In a small, white, clapboard church, nestled in the northeast region of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, people gathered last weekend to bid farewell to Father Jacob Gall, fondly known as Father Jake to the congregation.
Like many parishes throughout the nation, declining attendance and a lack of priests left St. Mary of the Angels Oratory at Big Long Lake without a pastor in the early 2000s. In 2006, Bishop D’Arcy officially designated St. Mary of the Angels an oratory (house of prayer) rather than a parish, and appointed Father Dave Carkenord of St. Michael the Archangel in nearby Waterloo as the administrator. Assistance was sought from retired priests in the area to help continue weekend services. In 2010, Father Jacob Gall, a retired priest who celebrated his 90th birthday June 21, answered the call and has been making the 102-mile round trip journey from his home in Elkhart to St. Mary of the Angels ever since.
Offering service in difficult situations is not new to Father Gall. He served in the Navy during World War II as well as the Korean War, and speaks glowingly of his recent experience as an Honor Flight honoree, revisiting war sights with fellow veterans. Those years hold special significance for Father Gall, for it was while he was stationed in Japan during the war that he converted to Catholicism.
He claims that the atmosphere among his shipmates often left him feeling like he was “serving the devil.” To counteract this feeling, he and a small group of corpsman formed a Bible study group. As he studied, he came upon a book called “Faith of Our Fathers,” which led him to seek out a chaplain for further guidance on the Catholic faith. In April of 1952, he was baptized by the Bishop of Japan.
After returning to the states, he dated a nurse whose brother was a priest. Father recalls mentioning to her he was thinking of looking into the priesthood, and that was the last he saw of her. He says she must have known she was no competition for the Lord.
Located in lake country, attendance at the oratory rises on summer weekends as visitors to the lake join the year-round worshipers. On the particular Sunday of Father Gall’s last Mass, an overflow crowd was in attendance.
In contrast, fall finds the oratory sparsely populated, a fact that did not dampened Father Gall’s determination. “If only one person shows up, it is worth the 102-mile drive,” he is rumored to have said. When asked about treacherous driving in the winter months, he said it was nothing compared to his years in the Navy, patrolling the Bering Sea.
Members of the congregation eagerly shared how Father Gall has touched their hearts. Jim Miller remarked on his dry humor, while Jim Harper, a longtime friend, said. “He’s a talker.” Miller explained that when Father Gall is with someone, he is never rushed; he would spend great lengths of time in conversation, “especially if the event is a dinner and you are serving meatloaf.”
Joe Fenker, who has been an altar server for over 75 years and serves every weekend Mass at St. Mary’s, spoke of Father Gall’s oratory skills and how his homilies were always spontaneous, Gospel-centered and from the heart. Barbara and Leroy Carcione described him as a pastoral priest, praying for and visiting those in need, even those from his previous parish in Kendallville.
Those participating in Father Gall’s last Mass at St. Mary of the Angels Oratory were visibly moved by this man of the cloth, the traveling priest, who has given so much of himself to his country and to God. But this is not the end of his journey: Father Gall assured everyone that while this was his last Mass at St. Mary of the Angels Oratory, it will not be his last Mass. His plans are to continue to serve in parishes nearer to his home.
He added that being a priest is “one of the greatest joys, for where else can you turn 90 and still have a job?” In his homily, he stated, “serving the Lord is a gift above all we can think or imagine,” not just for priests, but for all of us.
St. Mary of the Angels will recruit additional priests to cover the Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses for the remainder of the summer, after which time only one weekend Mass will be offered. That Mass will begin at 4 p.m. on Saturday, with Father Carkenord as the celebrant.
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