Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Father Felix Lorge: God has ‘given me quite a checkered career in the priesthood’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Feb. 23, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
After ministry as a Redemptorist and as an Air Force chaplain, Father Felix Lorge served the Diocese of Spokane as a pastor for more than 20 years. He retired in 2005. (IR photo)
In retirement, Father Felix Lorge lives in a house he bought years ago, in a housing development a 20-minute drive from Spokane, east a couple of miles off the Pullman/Colfax highway.
Father Lorge has quite a different story to tell about his life compared to other senior priests in the Diocese of Spokane.
He also has a very short diocesan resumé, compared to many of the other retired priests in the diocese. Here it is in its entirety: “Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Lacrosse, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. John, Sept. 9, 1981. Pastor, St. Patrick Parish, Colfax, July 1, 1985. Retired, July 1, 2005.”
Of course, there is far more to the story of Father Lorge’s life and priesthood than this.
Felix Lorge was born Sept. 23, 1921, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a little country between Germany, France, and Belgium. “What happened was that my eldest brother, Pete, came to the United States, and he got a job in New York, saved money, and sent the money back to have my next oldest brother, John, come over. And my dad said to my mother, ‘Mary, you know what’s going to happen,’ he said, ‘one by one all the boys are going to wind up in New York. Why don’t we just sell everything and all go over together?’
“So the whole family then came over to the United States,” around 1927. There were 10 children in the family – seven boys and three girls. He was just six years old.
“Once we got to New York, of course, I was a product of the public school system. In fact,” the priest says with a chuckle, “when we first started catechism I didn’t particularly want to go, and my dad threatened me. He said, ‘If you don’t go to catechism I’m going to send you to Catholic school.’ That straightened me out in a hurry!”
Upon graduation from high school, Felix had no particular plans in mind. “I worked during the day and went to City College of New York at night,” studying to be an accountant.
“One of the classes I had was History of Civilization, and it was taught by an atheistic professor. He kept poo-pooing the idea of God and especially church, institutional churches. So I became interested in religion to counteract what he was saying. Fortunately, the nuns who had prepared us for First Communion and Confirmation lived just three or four blocks away from where we lived. I went to their convent and asked if I could use some of their books, and in the course of studying I discovered that religion was much more interesting than accounting.”
Young Felix Lorge began thinking seriously about becoming a priest. To his chagrin, however, he discovered that he needed Latin and Greek in order to become a priest. “Of course,” he says, “I had none of those subjects. I hunted around, and I found out that the Redemptorists didn’t care how much formal education you had in those languages. They gave you a test, and however you made out in that particular test that was the grade you went into. First of all, I dropped my job as a kind of shipping clerk, and I stopped going to City College at night, and I studied Latin and Greek on my own.”
After about nine months, Felix had learned three years’ worth of high school Latin, and enough Greek to get by. He then applied and was accepted by the Redmptorists and had to complete only one year of minor, or high school level, seminary.
He entered the seminary in August 1941, and was ordained a priest June 18, 1950, then sent to The Catholic University of America for a master’s degree in modern European history. “In August of 1953,” he recalls, “I was assigned to teach in our minor seminary, which was at St. Mary in Northeast, Pa. I had this degree in Modern European History, and they had me teaching Algebra, and English, and Ancient History. That was my complaint the first year, but after that I loved it because we got holidays, we got summers off, and so forth. By that time I knew my subjects, and I was able to teach them pretty well.”
In 1956, Cardinal Francis Spellman, then Archbishop of New York and the bishop in charge of the U.S. military ordinariate, was looking for priests for military service as chaplains. “So the provincial called me long distance and asked, ‘How would you like to go into the military?’ I said, ‘Not particularly, but if you ask me to go, I’ll go.’ So he said, ‘Put in your application, they’re looking for chaplains.’”
Father Lorge asked other Redemptorists for advice: Which branch of the service should he enter? The consensus was that the Air Force had more of a parish atmosphere than some of the other branches of the military. Plus, he was told, “You don’t have to go bivouacking with the troops, and you don’t have to go on ships and things like that.”
