||Thursday, May 23, 2013
After 45 years in ministry, Fr. Martin removing collar
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · July 06, 2012
Looking back on 45 years of ministry, Fr. Dennis Martin reflected on an incident in October 1984 — during his first term at St. Bernadette’s — that prompted such memories he compiled them into their own scrapbook.
He had broken the law.
Martin, who retired this past week, was part of a group self-labeled the “Odessa 7” and the story had been picked up by at least three newspapers and a TV station.
It started with a canoe trip — he and several minister friends were taking the Iowa River from Conesville to Columbus Junction when it started raining. Pouring.
A member of the group, Fr. Ed Fitzpatrick, suggested driving to his brother’s cabin on Lake Odessa near Wapello to wait out the rain. They did, playing cards all day and spending the night sleeping on the floor. The clouds broke and they decided to explore the lake in their canoes.
About a half hour after paddling on the lake, an Iowa Conservation officer, Larry Dessner, roared up in his boat, a dog at his side.
“You’re illegal,” he remembered the officer saying, and ordered them to shore and to his office.
It was duck season, and the law was that no one except hunters are allowed on the lake during duck season, Dessner said, handing them each a $20 ticket.
“We got angry,” Martin said, because duck season actually has two parts, with a weekend between them. It was that weekend when they rode their canoes on the lake, so no hunters were around. “We decided to fight the tickets.”
Word got out, and media outlets came from all around — Muscatine, Burlington and Des Moines — to hear how the judge would rule against the ministers.
Sorry, the judge said, but the law as written includes the weekend, and he upheld the Conservation officer’s tickets.
But that was not the end of the story. Dessner, the ticketing officer, had a daughter who would grow up, meet a guy and sought out Martin to marry them.
“Fifteen years later, I presided over the wedding of that officer’s daughter,” he said. “The night before, we had a little fun with him about it.”
Man in black
Martin attended St. Ambrose University for seminary training and Mt. St. Bernard for his theology degree. He was ordained in 1967.
A diocesan priest out of Davenport, he has moved around the Eastern Iowa area for his entire ministry, serving in West Branch twice. The first time was from 1982 (possibly 1981, he’s not sure) to 1985. The second time was from 2003 to June 30, 2012, when he retired at age 70.
When he first came in the 1980s, the priest oversaw St. Bernadette’s in West Branch and St. Bridget’s in Nolan Settlement, northwest of West Branch near Solon.
But St. Bridget’s closed in his absence, and West Branch and West Liberty combined, so in his second term he also led services at St. Joseph’s.
Martin participated in clinical pastoral education — chaplain training — in 1983 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He and four or five other pastors were each assigned part of the hospital and went out, ministering to patients. When they finished each day, they would talk about their experiences, critique each other and learn better ways to reach out. What had only meant to be a quarter term stretched into a full year, he said.
He spent the next year in Minneapolis as part of a residency, and a substitute pastor filled in for him.
When he left West Branch in 1985, he was assigned to Mercy Hospital and the Veterans Administration hospitals in Iowa City, until 1993. Next he served at St. James, from 1993 to 2003, where he first delved into Hispanic ministry, which helped prepare him for Spanish-speaking services in West Liberty.
Martin said there is more to reaching Hispanics than speaking Spanish as one has to understand the culture as well. West Liberty has two English-speaking services and one in Spanish. Martin will continue to lead the Spanish services for another year while his replacement, Fr. Greg Steckel, better learns the language.
Steckel is coming to West Branch and West Liberty from Lost Nation, Iowa, after overseeing three churches in that area since 2009. He has been a minister since July 12, 1981. Steckel said he has tried to learn Spanish once before, but will need time to improve before he can lead a service.
Connecting with the congregation
The West Branch congregation, Martin said, has an agrarian influence, with many parishioners coming from farms.
“I’ve learned a lot of good lessons from a lot of good people,” he said. Patience was the first that came to mind.
Martin, following the church’s celibacy rule, never married.
“But I could never be a hermit,” he said. “I have to have that interaction. It lifts you up, gives you confidence.”
He said that if he ever feels emotionally down, meeting people always helps.
“And some people have had a lot of loss in their life, and they still find a way to go on,” he said. “That’s really encouraging.”
He thinks the church’s celibacy rule is why there is such a shortage of Catholic priests right now. Though the church has allowed married Lutheran and Anglican ministers — who converted to Catholicism — into the church, softening on the rule, it “shrinks your potential pool of candidates.”
Allowing ministers to marry “might alleviate that shortage,” and draw even more talented and gifted ministers to the church, he said.
Martin said he will miss a lot of people at St. Bernadette’s, but will likely run into them often. He will live in Rochester and often come to town for groceries, to substitute at the church and attend Music in the Park.
Richard Wieneke, parish council president of St. Bernadette’s, said Martin will also be missed.
“He’s a great priest,” he said.
Wieneke said Martin is very well-liked by the congregation.
“He gives you the impression he’s laid-back,” he said. “A lot of parishioners will be sorry Fr. Martin is leaving. They like him that well.”
Martin said that the diocese likes parishioners referring to their priest by including their first names, but “Fr. Denny” never seemed to catch on except with a very few.
“There are probably people who don’t know my first name,” he smiled.
Spokes and clubs
While his title reminds one of the black clerical clothing and white collar, Wieneke said parishioners also know Martin for bicycling and golf.
Bicycling is his big sport. He averages about 3,000 to 4,000 miles per year, he said, and has participated in at least half of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa since riding in its ninth year in 1981 — 31 years ago.
He had only been a casual bike rider up until then.
“Thirty years ago, bicycling wasn’t as popular as it is now,” he said. “Bicycles (for the average rider) weren’t as good as they are now.”
When riding RAGBRAI, he has for the last three years teamed up with his brother, John Martin of Schaumberg, Ill., and brother-in-law Duane Meyers of Mokena, Ill.
“I think I’ll keep going,” he said. He said he would not miss this year, the 40th anniversary of its inception.
Golfing is one way he likes to set aside the collar and get to know parishioners on more casual terms.
“They get to know you in a different context,” Martin said.
How good is he? He considers himself a bogey golfer, playing since his high school years at Notre Dame in Burlington.
“Most of the time I can crack 90 on 18 holes,” he said. “Once or twice a year I can crack 80.”
However, high school play had its ups and downs. Martin once qualified for state, but when he got to the Finkbine course in Iowa City, he shot a 120.
Wieneke said he is sure Martin will continue with sports, even at his age.
“He’s a great golfer and loves to ride bikes, hike and canoe,” he said. “He’s done a lot of sports things that he loves to do, and I’m sure he’s going to enjoy this retirement.”