Pastor – Thomas Helfrich, OSFS
Thomas Helfrich was born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 29, 1949. He was the third child of Romaine and Veronica and grew up in the Reynolds Corners area of Toledo, near Sylvania. Fr. Tom’s parents both grew up west of Toledo in big families. “Dad was the youngest of 8,” he explained, “and his father ran a country store that was part of my life growing up. Mom was the oldest of 11 and grew up on a farm just a mile away from that store. They’re both buried in the church cemetery just down the road from the store, at Immaculate Conception, Raab’s Corners.”
He attended Little Flower School for grade school from 1954 to 1963, and St. Francis de Sales for high school from 1963 to 1967, where Fr. Lehr Barkenquest (his predecessor as pastor at St. Rita’s) taught his senior math class. During these times, he worked as a paperboy, along with his siblings, delivering the Toledo Blade. He also caddied at the Inverness Country Club in Toledo. The two summers before graduating high school, he answered the telephone at the Toledo Tennis club.
Fr. Tom grew up with four siblings: three sisters and one brother. “My oldest sister, Carol, mother of three and grandmother of seven, became a special education teacher at Sylvania Southview. In one of the great shocks of our family’s life, she died very suddenly in 1997 at the age of 55. Janet is my older sister, a full professor in physical education and sports at Central Michigan University, where she has taught for 35 years. She’s a great athlete and sure keeps me moving! My younger sister, Jean, is married to Joe and they have two children, one in college, one recently graduated. They live north of New York City. Ron, my brother, is the youngest in the family and the most avid Tigers fan. He and his wife Penny have kept might busy with their three children, one still in high school, two graduated. They live in St. Charles, Michigan, near Saginaw where Ron keeps the mail service on track and Penny touches lives as an occupational therapist.”
During his time at St. Francis de Sales in high school, Fr. Tom was inspired by a number of impressive priests and brothers who taught there. Fr. Tom joined their religious community, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, in mid-June, right after graduation. He lived at the novitiate house on St. Mary’s Lake, north of Battle Creek, Michigan, until 1971. After a year and a half at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek (1968 – 1969), he then attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (1970 – 1972). He majored in English, minored in French, and graduated in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts in education.
Much of Fr. Tom’s work experience centers on teaching. In 1972, he completed his student teaching at Lumen Christi High School in Jackson, Michigan. He then taught at Aquinas High School in Southgate, Michigan, for a year before returning to Lumen Christi again. He began his graduate studies in 1974 at St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology, at the University of Toronto. In the summer of 1976, Fr. Tom served as a chaplain intern at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Columbia, South Carolina, as part of the Clinical-Pastoral Education program.
After years of training and preparation, he spent his final nine months as a deacon intern at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Monroe, Michigan. Fr. Tom was ordained on May 13, 1978, at St. Martin de Porres Church in Warren, Michigan, with two fellow oblates.
From 1978 to 1986, he taught at four high schools. He returned to Aquinas and Lumen Christi for a time but also taught at Central Catholic High School in Toledo and Aquinas Institute in Rochester, New York. In accordance with his dedication to educating others, he continued his own education as well. In 1986, he returned to the University of Toronto to get his Masters of Sacred Theology at Regis College, Toronto School of Theology.
Fr. Tom then served four years on the Oblate Formation Team, based at Aquinas High School faculty house in Southgate. “The team was responsible for the formation and training of young men interested in joining our religious community, The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales,” Fr. Tom explained. “After a year on the formation team, I accepted the position of vocation director, still based at Southgate, but now doing some travel to follow up on prospective members.”
Like his predecessor here at St. Rita’s, Fr. Lehr, Fr. Tom also worked at Camp de Sales in Brooklyn. He was deeply involved at the Camp from 1971 to 1997, except the summer in 1976 when he was in South Carolina. During his first five years at Camp, he served as a cabin counselor and developed the sailing program. He was Camp Director from 1977 to 1981, where his duties included hiring, training, and managing the staff. In the summer of 1987, Fr. Tom returned to the Camp as the unofficial pastor. When the camp introduced an outdoor education program, Fr. Tom’s teaching responsibilities expanded to fill the new role and kept him there year-round instead of merely during the summer.
In 1997, his priestly ministry became busier but just as wonderful, as he became pastor of St. Mary of Good Counsel in Adrian, Michigan, where he served for 8 years. In 2005, he moved from St. Mary’s to serve as the chaplain at Siena Heights University, also in Adrian. After 8 years at Siena, he was appointed pastor of St. Rita’s Church on July 7, 2013, following Fr. Lehr’s retirement.
