Once while on a sabbatical, Father Donald Antweiler got to spend the night in a tent on the edge of a steep cliff.
The view was breathtaking, but in order to appreciate it, he had to subvert his fear of heights.
“The lesson from that is: in any time of fear, be sure to take the longer view and see what’s beautiful right before you,” said Fr. Antweiler, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese.
“Have the grace to recognize the stars, to see what’s out beyond the cliffside and just be awed and full of wonder,” he suggested.
Fr. Antweiler is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
“Priesthood has been so much fun and so fulfilling!” he said. “I like my job. I like what the Lord has called me to do.”
On this rock
Fr. Antweiler, eldest of the four sons of the late Joseph and Evelyn Antweiler, was born in Burbank, California.
“There weren’t a lot of jobs there, so Dad got a job with Lockheed Aircraft,” Fr. Antweiler noted. “I was baptized in the town of North Hollywood.”
The family moved back to the old Antweiler homestead, a 200-acre farm in the Zion community of Cole County, in 1953, and Mr. Antweiler set about cultivating the difficult soil.
Most of the area had been electrified by that time, but not Zion.
“Three Rivers Electric said they wouldn’t bring lines out that way unless three households agreed to hook up to it,” Fr. Antweiler noted. “Dad had to go around the neighborhood and try to sell two more people to try to get electricity.”
The home initially had no indoor plumbing. Heat came from a wood stove. Water came from a cistern until electricity arrived to pump the water up from a well. The party-line telephone had a hand crank to ring the operator.
Horses powered the farm equipment.
“You talk about primitive!” said Fr. Antweiler.
“Yet, we went to St. Peter School in Jefferson City,” he stated. “It was city life by day and total isolation at night. And we were only seven miles from the city.”
The family at one time maintained up to 100 head of cattle.
“My Dad worked unbelievably hard to make that farm into something while also working in town” — first at a radio shop, then in a steel-manufacturing plant, and then as chief mechanic at the Jefferson City airport, Fr. Antweiler noted.
Each child had assigned chores.
“I remember that KWOS radio played rock ’n roll music for one hour after school,” said Fr. Antweiler. “So, I had my little transistor radio hanging on a nail while I was loading up manure.”
The boys enjoyed camping on top of a massive rock in the middle of the property.
“We called it the Big Rock,” he recalled. “That was a feature our property was known for throughout the neighborhood, going way back.”
Joseph Antweiler worked in town every day while Evelyn served as full-time caregiver to two elderly relatives at home.
The father would pile his sons into a red Studebaker each day and drop them off at school just before 7 a.m. on his way to work.
Young Don could see the dome of the State Capitol through his classroom windows, yet he never visited the Corinthian-column-clad edifice until an eighth-grade class trip.
His earliest impression of priests as people were Father Norman Ahrens reclining on a window sill with his foot up on a radiator in St. Peter School; Father John Buchanan praying his Divine Office in one of the pews where the people sat in St. Peter Church; and Father Richard Cronin giving the future priest a Bible.
Fr. Antweiler admired their simplicity and approachability. He wanted to be like them.
“They made it seem possible that a person like me might be able to be a priest,” he said.
He remembers breaching the subject with his mother while they were in the car.
She told him, “Your Dad and I will be proud of whatever you do.”
“That gave me the freedom to choose to be a priest,” Fr. Antweiler recalled. “They were proud that I felt called to be a priest and continued to follow through with it.
“They were also very proud of all the rest of the kids,” he noted.
He wrote to religious orders all over the United States to learn about high school seminaries.
He wound up choosing St. Thomas Seminary in Hannibal, which was the diocese’s high school for boys considering the Priesthood.
“Turns out, I’m kind of a homebody,” he said.
Fr. Antweiler worked in factories and hotels in Jefferson City over summers throughout his seminary years to help pay his tuition, and for one summer at St. Peter Parish.
“The diocese paid the bulk of my tuition,” he noted. “I wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise.”
He lived at home over the summers and did his share of the chores.
Whenever he worked a late shift, he’d drive home and then recline on the hood of his car, staring up at the sky.
“It’s like the Milky Way went right over our farm,” he said. “That was always a holy moment for me.”
The road to Priesthood
After high school, Fr. Antweiler continued on to Cardinal Glennon College, a seminary in St. Louis.
He once thought about taking some time away to clear his head and listen to his heart.
