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Father John Worster: Key to priesthood is loving people

The following story appeared in the August 11 Idaho Catholic Register.

Father John Worster is celebrating Mass at St. Mary’s in Boise, where he was pastor from 2015 until his retirement in June of this year. (Courtesy photos/Father John Worster)

By Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

BOISE – Father John Worster vividly remembers his first day in a Catholic Church.

“One afternoon when I was in first grade, Mrs. Alice Miller took me to St. Bonaventure’s Catholic Church. I remember the first time she put my hand in a Holy Water font, and I remember the first time the Sign of the Cross was ever made on me.” He also remembers his baptism.

His father, Jack, had moved to Concord, Calif. to start a new life after divorcing Father Worster’s mother who, Father John said, was “a hopeless alcoholic.” Through his new job, Jack met a Catholic couple, Richard and Alice Miller. They asked Jack if he had a religion. When he answered no, they asked if his son had a religion. When he answered no to that, they asked if they could give his son the Catholic faith.

“The Millers shared their faith with me. That’s how I became Catholic,” Father Worster said. Alice Miller became like a mother to Father Worster.

It’s faithful lay Catholics, like the Millers, that became the favorite part of Father Worster’s 36 years as a priest.

“Priests come and go; the faithful lay people are what make our parishes,” Father Worster said. “They have supported me and all our priests over the years, making sure that the doors of our chapels, schools, food banks and parish offices are open.”

Father Worster retires this year from St. Mary’s Parish in Boise. Since his 1987 ordination, he has served more than 10 parishes in the Diocese of Boise. He was also a military chaplain for the Idaho National Guard for nearly 29 years, retiring at the rank of colonel in 2019. Although he has been given several honors, including a Bronze Star, he still finds his time with the people of Idaho to be the most rewarding aspect of his priesthood.

Loving people is essential to serving as a priest, Father Worster said. “If you’re going to be a priest or Religious in Idaho, you have to know our lay people and be part of a parish family with all the ups and downs and challenges. You have to fall in love with the people.” First Photo, Father Worster, with his father Jack, enjoys one of his favorite pastimes, hunting. Second Photo, Father John is at the ceremony for his retirement from the Idaho National Guard in 2019. He retired at the rank of colonel. Third Photo, Father Worster is ready for anything with one of the students at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Boise. Fourth Photo, Father Worster displays a great catch — a Cutthroat Trout in the Blackfoot River near Soda Springs. (Courtesy photos/Father John Worster)

God did not call him out of the difficult circumstances of his early life, he said, “He called me because of that.” When he was 14, his biological mother killed herself. “We leave suicide in the closet, in the dark. We should talk about it,” he said. “After living through tragedy, you either become compassionate and understanding with human beings, or it destroys you. You have that choice.”

Father Worster’s dad remarried and then divorced again. His third marriage was to Joan, a Lutheran, and lasted for more than 40 years. Joan died in 2020, not long after she and Jack moved to Boise, where his dad still lives. “Although my dad hasn’t become Catholic, over the years, he’s become understanding and sympathetic to the Catholic faith,” Father Worster said.

LOVING PEOPLE is essential to serving as a priest, Father Worster said.

“If you’re going to be a priest or Religious in Idaho, you have to know our lay people and be part of a parish family with all the ups and downs and challenges. You have to fall in love with the people.”

If a young man were to ask him about becoming a priest, he said he would tell him that he needs to love people before going to seminary. “Don’t propose to be a minister of Jesus Christ if you don’t fall in love with these beautiful people … Don’t go off to a seminary. Don’t go off to a convent. Don’t go off to the North American College in Rome. Don’t go to any place for formation unless you first fall in love with these people.”

Father Worster came to this state he loves so much when he enrolled at the University of Idaho to study forest products engineering. The vibrancy at the St. Augustine’s Student Center on the U of I campus drew him deeper into his faith, especially the ministry of the chaplain there, Father Rich Wemhoff.

“A bunch of us priests serving in the Diocese of Boise were recruited by Father Rich Wemhoff,” he said. Father Wemhoff eventually became laicized, married and moved to Washington to open a counseling center. However, his ministry at the student center influenced many to choose the priesthood, including Father Ron Wekerle, Father Paul Wander, Father Mike St. Marie and Father Len MacMillan.

