May 13, 2019
Something very meta happens Sunday nights at St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center. Once the Eucharistic celebration ends, a dinner party breaks out in the Knoxville, Tennessee, center. In a joyful parallel with the Mass and the last supper, pastor Paulist Fr. Don Andrie mixes it up with students over mac and cheese.
Campus ministry events like this echo a significant period in Fr. Don’s faith life. It was when he went to grad school that he realized he was going to Mass not because he wanted to please his mom.
“I was like, yeah, this is important to me and how I understand the world–how life has value,” he says.
Fr. Don grew up in central Minnesota, thankful that his parents weren’t farmers–as their parents had been.
“I was a town kid,” he says. “It was easier than dairy farming, I thought.”
Fr. Don loved science and technology. And he was good at it. Since he was raised Catholic, he knew life as a priest would always be welcomed in his family. But it didn’t take the first time he gave it a shot.
“I thought about it a little bit and went to seminary junior college for a year and didn’t take long to say, ‘Priesthood–no way, no how, not a chance, never,” he says. “Looking back I’d say I wasn’t grown up enough, that I had to mature more. But back then it’s like ‘Why would I want to do that? And–it’s not near as much fun as computers.’”
He went full steam ahead studying science, first at Saint John’s University and then the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he worked for what was then AT&T Bell Labs in Denver.
“I was a great American consumer, right? Making money, saving money, spending money, even bought a house,” he says.
At the same time, he was getting more involved in a parish. It was staffed by Paulists and Fr. Don says it had a great spirit of hospitality.
“You walk in the door and the feeling is ‘You’re welcome here,’” he says. “If you want us to help you work on a couple of things, we can do that. But first, you’re welcome here.”
He was in a music group, on the liturgical environment committee, and helped with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“After a while it was like, huh, I think I want my life to be more than being a good American consumer. I was giving to charities, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “Then it was sort of like, ‘Wow, I could be doing this full-time.’”
And yet he thought he might be making a mistake. He asked some close friends in the music group to tell him that it was crazy for him to become a priest. Instead, they loved the idea.
“It was really hard for me to decide, ‘OK I’m actually going to sell my house and give away this kind of stuff…knowing that I might not go all the way through,’” he says. “What I found in the end is that the things mattered a lot less to me than I thought they would.”When he decided to join the Paulists, other friends affirmed his vocation as well.
“You seem happier,” he says they told him. “Which sort of was true, I guess, in the end, you know. And it’s like they paid me a lot more as a computer software engineer but I think I’m having a lot more fun.“
He held off on telling his family for a while, until he felt more certain.
“I’m the first priest in a couple generations and so I knew that my parents would be really excited. And I didn’t want it to be their decision pushing me,” Fr. Don says. “I wanted to really know that I was choosing this.”
Fr. Don was ordained with the Paulists in May 1994. During his First Mass, there was a moment of doubt. He wondered “How do I know if this took?”
“I came down for communion, and the people coming up for communion, I looked at their faces and said (to myself), ‘Oh, oh it took… I could see it in them even when I was uncertain,” he says.
Parishioners, students friends and family have continued to affirm his vocation as he’s ministered at the University of Minnesota, and St. Luke University Parish at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. Now in Tennessee, he continues a tradition of hospitality that drew him to life with the Paulist Fathers, and which is a hallmark of this parish.
“You are loved and welcomed for who you are–where you are in your life,” says parish secretary Andrea Sirek. “There’s no need to change you into something that they feel like is the more ideal version of who they think you should be. You are allowed to be who you are. And I think that’s just exactly how Christ was as well… They love, and they appreciate, and i just think the Paulists are a great addition to the University of Tennessee.
Student Jack Simmons has only known the parish under Fr. Don, but he agrees that the welcoming leadership has led to blossoming ministries and increased daily Mass attendance.
With “Fr. Don and Fr. Bob (O’Donnell, associate director) as well as our students–there’s great communication,” says Simmons, grand knight of the university’s Knights of Columbus. “Where we ask, they respond. And vice versa.“
Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer based in Pittsburgh.