Rest in peace, Msgr. Michael Wilbers, 77

Was pastor, administrator, promoter of lay participation


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Longtime friend and Our Lady of the Lake parishioner Chris Hermann described Monsignor Michael J. Wilbers as “consistent, fair and respectful.”

“He helped a lot of people in their ups and downs in their lives,” Mr. Hermann noted. “He was a calming influence. His message was always to trust — to trust in God. It’s so simple and yet so hard.”

Msgr. Wilbers, 77, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese who previously ministered in Moberly, St. Thomas, Jefferson City, Lake Ozark, the diocesan Religious Education Office and in diocesan administration, died peacefully on Sept. 19.

He had been a priest for 51 years.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Sept. 25, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight presiding and Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos and 45 priests of the diocese concelebrating.

Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general of the diocese and pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, preached the homily.

“His struggle — long, painful, yet witnessing — has concluded,” Msgr. Kurwicki proclaimed from the Cathedral pulpit. “His work is done, his suffering is over, he is at peace. And he will continue to live in the stories that are told about him.”

Friends remember Msgr. Wilbers as a master of patient deliberation.

“He took time to think through important decisions,” observed Sister Kathleen Wegman of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who got to know Msgr. Wilbers when he was vicar general of the diocese and she was provincial leader of her religious congregation.

“His style was steady ... very thoughtful,” she said.

“I don’t think he was capable of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction,” asserted Monsignor Gregory L. Higley, who succeeded Msgr. Wilbers as vicar general from 2002-2015.

“He told me once that he spent the 45-minute drive each way to Jefferson City from his parish of Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Ozark, thinking and praying about issues, questions and concerns that would come across his desk or come up at meetings, that would need his input or require a decision,” Msgr. Higley noted.

Msgr. Wilbers appreciated the story of Jesus’s friends, Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).

Martha was occupied with doing, Mary with being present.

“He strove to be like Mary and ‘choose the better part,’” Mr. Hermann noted. “But he understood full well that we do have to do things and take care of things and be responsible.”

“A Vatican II priest”

Msgr. Wilbers, a son of the late Fred and Julietta Wilbers, was born on June 12, 1946. He had four siblings — two brothers who died as infants, and two sisters, Mary Helen Norfleet and Julie Wieberg.

He attended St. Peter School in Jefferson City, where priests, religious and laypeople joined his family in helping bring the Gospel to life for him.

He attended the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school in Hannibal, followed by four years of philosophy and eight years of theology studies at Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri.

He ministered as a deacon at St. Pius X Parish in Moberly and at St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville.

On Feb. 26, 1972, in St. Peter Church in Jefferson City, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.

Msgr. Wilbers remained in Moberly as an associate pastor while serving at the Chancery offices in Jefferson City as associate director of religious education.

He was promoted to diocesan director of religious education in 1974.

“Collaborating with women religious, as well as the local communities, his goal was to have adult education all throughout the Diocese of Jefferson City,” Msgr. Kurwicki noted.

Not only did Msgr. Wilbers assemble an impressive pool of catechists in Central Missouri, he worked with parishes to the north and the south to establish regional catechetical centers in Edina and Rolla.

“He wanted everything done right,” stated Jim Kemna, who worked with Msgr. Wilbers in religious education and later served for many years as director. “He was very committed to helping the parishes accept the call of the Second Vatican Council to a renewed, invigorated laity and a renewal of catechesis.”

“He was truly a Vatican II priest,” said Carolyn Saucier, who served as diocesan associate director of religious education for 23 years. “He believed in the spirituality and the giftedness of laypeople.”

He respected the gifts of women and helped draw religious sisters and lay women into the work of the Church and decision-making of the diocese.

Msgr. Wilbers recognized Mrs. Saucier’s charism for teaching and invited her to lead adult faith-formation classes throughout the diocese.

“I believe he was an educator at heart,” said Mrs. Saucier. “He was an educator! He had a vision of education for adults in the diocese.”

Called to stretch

Msgr. Wilbers once proclaimed: “May the gifts I have be used in the best possible way for the Lord and his people.”

While continuing as religious education director, he was appointed pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in St. Thomas, where his reverence and personal approach immediately impressed his parishioners.

His homilies made people think.

“He was very good at taking the Gospel and applying it to everyday life,” St. Thomas parishioner Joann Heckman recalled last year for Msgr. Wilbers’s 50th priestly anniversary.

