Father Eugene Wolf and the gift of the priesthood
Tightly huddled in a window well, noses pressed against the glass, the three siblings watched in wonder as the sisters ate their midday meal. As the sisters ate quietly together in the convent, one stood, feet firmly planted, quietly reading to all. The sister looked up from her book, made eye contact with the two brothers and their sister and with a quick spin, promptly turned and headed towards the door.
Spotted, the children leaped out of the window well and scrambled to find some bushes where they could hide from the approaching danger.
“She came out to find us, but she never could,” Father Eugene Wolf says with a twinkle and a smile.
Father Wolf was born on Aug. 6, 1936, the second of eight children. Being the second oldest, he remarked that he had the privilege of seeing the blessing and wonderment when each new life was added to the family.
Eddie was the next child to join the family, and Father Wolf remembers the day well. “I was two years old and sleeping beside my mother in bed. She knew I wanted to tear around on the floor as soon as I awoke, but she didn’t let me that morning. She just told me that we had to wait. I remember seeing a little wet thing on the bed next to my mom, and I thought it was a new puppy. Of course, I wanted to play with the puppy, but my mother said, ‘It is not a puppy, it’s a baby.’ She smiled and told me that it was my new brother.”
Father Wolf’s life as a young boy in his family enkindled a spark for the priesthood. It was in his family that Father Wolf witnessed the deep love a mother has for her child. When his brother Dave was born, Father Wolf vividly remembers his mom bathing his new brother, swaddling him and then sitting down to feed him. Tenderly, she told Dave, “I could just eat you up.” The words struck Father Wolf.
The sisters traveled to Wilton to teach two weeks of summer school each year, and one day, a sister told young Eugene, “I see a little priest in you.” “And that’s all she said,” Father Wolf says. “It stuck with me, and I knew what it meant.
“This was something I used as a priest when discussing the Eucharist. What did Jesus say to the apostles at the Last Supper? ‘Take this and eat of it….’” In her words, it was the true gift of a mother’s love to her child, and Father Wolf kept this love and sentiment in mind, applying it, especially during Corpus Christi.
The thread of his mother’s love is woven throughout Father Wolf’s priesthood. “To entertain us at home, she had us play church, which also helped plant the seed in my mind of the priesthood.”
“Should I? Could I?”
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA)—the same sisters that scoured the convent grounds searching for him while he hid in the bushes—taught Father Wolf into the third grade until his family purchased a farm near Tomah. Even there, the sisters’ influence on him grew. The sisters traveled to Wilton to teach two weeks of summer school each year, and one day, a sister told young Eugene, “I see a little priest in you.”
“And that’s all she said,” Father Wolf says. “It stuck with me, and I knew what it meant. It was a compliment, to be sure, but I didn’t know then if God wanted me to become a priest.”
Those words reverberated within him. Shortly afterward, Father Wolf knelt before the tabernacle at St. John the Baptist Parish in Wilton and told God, “I don’t know if I am supposed to be a priest. You have to tell me.” “No booming voice responded,” Father Wolf recalls. “Not even the gentle words of Jesus telling Peter, John and Andrew, ‘Come, follow me.’ They heard those words. I did not. It was always a wonderment. Should I? Could I? Is this what God wants me to do?”
He knew something was missing in his life. With the encouragement of a local pastor, the witness of his mother’s love and his father’s unwavering encouragement, Father Wolf decided to join the brand-new Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse.
Sixty-five fellow seminarians joined him as the seminary opened for its first year. Professors impressed upon the young men that the path would be challenging. “They told us that only about 10% of us would be ordained. I felt sadness when one would leave, knowing he was a better candidate than me. I wondered to myself why I was there.”
And that loud, booming voice of God never came to Father Wolf to reassure him. But, “I did hear tiny, whispering sounds like Elijah heard on the mountainside,” Father Wolf remembers.
“This is What You Want Me to Do”
So, he put his path in the hands of his professors and God. And Father Wolf returned to the seminary every year for another year of studies. True to his professor’s earlier point, six seminarians were ultimately ordained—9% of all that first began classes with Father Wolf.
On May 25, 1963, Bishop John Patrick Treacy firmly placed his hands on Father Wolf’s head. Standing up, Father Wolf felt a surge of emotion and remembered realizing, “This is what You want me to do.” Tears well up in Father Wolf’s eyes as he recalls this moment. “At that point, I knew. All of those indications, all of those long, hard study years—those were all what God wanted me to do.”
Father Wolf celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination this year and reflects, “And so now, in the present, I am really appreciative of the gift of the priesthood. This is what was meant to be for me. The gifts that come from God are sometimes obvious. In other cases, they take some time to realize that they are gifts. The gift of the priesthood is not for the priest; it is for the people of God. The title of Father is given to the priest because through baptism, holy Eucharist, confession, marriage and confirmation, all of which a priest can do, the priest gives the gifts of life. The gift of the priesthood is a gift to the people from God.
Sharing a homily at classmate Father Jerome Hoeser’s 60th anniversary Mass at St. Henry Parish in Eau Galle, Father Wolf reflected on the various titles a priest can hold, paused, looked to the assembled faithful and said, “Father is enough for me.”
Story by Erik Archer
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the January/February 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine