By John Hummer
Father Tom Helfrich, OSFS, is a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales religious community whose motto is “Live Jesus.”
“This man ‘Lives Jesus’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and he lives his words as well,” said Deacon (Dcn.) Chris Vida, a permanent deacon at St. Rita’s Church in Clarklake, where Fr. Tom is the pastor.
Dcn. Chris uttered those words as the master of ceremonies at Fr. Tom’s 40th anniversary of priesthood celebration held at St. Rita Church in Clarklake earlier this month where he has been the pastor since July 2013.
“He will visit people, he will tend to people, he will minister to people – no matter who you are and where you are, he will bring you peace and great strength.
“He is the priest of the world, he is the man of 10,000 blessings, he is a man who teaches us to say ‘Amen’ like we mean it, he is a friend, a fishing buddy, a golfing buddy, our pastor, and a wonderful, wonderful man.”
Thomas Helfrich was born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 29, 1949. He was the third child of Romaine and Veronica Helfrich and grew up in the Reynolds Corners area of Toledo, near Sylvania. Fr. Tom’s parents both grew up west of Toledo in big families. His father was the youngest of eight children and ran a country store that was part of his life growing up. His mother was the oldest of 11 and grew up on a farm just a mile away from that store. They’re both buried in the church cemetery just down the road from the store.
Fr. Tom grew up with four siblings: three sisters and one brother. He was the middle child. His oldest sister, Carol, passed away suddenly in 1997 at 55. His other siblings include older sister Janet, younger sister Jean, and brother Ron.
Fr. Tom attended Toledo’s St. Therese Little Flower School for grade school from 1954 to 1963, and St. Francis de Sales High School from 1963 to 1967, where Fr. Lehr Barkenquest (his predecessor as pastor at St. Rita’s) taught his senior math class. During these times, he worked as a paperboy, along with his siblings, delivering the Toledo Blade. He also caddied at the Inverness Country Club in Toledo.
During his time at St. Francis de Sales in high school, Fr. Tom was inspired by several priests and brothers who taught there. He joined their religious community, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, in mid-June, right after high school graduation. He lived at the Novitiate House on St. Mary’s Lake, north of Battle Creek, Mich., until 1971. After a year and a half at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek in 1968-69, he attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo from 1970 to 1972. He majored in English, minored in French, and graduated in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts in Education.
Fr. Tom has always loved teaching. In 1972, he completed his student teaching at Lumen Christi High School. He then taught at Aquinas High School in Southgate, Mich. for a year before returning to Lumen. He began his graduate studies in 1974 at St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology, at the University of Toronto. In the summer of 1976, Fr. Tom served as a chaplain intern at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Columbia, South Carolina.
After years of training and preparation, he spent his final nine months as a deacon intern at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Monroe, Mich. Fr. Tom was then ordained a priest on May 13, 1978, at St. Martin de Porres Church in Warren, Mich. with two fellow Oblates.
During a long and interesting career path living Jesus, Fr. Tom taught at four high schools in three states before he returned to the University of Toronto in 1986 to get his Master of Sacred Theology at Regis College, Toronto School of Theology.
Fr. Tom then served four years on the Oblate Formation Team, three years as a vocation director, based at Aquinas High School faculty house in Southgate.
“The team was responsible for the formation and training of young men interested in joining our religious community, The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales,” Fr. Tom explained.
Fr. Tom also worked many summers at Camp de Sales in Brooklyn. He was deeply involved at the Camp from 1971 to 1997. In 1997, his priestly ministry became busier as he became pastor of St. Mary of Good Counsel in Adrian where he served for eight years. In 2005, he moved from St. Mary’s to serve as the chaplain at Siena Heights University, also in Adrian. After eight years at Siena, he was appointed pastor of St. Rita’s Church on July 7, 2013, following the retirement of Fr. Lehr.
Fr. Tom has grown to enjoy his role as pastor at St. Rita.
“It’s very different from my ministry at Siena Heights, and I do miss campus life,” he said.“But I love it here. And while this is very different from the downtown setting of St. Mary’s in Adrian, a parish I still love dearly, it is wonderful to be out in the country and so close to these fabulous lakes and wonderful people.”
Fr. Tom is an avid fisherman and loves the outdoors. He writes a weekly column on the front page of St. Rita’s bulletin called “Fishing Tips” where he tells a real fishing story from his past and relates it at the end on how one can live that fishing story’s lesson in the name of Jesus.
