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Monsignor Michael J. Wilbers once shared some priestly advice from an old friend.
“Keep close to the Lord Jesus in your prayer. Keep close to the Lord Jesus in your work and ministry. Seek Him often in word and in sacrament. Reveal the Lord’s love for us in who we are and what we do. Remember that the disciples didn’t stay in Emmaus, they spread the Good News. So may you do the same.”
Those words have been guiding Msgr. Wilbers throughout his first 50 years of Priesthood.
Whether by helping parishes throughout the diocese form and empower the laity; providing steady leadership behind the scenes; forging friendships in the parishes that were entrusted to his care; and now by humbly offering up the difficulties of advanced infirmity, he has kept the light of his priestly ordination burning.
“He has served the Church well, gone where he’s been called to go and done what he’s been asked to do,” stated longtime friend Sister Kathleen Wegman of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. “His record of service is a wonderful testament.”
Committed to renewal
Msgr. Wilbers, a son of the late Fred and Julietta Wilbers, grew up in Jefferson City and attended St. Peter Interparish School.
“Many of us who have been formed and nurtured in the environment of a Catholic school know of the great benefits we have received,” he stated upon receiving the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.
He recalled that many priests, religious and laypeople created an atmosphere that brought the Gospel to life for him.
“I am most grateful to my parents who made many sacrifices to provide this opportunity to me,” he said. “I know I would not be a priest today without this foundation.”
He attended the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school in Hannibal, followed by philosophy and theology studies at Conception Seminary in Conception, Mo.
He ministered as a deacon at St. Pius X Parish in Moberly, where he organized a religious education program and helped couples prepare for marriage, and at St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville, where he offered a weekly religious-education course for adults.
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 would spend the next 40 years in both parish and diocesan ministry.
He remained in Moberly as an associate pastor while serving at the chancery offices in Jefferson City as associate director of religious education.
He became the diocesan religious education director in 1974.
“He did a fantastic job of leading that office,” said Mark Saucier, a longtime coworker at the chancery. “He was very proud of those years in religious education, both in terms of the accomplishments and the team he put together.”
Not only did he 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 proved himself to be quite an adept architect for ministry,” stated Jim Kemna, who worked with Msgr. Wilbers in religious education and later served for many years as director.
Msgr. Wilbers organized annual Religious Education Institutes, inviting nationally-recognized Catholic speakers and drawing hundreds of people to the Capital City.
“He wanted everything done right,” said Mr. Kemna. “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.”
While continuing in that role, he was appointed pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in St. Thomas, where his reverence and personal approach immediately impressed his parishioners.
“He never rushed through Mass,” recalled St. Thomas parishioner Joann Heckman. “He always held the host up high and long during the Consecration so you could really meditate,” she said.
His homilies made people think.
“He was very good at taking the Gospel and applying it to everyday life,” she said.
He was committed to hospitality. Mrs. Heckman worked with his housekeeper, Agnes Strope, and fellow parishioner Patricia Loethen to prepare food whenever he entertained guests, including his priest support group.
“He wanted the absolute best for them,” Mrs. Heckman recalled.
St. Thomas parishioners Tom and Carol Backes commented on his easygoing manner, coupled with “fierce dedication to his Catholic faith and his calling to be a priest.”
They will always remember his “example of strong faith in God and in the people he has been chosen to lead and serve.”
They will also remember his fondness for spending time with parishioners and visiting those who were homebound.
The Blair Oaks School District had been using the former St. Thomas the Apostle School as a public grade school for many years before deciding to close it in 1989.
In one of Msgr. Wilbers’s last acts before moving to another parish, he rallied parishioners to reestablish St. Thomas the Apostle School as a ministry of the parish.
Harvester of talent
Msgr. Wilbers served as chancellor of the Jefferson City diocese from 1981-89 and as vicar general from 1988-2002.
In those roles, he assisted Bishop McAuliffe and oversaw many of the day-to-day operations of the diocesan chancery offices.
His work as vicar general for the diocese continued into the time of Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos.
“I’ve always recognized Msgr. Wilbers as a very kind and very patient man,” said Bishop Gaydos. “He brought people together and drew forth their talents in the many activities we undertook for the sake of the Gospel.”
Msgr. Wilbers served as rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph from 1989-99, mentoring many newly ordained priests, including Father Christopher Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia.
“I’ve always appreciated the confidence he had in me and the responsibilities he trusted me with while I was his associate pastor,” Fr. Cordes stated.
