By Jan Pullella
For The Catholic Messenger
Sixty-five years ago, a first-grade student from St. Alphonsus Parish-Davenport proclaimed his future vocation on the latest, most exciting form of communication — television! Msgr. Drake Shafer remembers that day with fondness and a chuckle. “TV shows were in black and white back then. I remember that I was there on a TV set with other children. A fellow was asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said I was going to be a priest. The fellow had no idea how to respond to that.”
Shafer says his Catholic education and upbringing were the biggest influences on his early vision of the future. “I was taught by Redemptorist priests in Davenport and the Sisters of Humility. Our pastor at St. Alphonsus was Father Ray Miller. In my mind, he was a saint and I wanted to be like him.”
Shafer’s family also was a big influence. His maternal grandmother was a special person in his life. She was Irish and close to two Sisters of Humility.
After he completed eighth grade, the Redemptorists sent Shafer to their minor seminary in Edgerton, Wis. His freshman class had 135 students. Just five of them went on to become priests. “I wouldn’t suggest doing anything like the minor seminary at this time in history,” Msgr. Shafer said. “It was hard to be so young and far from home and family.”
The young man spent six years in Edgerton before leaving the Redemptorists and returning to Iowa. Six months later he called Bishop Gerald O’Keefe to declare his desire to become a diocesan priest. He finished his undergraduate work at St. Ambrose College in Davenport and then attended the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium. “It was a beautiful place and the priests and other seminarians there certainly influenced me to persevere.”
Back in Iowa, Shafer was ordained a deacon at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and spent a year in the parish before being ordained to the priesthood in 1973. Father Shafer spent a year at a parish in Fort Madison and then another year in Belgium. When he returned, Fr. Shafer was assigned to teach at St. Ambrose College (later university). He spent the next 26 years there as a faculty member. The opportunity to teach theology and to study in Belgium represented significant times in the life of this priest.
He also remembers traveling to Rome in 1975 and participating at a Mass at which St. Paul VI presided. In 1979, he saw St. John Paul II when he made a historic trip to Iowa as pope. “I was at St. Ambrose when 150 of us went to the Living History Farms in Des Moines to hear the pope speak. It was unforgettable. We were close to the saints.”
Along the way, he received the title of Monsignor. Now 72, Msgr. Shafer continues in active ministry as the pastor of St. Ann Parish in Long Grove. “I have been blessed with so many different ministries — the college ministry, serving as vicar general at one time, and in parishes. All of these have been opportunities for grace.”
He could be retired by now, but prefers not to slow down. “Celebrating Mass with the people is the greatest gift. And, as a priest, I am with people at their highest and lowest moments. It is a special calling. I have been blessed.”
(Jan Pullella is a member of the Sacred Cathedral vocations committee.)