull moment.

Father Ezop: What is it like to be an emeritus bishop?

Bishop Mengeling: My prayer life is stronger than ever. I love the Divine Office. I have time to write and to read. There are lots of people who come over to visit me right here. They drop by, and we visit. I used to celebrate daily Mass in a nearby parish, but I don’t do that anymore. I’m happy, though, and I see many good things happening in the diocese. I think people are hungry. They are searching and yearning for the truth.

And the Church can give them the truth.

* Photographs by Matt Riedl