In 1957 he applied to, and was accepted by, the U.S. Air Force. That meant basic training: nine weeks in San Antonio, Texas. His first assignment was to Offut Air Force Base in Omaha, “the Strategic Air Command headquarters at the time,” for a year, followed by three years in Seville, Spain.
All told, Father Lorge served 20 years as an Air Force chaplain, both in the U.S. and overseas. His final duty station was Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane. In the intervening decades, the Second Vatican Council happened, and Religious communities underwent many changes. In some very real ways, the Redemptorist order that Father Lorge joined as a young man no longer existed – and he had changed, too.
“After 20 years of being on my own, it’s kind of hard to go back to a Religious community,” he said. “When I left to go into the Air Force, we had to get permission to do everything, and after being completely independent for 20 years that would have been kind of hard. So I asked to be incardinated into the Diocese of Spokane. I spent 26 years in the diocese, even though I only had two assignments.”
As with all priests ordained prior to the mid-1960s Second Vatican Council, Father Lorge remembers saying the old Latin Mass, and, in his case, all the strict rules and separation from “the world” that went with belonging to a semi-contemplative Religious order prior to the council. For some 15 years Father Lorge said Mass in Latin, facing the same direction as the congregation: toward the altar.
The transition “was a little bit difficult,” Father Lorge remembers. “To me, especially traveling, going into different countries as a military chaplain, it was very convenient saying Mass because you just said Mass in Latin, and everybody understood. I had to make the transition while I was in the military. There were certain things that I always thought were kind of foolish in the old Mass. We’d read the Scriptures in Latin and then have somebody read them in English again. You know, why repeat it? So it made sense to say the Mass in the vernacular of the people, because then they understood what was going on. But it was kind of difficult, switching from Latin to English, because as a military chaplain you don’t have the help of the diocese to help you adjust, you had to do it on your own according to the instructions that came through the Military Ordinariate. You kind of had to feel your way around and do it on your own.”
Father Lorge found, through his years as a chaplain, that he felt closer to the people he was sent to serve than in civilian church communities. “In the military you’re wearing the same uniform” as everyone else. The chaplain insignia is the only thing that sets a priest apart, “so there’s a greater camaraderie in the military. You’re a lot closer to the people than you are in an ordinary parish. You’re one of the military.”
Asked if he has any thoughts for seminarians and newly ordained priests today, Father Lorge smiles. “Being a priest,” he insists, “is the greatest vocation in the world. You’ll never get rich, but you’ll have plenty of spiritual blessings. Really, the material things aren’t all that important, anyway, as long as you have enough to live on. The ability to be an instrument of God in bringing Christ’s Real Presence on the altar, under the form of bread and wine, and to be an instrument of God in helping people to become reconciled to God, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation – I think those two aspects of the priesthood are just mind-boggling. And of course, to evangelize and preach the Gospel of Christ, to bring people into the mystical body of Christ, to baptize – I think it’s the greatest vocation in the world.”
Since officially retiring, Father Lorge helps out in parishes throughout the diocese. “One of the things I tell people, when they ask how I’m doing, is this: In a sense, it’s wonderful to be able to say Mass, and say Mass for your own intentions, because when you’re in a parish obviously you’re obligated to say Mass for the stipends that people give you, and so on, but I’ve said more Masses for my own intentions, and for my deceased brothers and family, during the time that I’ve been retired than I have in the entire time in my priesthood. I get up in the morning and say, ‘Who am I going to say Mass for today?’”
The most difficult part of being retired, Father Lorge says, is “not being able to be active with the parishioners. I’ve been 20 years at Colfax and Lacrosse. You can’t help but have bonds of friendship with people, and I miss them terribly.”
Using his retirement years to travel isn’t an appealing idea for Father Lorge. “I traveled so much in the military,” he says with a smile, “that travel doesn’t hold any attraction for me at all. I like to be at home. I love to read,” mostly history and books about Scripture.
“I think I’ve been very blessed by God,” he said. “He’s given me quite a checkered career in the priesthood. I’ve met some outstanding people in the military and in the parishes that I’ve been in, and I feel blessed at having so many friends, and still having pretty good health at my age – I’m 84.”