June 13, 2023 // Diocese

Love for Jesus and His Church Guided Father James Shafer Though 48 Years of Priesthood

Pope St. John Paul II had a saying when he spoke to priests and seminarians: “Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of your life.” For Father James Shafer, this quote has provided guidance throughout his 48 years of service to the priesthood.

Father Shafer was born and raised in Garrett, Indiana, and attended St. Joseph Church and St. Joseph School there. His devoutly Catholic home was the foundation of his vocation. “My mom had a great devotion to Mary and the Rosary, and a great respect for priests and religious. If church was open for Mass or other service, there was never a doubt, we just went.”

Photos Provided by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish
Father James Shafer meets his “hero for the priesthood,” Pope John Paull II, at the Vatican in Rome in 2001.

Father Shafer said his first calling to the priesthood was in fourth grade as a student under Sister Coletta Hennessey. “She loved being a nun. She was full of vim and vigor, and so happy! She came in every day and asked, ‘Which of you boys is going to become a priest?’ and we all raised our hand!”

After completing eighth grade at St. Joseph School, Father Shafer attended Our Lady of the Lake Seminary on Lake Wawasee. There he completed four years of high school and had just begun his first year of minor seminary when his mother passed away. “I was 17 and she died, and everything collapsed. I went home and basically said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

During this time, Father Shafer worked a few jobs, taught school for a bit, then was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he spent one year at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, then a year in Saigon, Vietnam, where he was a clerk. “Officers don’t know this, but clerks run the Army. We were ‘in the know’ on everything!”

Father James Shafer talks with fellow priests at his ordination in 1975 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne.

During his time in Vietnam, he again began thinking about the priesthood. “As much as I may have wanted to at times, I couldn’t shake it and just ‘get on with my life.’ It didn’t work that way. So, I kept a diary about what I was doing in Vietnam, and where I was going with my life, and a lot of reflecting and praying. It became clear to me that by the time I left Vietnam, it seemed like a possibility that the priesthood was where God wanted me.”

Writing to a priest back home, Father Shafer expressed his potential interest in seminary. He was put in contact with the vocations director and shortly afterward was on his way to visit three seminaries, choosing St. Gregory’s Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, to complete his final two years of minor seminary. He then completed four years of major seminary at Mount St. Mary’s of the West in Cincinnati.

In 1975, Father Shafer graduated from seminary and was ordained a priest of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne. “Our ordination class was called ‘Five for God’ and we went around giving slide shows to all the schools to promote vocations.”

Father James Shafer and Father Timothy Wrozek pose for a photo at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish Auction in 2015.

His first assignment began in 1975 at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne as an associate pastor under Father Ed Hessian, who Father Shafer describes as, “My hero! I couldn’t have asked for a better first pastor to serve under.” During that time, Father Shafer also taught Religion at Bishop Dwenger High School.

In 1980, Father Shafer moved to St. Joseph’s Parish in Fort Wayne as an associate pastor under Father Gene Koors. In 1981, he transferred back to Bishop Dwenger High School as its full-time Chaplain, Religion Department Head, and teaching Religion to seniors.

After six years at Bishop Dwenger High School, Bishop John M. D’Arcy installed Father Shafer as pastor at St. Bavo in Mishawaka, where he served for 13 years. In 2000, he became pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Wayne, where he remained for 16 years.

Finally, in 2016, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades installed Father Shafer as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Garrett, bringing him full circle, back to the place where his vocation to the priesthood first took root. After seven years as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish and a total of 48 years of faithful service to the priesthood, Father Shafer will retire on June 20, 2023.

The priesthood has blessed Father Shafer in many ways. “I’ve had so many beautiful experiences with people — when they’re dying, getting married, and other key moments. It’s a reward, a gift, to see people get closer to God.”

“When you are ordained, you think you have it all figured out but you learn otherwise. You come out of seminary with all that theology, but when you think about it, you end up using very little of it and instead, you are interacting with people. At first, I was surprised by how deep people were in their spiritual lives. I expected that of myself, because I was ordained a priest and studied all those years and had all that guidance and spiritual direction. But people were starving for God, and they were like sponges, wanting to soak it up.”

Reflecting about his life as a priest, Father Shafer considered his favorite part. “There isn’t even a debate. My favorite part has been celebrating the Eucharist. My second favorite is hearing confessions, being an instrument of His mercy. It’s a gift from God.”

Father Shafer is looking forward to retirement. “I’m staying in Garrett and moving into an apartment. I really only have the first day planned. I’m going to get up in the morning, whenever I get up — no alarm — and have breakfast. Then I’m going back to bed!”

His plans include travel, particularly to places in Ohio and Pennsylvania where his ancestors lived so he can work on his hobby of genealogy study, and “finally reading some of the books I’ve wanted to read for a long time.” If he’s able, he’d also like to help at the parishes so he can keep in touch with the people he’s met over the years.

Of the wisdom and spiritual counsel that have helped shape and direct Father Shafer’s priesthood, one especially stands out. “In my third year as priest, John Paul II became pope. He has been my hero and inspiration for priesthood. He had a favorite quote he used all the time when he addressed groups of priests and seminarians: ‘Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion — the driving force — of your life.’ This has guided me more than anything else over my years as a priest. As a priest, when you go into your ministry with that kind of an attitude, I think you inspire other people to do that without even saying it. And it works whether you are a priest or a layperson!”

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.