Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
‘I know better what’s important, and that is my relationship with God’
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the May 23, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
Msgr. William Van Omeren and Father George Morbeck celebrate 50 years of priestly ministry in the Spokane Diocese this year.
Father George Morbeck of Republic, one of the priests serving the far north part of the Spokane Diocese, was ordained with Father Charles Skok, Msgr. William Van Ommeren and the late Father John O’Dea in Spokane April 30, 1952. Father Skok was profiled in the last issue of the Inland Register (“Father Skok’s 50 years of priesthood: teaching, parish ministry, and learning,” IR 5/2/02)
Technically speaking, Father Morbeck is retired. The priest, now 76, did the paperwork to retire at age 75, “like the Church asks us to,” he said.
While Father Morbeck may be retired, he continues to serve as pastor of the Catholic churches in Republic and Curlew.
Retired priests need a place where they can be of service, he said. “They need to be able to say Mass every day, and be where they can do as much work as they want. I’m in as ideal a place as I can be.”
He has been in that ideal place for 14 years now. He is a genial host in his tidy, but cluttered home. More than a dozen pictures of his large family stand on the bookcase. A bobcat skin hangs on the wall, a trophy from his hunting days in Brewster. “I hunt mostly with a video camera now,” he said.
Father Morbeck has taken lots of video footage of the deer that live in Republic. The deer cross through his yard and nibble on a thorny rosebush planted there.
“We have two herds (of deer) in town,” he said. “White-tail deer on one side of town; mule deer on the other.” With a straight face, he said the deer have gotten so accustomed to town life that a deer waiting to cross the main street looked both ways before crossing ... in the crosswalk.
Father Morbeck doesn’t recall any particular desire to be a priest when he was growing up. He said he knew he would be a priest “about a half hour before I was ordained.” He remembers playing Mass as a child, but “I was never the priest; my older brother was. He was already an altar server and I was still in training. So he got to be the priest” when they played.
He remembered that his pastor told him that if he was going to the seminary, he’d better get some dark clothes. “So we went to J.C. Penney in Lewiston and I got an overcoat and a dark suit.”
Father Morbeck grew up in Uniontown, one of the eight Morbeck children. He recalled going home for the seminary’s summer break and not wanting to go back there in the fall. “But I went anyway. I was too German-stubborn to give up.”
His ministry has been almost entirely in the northern part of the diocese. His southernmost parish was Pasco, where he began as an assistant in 1952.
“Pasco was a little town then,” he said. The parish now has the largest number of registered families in the Spokane Diocese.
He also served as an assistant pastor in Clarkston.
Then he was sent north. He was pastor in Brewster and Twisp. He served at Omak, then Oroville and then south to Ritzville, before being assigned to the parishes of Pend Oreille County out of Newport. In 1988 he went to Republic and Curlew.
The town of Republic has about 1,000 people. Immaculate Conception Parish there has about 85 families. St. Patrick Parish in Curlew, which is 19 miles north, has about 15 families. He much prefers small towns. Spokane, he said, has “too many people.”
Father Morbeck offers Mass nearly every weekday and is seldom gone on the weekend, although he was absent the weekend of April 26-28, giving a retreat for the Okanogan Valley parishes.
He will be absent two weekends in July, however, to attend his family reunion in Uniontown. Father Morbeck and his oldest sister, Holy Names Sister Mary Angela Morbeck in Portland, will be honored for their Religious anniversaries – Father Morbeck’s 50 years of priesthood, and Sister Mary Angela’s 60 years as a member of the Holy Names community. Father Joe Weitensteiner will come to Republic to fill in for Father Morbeck.
Father Morbeck’s parish service could perhaps be described as routine. The years go by, one after another, he said. He knows, however, that serving as a priest is not routine. Officiating at the sacraments and being present at significant moments in people’s lives fills his days as a priest even yet.
He recalled a recent wedding: the bridegroom was 85. The bride was 79.
He recalled the tragic death of a Forest Service employee in an airplane crash and being called to be with the family.
Father Morbeck remembered a time when he was on hospital rounds, and a nurse paged him. She asked him to baptize a baby who came into the world after a miscarriage. The baby was “in a beaker; it was about three or four inches long,” he said.
He recalled the many times people have asked him to hear their confessions, not only in church but in other places, too, such as a service station. This sacrament makes him specially aware that he is only “an instrument of the Lord’s forgiveness.”