He served as chancellor of the Jefferson City diocese from 1981-89 and as vicar general from 1988-2002, assisting Bishop McAuliffe, who led the diocese from 1969-97, and overseeing many of the day-to-day operations of the diocesan Chancery offices.

“He had to do what many priests have to do, then and now: stretch!” said Msgr. Kurwicki in his Funeral Mass homily. “Working ever-more-closely with the bishop for the administration of the local Church, he also continued growing in his love of the Liturgy.”

His work as vicar general continued into the time of Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos.

“I’ve always recognized Msgr. Wilbers as a very kind and very patient man,” Bishop Gaydos stated. “He brought people together and drew forth their talents in the many activities we undertook for the sake of the Gospel.”

Bishop Gaydos admired Msgr. Wilbers’s thoroughness.

“The way he orchestrated my coming to the diocese was a good example of that,” he recalled. “It was all done like clockwork. Nothing left to chance.”

Msgr. Wilbers served as rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph from 1989-99, mentoring many newly ordained priests, including Father Christopher Cordes, who is now diocesan vicar for priests and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia.

“I’m always very thankful for those four years I spent with him,” Fr. Cordes stated during the vigil service the night before the Funeral Mass.

He said it wasn’t in Msgr. Wilbers’s nature to tell an associate pastor what to do or how to do it.

“He would occasionally share with me his own wisdom and things that he found to be important,” Fr. Cordes recalled. “Not telling me I had to do things that way but letting me know that those are the things that he had found important and wanted to share those aspects of the Priesthood with me.”

“Slow down”

As a former provincial of the St. Louis Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Kathleen saw how well he respected and collaborated with religious sisters in parishes and in diocesan ministries.

“He had lots of heart and insight,” she observed.

She witnessed how he ministered to her parents and relatives. She called to mind the homily he preached when her father, Leroy Wegman, died suddenly at age 67.

“Monsignor came down to the house and met with our family and was so attentive to us,” she recalled. “He gave us time to talk about Dad.”

Mr. Hermann called to mind the steady joy Msgr. Wilbers exhibited and the calming effect it had on the people around him.

“He didn’t pretend to have all the answers, because no one does,” Mr. Hermann noted. “Instead, he instilled in people to have trust in God.”

Msgr. Higley lauded Msgr. Wilbers as “invaluable as a mentor and advisor, and over time as an important collaborator.”

Msgr. Wilbers counseled Msgr. Higley on how to “slow down” and gather as much available information as possible before making important decisions, especially those affecting personnel or programs in the diocese.

“I appreciate how he taught me to ‘get all the facts and details’ before advising the bishop, or before making a decision as the vicar general,” said Msgr. Higley.

“His greatest work”

Msgr. Wilbers became pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Ozark in 1999.

The following year, Pope St. John Paul II made him a Prelate of Honor, an honorary member of the Papal Household, with the title Reverend Monsignor.

One of his best friends, Father Edwin Cole, who had taught him a homiletics class at Conception Seminary, died in 2009 at age 71.

“They were like brothers,” Msgr. Kurwicki noted. “That loss made Monsignor more sensitive to the loss that other people had in their life, as well as praying thrice as hard to increase his faith and belief in the Resurrection from the dead.”

Msgr. Wilbers retired due to failing health at the end of 2013.

He settled into a house in Lake Ozark and remained as active as he could. Fellow parishioners drove him to Mass and took him to lunch.

He moved to St. Joseph’s Bluffs at the Heisinger Bluffs Senior Living Community in Jefferson City in early 2021.

He celebrated his 50th priestly anniversary on Feb. 27, 2022, with Bishop McKnight presenting him a Papal Blessing from Pope Francis.

Msgr. Kurwicki said Msgr. Wilbers’s sisters were “like guardian angels to him,” particularly near the end of his life.

Bishop Gaydos was with Msgr. Wilbers shortly before he died.

“I wanted to share with him that right there as he was dying, he was doing some of his greatest work as a priest,” said Bishop Gaydos, who led the diocese from 1997-2018.

“This is the point at which we make our offering to God of ourselves for the whole world,” he said. “To be able to model that as a priest is a terrific grace, not only for the priest but for the whole Church.”

Msgr. Wilbers died in the company of his family.

Burial was in the Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Jefferson City, Missouri.

“We do have many reasons to be grateful to God for giving us Monsignor for all of these years and the ways in which he shared his gifts with the world,” said Fr. Cordes. “And we can all be grateful for the ways in which he has touched our lives and the lives of so many.”

“God bless him and may he now celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the heavenly altar,” said Msgr. Higley.