Participating in programs at St. Augustine’s Student Center, volunteering in ministry and going to daily Mass all contributed to strengthening Father Worster’s faith. But it was honest and direct conversations with leaders at the student center that were most helpful in his discernment, he said. “St. Augustine’s was, and continues to be, a wonderful place for evangelizing, sharing and supporting the faith of our Catholic undergraduates in Moscow.”

Father Worster graduated from the University of Idaho in 1977 with a degree in forest products science engineering. He took a year of spiritual discernment, volunteering for three parishes in Lewiston. He also served as youth minister at Lewis-Clark State College.

While in Lewiston, he spent time with Father Joseph Schmidt, Monsignor Andy Schumacher, Monsignor Nicholas Hughes and the Jesuits who were managing St. Stanislaus Parish. “They were very instrumental in encouraging my vocation,” he said. What appealed to Father John most about pursuing the priesthood was having the “ability to stand with the people of God and minister with them, to really make a difference in our communities.”

After his year of discernment, he enrolled at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. He was ordained by Bishop Sylvester Treinen at St. Edward’s Parish in Twin Falls on June 26, 1987. His first assignment was parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, where Father Don Riffle was rector.

IN JULY OF 1990, Father Worster was commissioned as an Army chaplain with rank of first lieutenant and began service in the Idaho National Guard as a battalion chaplain in Pocatello. That same year, he was assigned as parochial vicar at Holy Rosary Parish in Idaho Falls.

“Learning management, organization, technology and people skills through the Guard enhanced my ability to lead a parish,” he said.

His role as a military chaplain, he explained, was analogous to his role as a diocesan priest. “In both cases, we nurture the living, and we honor the fallen. We make sure people have the opportunity for counseling, to worship and to heal.”

In 1991, he was assigned as administrator, and a year later as pastor, at St. Mary’s Parish in Soda Springs, which includes missions in Montpellier, Lava Hot Springs, Malad City and Preston. In 1998, he was named pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Buhl and St. Catherine’s Parish in Hagerman. In 2001, he returned to St. Mary’s in Soda Springs.

In 2004, he was deployed on active duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom. With the rank of major, he served as a brigade chaplain in Kirkuk, Iraq.

“Being in a combat trauma center where the wounded are being treated is a little bit different, a little more intense, but it’s not that different from an emergency room or a surgical theater or any of the places that most Catholic priests visit almost daily in their hospital ministry,” he said.

Although military chaplains are not armed, even in combat zones, he said, chaplains go out in teams with “people who have your back.” One such person was Master Sergeant James Lewis.

“He was a very effective counselor and support to the ministry in Iraq, but he was also a fully trained combat soldier. Many times, he saved my life in Iraq. It’s a very unique and humbling relationship with a brother-in-arms.”

Father Worster was awarded the Bronze Star Med-al and Combat Action Badge for his service. However, he does not like being called a hero. “The real heroes are the soldiers who are in harm’s way every day in defense of this nation,” he said.

He returned to Idaho in 2005, assigned as administrator and then pastor at St. Bernard’s Parish in Blackfoot and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Fort Hall.

In 2008, he began serving the Idaho National Guard as the Joint Forces Command Senior Supervisory Chaplain, with the rank of colonel. In 2009, he took a year sabbatical for advanced strategic studies and attended the Inter-American Defense College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., earning a certificate in hemispheric defense and security.

WHEN FATHER WORSTER returned to Idaho, he was named pastor at Holy Spirit Catholic Com-munity in Pocatello, serving there until his 2015 assignment as pastor at St. Mary’s in Boise.

At the same time, he continued his service as a chaplain at Mountain Home Air Force Base, retiring from the Army National Guard in 2019, after nearly 29 years of full or part-time military service contexts with people is the most challenging aspect of being a priest, he said.

“The most difficult is to go from having coffee with a little old lady, holding her hand and being sensitive to the issues she’s going through, with genuine charity, and then be in a combat trauma center where there’s blood on the floor and people are dying of gunshot wounds. But this is no different from what any other priests go through,” he said.

Father Worster continues to enjoy walking with people in whatever circumstances they face. As a retired priest, he wants to be available to continue to help his brother priests and the laity with what-ever needs they have. “I have some family responsibilities to assume now for my father. But, to the greatest extent possible, I want to be available to my brother priests. I want to be available to the great lay leaders in all of our parishes,” he said.

He is also looking forward to having more time for his greatest passion other than ministry: hunting and fishing. “I don’t really want to go anywhere,” he said. “I just want to stay here and be close to the great people of Idaho.”

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