FORT SMITH -- One day after his 67th birthday in January, Jack Sidler traded in his 2,200-square-foot house for a 10-foot-by-11-foot dormitory room in Hales Corners, Wis.
He traded in his retirement lifestyle -- which included spending time with his three grown children and five grandchildren, volunteering at St. Edward Mercy Hospice twice a week, studying at the Little Rock Theology Institute, participating in parish life at Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Barling, and enjoying leisure activities -- for life as a seminarian at Sacred Heart School of Theology.
Sidler hopes to be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock in the summer of 2015 and begin his priestly ministry at age 71. If longevity runs in his family -- his father died recently at the age of 95 years, six months and one day -- he will minister in Arkansas for many years.
Sidler retired from employment as director of technical services for Pepper Source in Van Buren in early 2008. He hoped to enjoy many years of retirement with his wife of 46 years, Dee, but instead found himself caring for her in the final months of her life as they battled her lung cancer together. Throughout this ordeal, ending with her death on Nov. 15, 2008, “our faith grew by leaps and bounds as God poured his grace on us to weather this storm,” Sidler said.
In January 2009, he made a silent directed retreat at St. Scholastica Retreat Center. During the retreat Betsy McNeil, a widow and team member for Beginning Experience, gave Sidler a program brochure. One month later, he attended Beginning Experience, and, through reflection and journaling, began a process of healing and drawing closer to God. In October 2009, he began attending Retreat in Daily Life, a 30-week program based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, at St. Scholastica Retreat Center.
“Until I began Retreat in Daily Life,” Sidler said, “I had never dedicated myself to spending an hour a day in prayer, particularly meditative, reflective prayer, and during that process I began to sense a change,” he said. “I started attending daily Mass and one day I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to minister to people. I was volunteering as a pastoral aide eight hours a week at St. Edward’s. There were days I didn’t want to go, but at the end of each day I was always happy I had gone. It dawned on me that I wasn’t old, that I did have something to offer and that God was calling me. I sent (vocations director) Msgr. (Scott) Friend an e-mail. He answered that week, and the discussion was started.”
Sidler talked to his children about his discernment process many times over the next few months, and, when he made his decision, they were very supportive. As a senior seminarian, he is financing his own seminary education. The diocesan vocations office normally funds seminarian education for traditional students.
“I’m spending my children’s inheritance,” he laughed, “but they are very happy for me.”
When he told friends and extended family members of his decision, his sister and several others said they had sensed for some time that God was calling him to be a priest, even before he heard God’s call himself.
Sacred Heart School of Theology educates older candidates for the priesthood from all over the United States and Canada. It also teaches seminarians from the Diocese of Milwaukee and holds an English Language Institute for foreign priests coming to serve in the United States -- six from Africa, two from Poland and one from Brazil.
His peer group of older seminarians share similar experiences and concerns.
“We’re learning how to focus more on study, but as we gain experience we know what to anticipate and don’t worry as much about writing papers and taking tests,” Sidler said.
As he enjoyed his first spring break in March from the seminary, reconnecting with family and friends, Sidler said, “I hope my ministry isn’t defined by my age but by my ability to serve God and minister to people as their priest.
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