“But then I realized: Where is there a better place to discern, where you’re challenged with questions about your vocation and your relationship with God and ministering to God’s people, and about yourself?” he recalled.
After college, he continued on to Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.
The Second Vatican Council had concluded a few years previously, and seminaries all over the country were figuring out ways to prepare their students for ministry in a new era in the Church.
Fr. Antweiler served a six-month internship as a transitional deacon at Holy Family Parish in Hannibal.
On May 26, 1973, in St. Peter Church in Jefferson City, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe of Jefferson City, now deceased, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
Fr. Antweiler offered his Mass of Thanksgiving there the following day.
“I was on such a high!” he recalled.
“Fueled by grace”
If Fr. Antweiler could go back 50 years and tell his newly ordained self just one thing, it would be: “It’s gonna’ be good. Really good!”
For him, Priesthood means being “an instrument of God’s love and power and strength to God’s people, in all of kinds of intimate and caring ways — often merely by your presence.”
He’s grateful for how the Lord has worked through him, using his unique gifts and opportunities to serve people.
“And I’m wonderfully amazed and grateful for how people relate to me,” he said.
He’s convinced that listening and being fully present are two of the most important skills a human being can learn.
“To put yourself aside for a moment and really listen to someone else, just being focused on them and trying to hear where they’re coming from — their feelings, their anguish, their joy.
“And when you’re called to be a priest and you answer that call, fueled by grace, people let you do that for them!”
Fr. Antweiler started out as an associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia, then at Ss. Peter & Paul Parish in Boonville.
As a pastor, he served for five years at Our Lady of Snows Parish in Mary’s Home; three years at Visitation Parish in Vienna; nine years at St. Patrick Parish in Rolla; eight years at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in St. Thomas; eight years at Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City and St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek; five years at Immaculate Conception Parish in Loose Creek and St. Louis of France Parish in Bonnots Mill; and seven years at Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.
He began producing the “Across the Diocese” crossword puzzle, a reader favorite in The Catholic Missourian, in 2001. He has created 786 puzzles, and counting.
He retired from full-time ministry on his 75th birthday last year. He lives in the Cathedral of St. Joseph Rectory in Jefferson City.
“Tsunami of prayer”
Last fall, he Fr. Antweiler began his third bout with cancer of the tongue.
He underwent surgery, which involved removing the cancerous part, replacing it with grafted tissue from his arm, and moving an artery from his arm to his neck and mouth.
“It’s honestly a miracle that they can do all of that,” he marveled.
After recovering from surgery, he underwent aggressive radiation therapy to help keep the cancer from returning.
“The treatment burned 40 percent of my saliva glands,” he noted.
For a time, he couldn’t offer Mass. He still has some difficulty receiving Holy Communion.
The blisters on his tongue are finally healing.
“I haven’t been able to eat anything solid since September,” he noted. “I’m transitioning to soft food now.”
He’s overwhelmed by the experience of being prayed for by so many people.
“I feel like I’m being carried along on a tsunami of prayer that’s gotten me to this point,” he said.
His doctor has expressed admiration for Fr. Antweiler’s positive attitude through all of this.
Fr. Antweiler believes it’s an answer to prayer — specifically, a prayer of surrender he’s been adding to his prayer regimen for the past several years.
“The way I see it, ‘It is what it is,’ and God is walking beside me, and you just keep moving on,” he said.
The way home
Fr. Antweiler and his brothers still get together once a month and organize regular “brothers and brides” events that include his siblings’ wives.
“Family is a great support for me,” he said.
So is his priest support group, which started meeting regularly 47 years ago and has gained several members along the way.
“I feel very closely bonded with my brother priests, and I get a lot of strength from that,” he said.
Fr. Antweiler hopes people are grateful to God for the priestly ministry that’s been entrusted to him and carried out with God’s unfailing assistance.
“I hope I’ve been a good enough instrument that you can pray in gratitude for the way the Lord has reached out to you through me,” he said.
“And pray that I get to know him better,” Fr. Antweiler requested. “That’s my desire: to be a deep-soul kind of friend, to ‘get immersed in that loop of grace,’ to borrow a phrase I recently read.”
He’s noticed that the last line on a few of the sisters’ tombstones in the Carmelite Cemetery in Jefferson City reads, “Called home.”
“I like that,” he said. “I want to go on seeing this life as the path home — to love life here while knowing that I’m heading to all the more greatness.”