Sr. Kathleen enjoyed getting to know Msgr. Wilbers. As a former provincial of the St. Louis Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, she saw how well he respected and collaborated with religious sisters in parishes and in diocesan ministries.
As a native of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City, she witnessed how he ministered to her parents and relatives. She called to mind the homily he preached when her father, Leroy Wegman, died in 1990.
“Dad worked at American Shoe for many years,” she noted. “We used the Gospel reading of Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. Monsignor talked about my Dad in that role: preparing people for the journey.”
Msgr. Wilbers celebrated his 25th priestly anniversary in 1997.
“I treasure greatly just being a part of the everyday experience of people in their laughter and sorrows,” he stated at that time.
“One cannot help but celebrate and give thanks to the Lord,” he said. “He has truly been kind and gracious to me.”
Msgr. Wilbers became pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Ozark in 1999.
Early in his time there, Pope St. John Paul II made him a Prelate of Honor, an honorary member of the Papal Household, with the title Reverend Monsignor.
“He brought strength and unity back to our parish,” Our Lady of the Lake parishioner Gaye Ann Christie recalled at the parish’s 75th anniversary in 2015. “He helped us go from more of a tourist-type parish to a family parish, where we all started working together.”
“He led with such kindness and consistence and passion for the Church,” parishioner Susan Ziegler, longtime parish secretary, recently stated.
She was always amazed at how dedicated he was to being a pastor, despite his heavy responsibilities at the chancery.
“He was spread so thin, but he always took time to be with the parishioners, to socialize with them and get to know all the families and spend time with young people,” she said.
She pointed to his subtle sense of humor.
“Whenever I would get nervous and remind him about meetings or daily chores or talk to him about, ‘Don’t forget this’ or ‘We’ve got to get this done,’ he’d look at me and say, ‘Okay, Martha,’” she recalled.
She knew he was referring to Jesus’s task-oriented and occasionally frustrated friend in Luke 10:38-42.
“Then we’d both laugh,” she said.
“Thank You, God.”
Our Lady of the Lake parishioner Chris Hermann became acquainted with Msgr. Wilbers while serving on the diocesan Finance Council in the 1990s.
Their friendship has grown and endured.
“He was brought up in a loving family and speaks very lovingly in stories about his parents and sisters,” Mr. Hermann noted. “Family seems to be a common theme for him, and I think that shaped him into becoming a compassionate priest.”
Mr. Hermann said Our Lady of the Lake Parish grew in fellowship, communal connection and appreciation for the sacraments throughout Msgr. Wilbers’s pastorate.
His parishioners were always like family to him.
“Our relationship as a family is what he values,” said Mr. Hermann. “The things he accomplished with us and for us were his way of engaging and connecting with the parish community.”
Msgr. Wilbers celebrated his his 40th priestly anniversary at Our Lady of Lourdes in 2012.
He retired for health reasons at the end of 2013.
He settled into a house in Lake Ozark and remained as active as he could. Fellow parishioners would drive him to Mass and take him to lunch.
“We all enjoyed seeing him here and visiting with him because he was always such a positive presence here,” said Mrs. Ziegler.
Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, current vicar general, worked with Msgr. Wilbers for many years in the diocesan Chancery offices.
“While Monsignor Wilbers has held a wide assortment of diocesan positions, his first love was always the parish and the people in the parish,” Msgr. Kurwicki noted.
Msgr. Wilbers has a niece and four nephews. His extended family is grateful to have had him preside at weddings and perform baptisms.
He moved to St. Joseph’s Bluffs at the Heisinger Bluffs Senior Living Community in Jefferson City in early 2021.
He continues to appreciate people’s prayers for him, especially as his golden jubilee approaches.
“I’ve enjoyed my visits with him over the years and am happy to congratulate him on the 50th anniversary of his Priestly Ordination,” said Fr. Cordes.”
“I’ll be praying for him to be able to really celebrate and know how much people love him,” said Mr. Kemna, “and that the Spirit that guided his ministry will continue in the Church.”
“I pray in thanksgiving for his faithful service and friendship all these years,” said Sr. Kathleen.
“I thank God that (Monsignor) made the choice to become a priest and share his love of the Church with everybody he touched in everyday life,” said Mrs. Ziegler. “And we should also pray for his comfort and for him always to stay in the arms of Jesus.”
“Thank You, God, for giving me the chance to know and be served by this wonderful priest!” said Mrs. Heckman.