By Celine Klosterman
Throughout his 10 years in formation to become a priest with a missionary order, Father Nicklas Maria Nietzel spent summers in Russia to bring Christ’s love and hope to people in need.
This Sunday the newly ordained priest, age 33, will share that joy with his home parish as he celebrates Mass at 10 a.m. at St. Mathias Church in Muscatine. A member of the Rome-based Family of Mary — Work of Jesus the High Priest, Fr. Nietzel will be accompanied by 30 members of his religious order as he gives thanks to a Catholic community that helped shape him.
His upcoming “primitz” Mass — which Fr. Nietzel said is a European term for a priest’s first liturgy in his home church — will be the highlight of his month-long visit to the U.S. In mid-October he’ll begin a permanent mission serving hundreds of families in a poor, rural area in the Diocese of Saratov, Russia.
He looks forward to tending to people’s spiritual and material needs there, but little more than a decade ago, he never imagined himself in such a ministry.
Then Joseph Nietzel, he attended Mass weekly with his parents and six siblings, but was more concerned with football and friends than faith. When he was 16, his mother, Lori, invited him to meet a founder of the Family of Mary who was visiting Muscatine. Though not enthused, he agreed to speak to the spiritual leader of the religious order, Father Paul Maria Sigl.
“He was nothing like I had expected. He was young, energetic and full of life,” Fr. Nietzel said. “We didn’t speak at all about the priesthood, but he gave me spiritual counsel and told me to pray and seek what God was asking of me. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a priest, but if I ever do become one, I want to be like him.’ It was inspiring to see someone who really strives to live for God in his own life.”
That day, Lori recalls, Fr. Sigl told her he felt the teenager had a vocation to the priesthood but wasn’t ready to accept it. Then he asked her to pray about it — silently, because Joseph would respond with hostility if he heard the idea.
“He was right,” Fr. Nietzel said with a laugh.
For the next eight years, Lori prayed. During that time her son graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, took a full-time job and discussed marriage with his longtime girlfriend.
But his plans for his life began to chip away, he said. After six years, he and his girlfriend broke up. He was unhappy in his job. And a long-held feeling that something was missing continued to eat at him.
One sleepless night, he pulled out a rosary at 2 a.m. and began to pray. “I felt a sense of peace coming over me. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a reason for this.’ Maybe God’s calling me to explore the priesthood.”
He called Fr. Sigl, with whom Nietzel had stayed in touch over the years. Speaking from Europe, the priest said he was convinced of the younger man’s vocation.
So in 2002, he traveled to Italy to enter the novitiate for the Family of Mary. There his superiors gave him the name of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop. Fr. Nietzel chose to spell the name as his father, Nicklas Nietzel, does.
On June 30, Fr. Nietzel was ordained by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza at the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. Attending the ordination Mass were about 45 other Catholics originally from Muscatine, including his sibling Sister Mary Nichole, who professed final vows with the Family of Mary in 2006, and brother Ben, who is principal of Saints Mary and Mathias Catholic School in Muscatine.
“It was pure joy,” said Lori. “All mothers want a priest, but he used to say, ‘Pray that I become a holy man, not a holy priest. Many great saints never got to become priests, but were holy. Pray, and leave the rest to God.’”
She said it was a sacrifice for her family to watch him leave for Europe. “But if God chose him, we’d have to trust him totally.”
She takes consolation in knowing, as Fr. Sigl told her, that she’ll have spiritual grandchildren elsewhere in the world through Fr. Nietzel.
“It’s humbling to bring to people who live in poverty and hopelessness a little of God’s love and joy,” Fr. Nietzel said.
He’ll be stationed in Alexejevka, but will minister to people throughout an area the size of Iowa. For Catholics, he looks forward to dispensing the Lord’s mercy through the sacrament of reconciliation and continuing to share the beauty of the Mass. For them as well as Orthodox Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths who seek help, he’ll also engage in charity — sharing donations of coal, wood and clothing.
“Of course, it will be hard,” he said. “I’ll miss some creature comforts. But I love going out to these people. And at the end of the day, I became a priest to do God’s will. He’ll give me the grace to do it.”