Fr. Jim McHugh, camp director at the De Sales Center camp on Vineyard Lake, has been Fr. Tom’s live-in housemate and friend for many years. He and Fr. Tom joined the Oblates on the same day in 1968, so the two have known each other for over 50 years. Fr. Jim spoke some fond words for Fr. Tom at the anniversary dinner.
“We’re good friends, we work really well together, and I eat a lot of fish – and venison and turkey, and goose and rabbit,” Fr. Jim said jokingly, but truthfully. “You have to have a good appetite for game if you ever want to live with Tom Helfrich,” he joked again. “When he goes fishing, I’ll come and do Mass.”
On a more serious note, Fr. Jim said, “He’s been a great priest, a great example of ministry, and a great example of care for the people of God.”
One special thing about Fr. Tom is that he doesn’t need to look directly at the Gospel when reading its weekly passage during Mass. However, he hasn’t memorized the Bible.
“I do my best to spend time preparing the Sunday Gospel each week, hopefully, ‘internalizing’ the message rather than memorizing words. It’s been a great gift as far as getting very familiar with passages,” he explained. “The thing is, we know the Gospels began as oral tradition and eventually made it to print. Proclaiming the internalized Word really frees up the presenter from having to slavishly stay glued to the page.”
Vicar General of the Diocese of Lansing and pastor of Queen of the Miraculous Medal in Jackson and Our Lady of Fatima parish in Michigan Center, Fr. Tim MacDonald was standing in for Bishop Boyea who could not be at the celebration.
“The bishop extends his deepest thanks and congratulations on the occasion of your 40th anniversary,” said Fr. Tim. “The one thing we always marvel at through his many years of service to the diocese is just how present he is to the [priest] brothers and the Presbyterate. He manages to always be a calming influence and has words of wisdom that truly do guide the brethren who are making some important decisions. For that, I am most grateful.
“He’s breathed new life here at St. Rita,” Fr. Tim added. “Your beautiful church is a testament to what we can all do together in honor of our greater God,” reflecting on a recent renovation of St. Rita’s church facility.
Throughout his busy life, Fr. Tom has had a cross of his own to bear as he has battled kidney issues since the age of 12. He has had two kidney transplants and is currently on his third and fourth kidneys. One of his kidney donors was his brother, Ron.
One thing that sticks out in his brother’s mind, that he told the anniversary crowd, was when he was a teenager going through some issues, older brother Tom simply told him at the end of a conversation, ‘You’re alright, Ron.” Those simple words meant the world to Ron. “Sometimes the simplest, most basic responses are the ones that make the most impact,” he added. Forty-some-odd years later, I want to say, ‘thank you’ for that simple, but powerful statement of affirmation.”
Dcn. Chris credits Fr. Tom for nudging him into the Diaconate, as Fr. Tom was his spiritual director when he made the commitment to study to become a deacon.
“I’ve learned a great deal from this man,” he says. “I’ve learned to be grateful, I’ve learned to be thankful, I’ve learned that there are two sides to every story – always be gracious and give the benefit of the doubt”.
Fr. Tom likes to quote the Gospel of John, said Dcn. Chris, particularly John:10:10, when Jesus says, ‘I have come to give them life – life to the full.’ This man lives life to the full. He is a wonderful example of living life, enjoying life, being grateful for life.
“I can honestly say if it were not for this man, I would not be a deacon. I would not be at St. Rita, and I would not be standing before you today.” He then spoke to Fr. Tom directly, “Fr. Tom, I thank you for everything you did and are to me.”
In his closing remarks to the standing-room-only crowd in St. Rita’s Cornfield Hall, Fr. Tom said, “You are just such a gift – every one of you.”
Though he was speaking to the captive audience at St. Rita, his words could apply to any church community of faith.
“Altogether as a community of faith, something happens. This is a strong community. Thank you for saying ‘Amen’ out loud, thank you for being welcoming, and thank you for bringing energy and spirit to your faith and to our worship. Thank you for being the church.”
St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of the Oblates, of the De Sales Center, and a saint Fr. Tom speaks of often, was the subject of his parting comments.
“I am nothing, if not a man,” he quoted de Sales. “Well I am nothing, if not an Oblate, and closed the celebration with his favorite blessing:
“May Almighty God bless you, and may God bless many people through you. May you be such good people that when folks see you, they catch a glimpse of Jesus.”
You’re alright, Fr. Tom.