He has been humbled by such experiences and also blessed. In his 50 years as a priest, Father Morbeck said he has learned that “it always works out when you’re doing the Lord’s work.”
For the men who enter the priesthood, Father Morbeck suggests “making friends with God. Learn that he is your father and that he is always there.”
He had one more piece of advice which would be suitable for everyone, something his father wrote in one the infrequent letters to the son in the seminary. “At the end of the letter,” Father Morbeck said, “he told me to ‘remember always to pray to Mary. She’ll help you.’
“I followed his advice and she always does.”
Sharing the ordination anniversary date is Msgr. William Van Ommeren.
The monsignor has an easygoing manner and a thoughtful way of speaking, qualities that serve him well as the spiritual director at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, a post he has held for 12 of his 50 years of priestly service.
Father Van, as he is called, was born in Tilburg, Holland. He thought he always wanted to be a priest. “I wanted to be a medical missionary,” he said. He was studying for that in a Holland seminary. His missionary dream ended when he had to have knee surgery, so Father Van decided to come to the United States. He made the trip in 1948.
Two men he knew from his seminary days were already in Spokane: Fathers John Rompa and the late Cornelius Verdoorn. “But I didn’t come here just because they were here,” he said. “I wanted to explore, to make new discoveries...” He was 22 years old; the missionary spirit had taken a different direction.
Father Van’s trip to Spokane led to three years at St. Edward Seminary in Seattle, which was followed by ordination. He was assigned to pastoral work and for four years served as an assistant pastor in St. Augustine and St. Ann parishes in Spokane and Holy Family Parish in Clarkston. In 1956 he served as spiritual director and diocesan supervisor at Marycliff High School.
From 1957-1960, Father Van was released from diocesan duties to attend the Catholic University of America, where he earned a degree in canon law. In 1960 he was appointed chancellor, and he held that post until 1976.
During his time as chancellor, Father Van also served in other capacities; the list is lengthy. He was rector at Bishop White and Mater Cleri seminaries, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Trentwood, and Our Lady of Fatima, Spokane. In 1967 he was named a monsignor. In 1972 he was named vicar general for the diocese and served in that post and as chancellor.
In 1976, Father Van went into full-time pastoral work: three years as pastor of St. Anne Parish in Medical Lake, then at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. He became pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Cheney in 1986.
In 1992 Father Van went to the retreat center and his ministry took a different turn. He said that in his desire to be a priest, “being at a retreat center never entered my head.” He doesn’t like to think of himself as a spiritual director, preferring to say he is a guide, a companion if you will, to people on their spiritual journey.
People’s journeys are sometimes tough, he said. “Goodness can be squashed early in life. But they can rise above what happens to them.” He said he fulfilled his medical desire in one way, in that he is “somewhat of a psychologist” and likes working with people “one-on-one.” He believes that in spite of everything, “people are basically good. There is goodness even in the worst of us.”
Father Van was one of seven Van Ommeren sons. He liked reading religious works, particularly hero stories and recalled that Father Damien was one of his favorites. “I wished I could do that...”
He lived through a dangerous time, though, when Holland was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. His dislike of uniforms, of regimentation and “putting people in a box” from those years lingers even yet. One sign of that is his casual dress.
As he reflected on his priesthood, he said he found that the years from ages 50-75 have become “progressively more peaceful and joyful. From 25-50 I was trying to work and show what I could do. Now I do less worrying. I know better what’s important, and that is my relationship with God.”
For Father Van, his relationship with God has meant choosing the priesthood over and over again. “It’s an ongoing choice and I’m glad to choose it,” he said.
Life is less harried for him now. He said he likes not having to go to meetings, which he called “a nice switch.” He took up golf and even though he is very competitive by nature “in all things,” he said, he plays to beat his own score and had successfully done so last week. “It was the lowest I’d ever had,” he said, “so I’m improving.”
In the Church’s troubles regarding sexual abuse, Father Van said, “we need to all we can to help each other. We need to be concerned about healing those who have been hurt.” The church will heal, he said, “by honesty and a certain humility and by recognition of her human limitations. We have to admit we haven’t got our act together.”
Father Van shared an adage that has served him well: “Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.” He said that all voices in the Church need to be heard, that the discussion is important, but “we should not bend too far this way or too far that way.”
The Church isn’t perfect but, said Father Van, it is “still Church. When times are good, we lose the perspective of our brokenness. We need to listen and communication.”
Respect in communication is important, he said, since “we need one another. We have common goals and we belong to God.”
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