This ministry provides new challenges and opportunities for Fr. Tom, and he is delighted to be here. “It’s very different from my ministry at Siena Heights, and I do miss campus life. But I love it here. And while this is very different from the downtown setting of St. Mary’s in Adrian, a parish I still love dearly, it is wonderful to be out in the country and so close to these fabulous lakes and wonderful people.”
He is privileged to have lead parish missions and retreats in many settings proclaiming the optimistic spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. Through this work, Fr. Tom says he’s come to realize his vocation in life is to teach Catholics to say “Amen” like they mean it—and to live their faith in a way that makes it evident they love it. He has already brought new energy and ideas for the church, and we hope he is with us for years to come.
Fr. Tom’s life has been interesting and varied. Here are some fun facts about Fr. Tom and his experiences. Enjoy!
- It comes as no surprise to learn that Fr. Tom is an avid fisherman and loves the outdoors. We have all enjoyed reading his “Fishing Tips” in the weekly bulletin. What many don’t know is that his family enjoyed a number of wonderful vacations in the Irish Hills. “The first such trip I remember had us renting a cottage on the southeast shore of Clarklake not far from the party store,” he recalled. “I was about 7 and was convinced that the fellow who ran the store was named Clark. After all, this was ‘Clark Lake…’ It’s amazing to be so close to that special lake. On my fourteenth birthday, I received a fishing lure—an Abu Reflex spinner—that I was aching to get. The very next day, we came to the Irish Hills to spend the day with relatives who were renting a cottage for a week. That afternoon, cousin Jack took me in the boat to what he assured me was a great fishing spot. It looked lousy to me, right in front of a cottage. Eventually, I tied on that new lure and was shocked to hook up with a mighty fish. We somehow landed that two-pound bass, the first big fish I ever caught, and brought it back to show it off to the gang. And you guessed it: that was on Clarklake, right at Eagle Point at Sander’s rental cottages. I love this place!”
- From the time he was 12 years old, Fr. Tom has lived with glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease that leads to the inability of the kidney to filter waste material from the blood and regulate electrolytes, inhibiting red blood cell production. Fr. Tom has received two kidneys transplants, from his brother Ron, and a fellow Oblate, Fr. Ken McKenna. (See the links below for more details.)
- Fr. Tom worked for Camp de Sales for 14 years! Between 1987 and 1997, the scope of the service increased greatly. “We expanded our programming to include girls’ sessions, co-ed programs, a family program, and an outreach program for inner-city families that I continue involvement with for a week every summer at a camp south of Canton, Ohio.”
- In 1994, while still working at Camp de Sales, Fr. Tom helped develop another program. “I joined a Visitation Sister and a lay teacher from a Visitation school for girls in Minneapolis to begin the Salesian Teen Leadership Camp.” The purpose of this camp is to identify current and potential leaders in high schools, and introduce them to the impacting faith leadership style of St. Francis de Sales. This leadership style was developed as an alternative to other forceful, manipulating, and violent approaches used. The program was inspired by the words of St. Francis: “There is nothing as strong as gentleness, and nothing as gentle as real strength.” Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and Visitation Sisters from all around the country conduct the program.
- When asked about notable places he had visited on retreats, his travel list was impressive. “I have been honored and blessed to have led many parish retreats focused on the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. These have taken me from sites as close as Jackson, Adrian, and Toledo to places as distant as California, Oklahoma, and Long Island, New York. Other retreats have taken me to Florida, and thanks to a dear fellow Oblate who spent years as an Army chaplain, to Pennsylvania and my most exotic and remote site ever, Seoul, Korea.”
- You may have noticed that Fr. Tom doesn’t need to look directly at the Gospel during Mass. However, he hasn’t memorized the Bible. “I do my best to spend time preparing the Sunday Gospel each week, hopefully, ‘internalizing’ the message rather than memorizing words. It’s been a great gift as far as getting very familiar with passages,” he explained. “A week later, though, I would be hard-pressed to be able to present last weekend’s Gospel without the text. The thing is, we know the Gospels began as oral tradition and eventually made it to print. Proclaiming the internalized Word really frees up the presenter from having to slavishly stay glued to the page.”
- Though acquainted with a few different languages, Fr. Tom only claims to be fluent in English. “I minored in French in college and kept up with it for some years. I studied some Spanish in college but really used the language when I was pastor of St. Mary’s in Adrian, a parish that is 30% Hispanic. I still retain some Latin after three years of study in high school and a semester in college. I can chat a bit in Spanish but tend to slip some French into my Spanish and some Spanish into my French. It really is a lot of fun.”
For more about Fr. Tom, check out these articles written about him:
- Article about Fr. Tom joining us at St. Rita’s by Brienne Prusak