By Deacon Derick Cranston
In parish ministry the fruits of a parish priest’s labors are often not realized until years later. It could be a young woman who becomes active in her parish because of her positive experience as an altar server, a young man who pursues a vocation to the priesthood due to the influence of a priest he admired or, in my case, a seemingly offhand question by my pastor: “Have you ever considered becoming a deacon?”
Sometimes a priest’s influence can bear fruit decades after his death. This was the case with Father L.J. Bergthold. He was the pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Richmond when in 1977 he received a letter from a young man named Allen Lyons who was researching his family tree. In his letter, Allen mentioned that some of his ancestors, the Lanz, Strabala and Weber families, lived in Richmond during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He had a list of names and asked Fr. Bergthold if he could check parish records for any of the names. Fr. Bergthold spent hours looking through the records and provided Allen with the information he requested.
Four decades later and more than 20 years after Fr. Bergthold’s death, Allen, now retired after 44 years of practicing law, sent an email to Holy Trinity Parish asking how he could make a contribution to the Priest Aid Society. In his email he wrote that he had recently found Fr. Bergthold’s obituary from 1997 and it stated that memorials may be made to the Priest Aid Society (which provides for medical insurance and priests’ retirement benefits).
When asked why he was motivated to honor the request for memorials, Allen stated, “Fr. Bergthold spent hours looking through parish records and provided me with a wealth of information about my ancestors.”
In a time long before Google allowed us to have vast amounts of information at our fingertips, looking through old records could be a time-consuming chore. Parish records from a hundred years ago could be out of chronological order and often the writing was nearly illegible or faded. In his letter back to Allen, Fr Bergthold included this comment: “I searched the records . . . until I got a headache from trying to decipher them.” Allen said Fr. Bergthold never requested payment of any kind and “…frankly, I was feeling guilty about his headache!”
Allen went on to say, “Because of the generosity and hard work of Fr. Bergthold, I was able to fill in gaps in my family tree … locate other family members and confirm relationships. (Fr. Bergthold) could very easily have told me it was too much work, or suggested that if I wanted the information I could come to Richmond myself or hire someone to look for the information. But he didn’t.”
At times, clergy and lay volunteers can feel as if their efforts are not bearing any fruit. This was noted in a prayer attributed to St. Oscar Romero in speaking about ministry, which reads, “We plant the seeds that one day will grow … we lay foundations that will need further development. … It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.”
Fr. Bergthold never knew that the seed he planted in Allen’s heart would result in a donation to an organization that assists retired priests. But as the prayer attributed to St. Romero so eloquently expressed it, Fr. Bergthold was a worker and not the heavenly master builder; a minister and not a messiah. Fr. Bergthold was simply a parish priest helping someone out of the kindness of his heart. That kindness did not go unrewarded.
(Deacon Derick Cranston is pastoral associate/director of faith formation for parishes in Riverside, Richmond and Wellman.)