It’s the middle of May, just a few weeks before priestly ordinations around the Upper Midwest, and the parking garage at 2260 Summit Avenue looks and sounds more like a Tires Plus than The Saint Paul Seminary.
Deacon Tanner Thooft – who is now Fr. Tanner Thooft – has his 2010 Ford Focus jacked up to change the oil and work on the suspension. His arms are soaked in grease as fellow seminarians Deacon Joseph Nguyen and Deacon Nathan Hansen lend a hand.
Eighteen men from eight different dioceses across the Northern Plains are now Catholic priests. And while the members of The Saint Paul Seminary’s ordination class of 2022 aren’t all mechanically minded, each brings a unique acumen for working with head, hand and heart to the presbyterate.
“Jesus’ hands were made for chalices and calluses,” said Fr. Josh Bot, who along with Thooft and Hansen joined the priestly ranks for the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota this spring. “[Working with your hands] to do something for other people gives you that purpose, that motivation to get out of bed in the morning. And also applying that to a priest, you know, every morning when you get up and say Mass, you’re saying that for the people … of God, you’re providing the sacraments for them. And there’s something to giving yourself to people to provide for them – to serve.”
Bot grew up doing just that for his family on a hog farm near Minneota, Minnesota. He still looks forward to waking up early and performing chores around the farm when he goes home.
Thooft and Bot have been in the same class at the same school together since the first grade. Like Bot, Thooft was raised operating agricultural equipment and fixing things on the fly.
When Thooft was first discerning the priesthood at Saint John Vianney College Seminary, he refurbished the seminary’s banquet table by hand. At The Saint Paul Seminary, he built a sail box for Rector Fr. Joseph Taphorn’s boat trailer and put together a loft for his own room – complete with lights and a sound system.
Thooft has spent much of the past four years fixing loose cupboard or cabinet doors, oiling door hinges and performing any other simple tasks he notices the seminary could use. He, Nguyen and Hansen were the most likely to help out a fellow seminarian experiencing car trouble, too. Hansen constructed a trailer for Director of Pastoral Formation Fr. Michael Skluzacek’s two kayaks, as well.
“The way I see myself serving as a priest is really just bringing Jesus Christ into the mundane, simple activities of everyday life,” Thooft said. “So I think a lot of people when they’re out there, fixing a car or plowing the field or checking out somebody at the cash register, probably don’t think that what they’re doing is necessarily all that holy, or something that God takes great delight in. But he created us as humans, he knows that we have to do all these tasks. And he gave them to us as, really, vocations.
“So I see my love for the simple, mundane, everyday things as being able to bring the praise of God, the love of God, the glory of God into all these little activities that I think many times people just write off as unimportant.”
So does Nguyen, whose father showed him how to work on vehicles starting at an early age.
The Savage, Minnesota native says he learned everything else he knows about engines from YouTube.
“[It’s] a unique way of looking at situations not from a lens of right and wrong and fixing them, but a sense of healing; there’s something here that’s good, that can be reused and remade new.”
— Fr. Nathan Hansen, Diocese of New Ulm
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do and you’ve got to go right at it,” Nguyen said.
Fr. Joseph Littlefield of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, agreed. Among the many nicknames he received from fellow seminarians was “Deacon Chevrolet” given his affinity for driving and working on classic vehicles.
His father, a mechanic, always had a Camaro during Littlefield’s childhood and taught the basics. Littlefield’s favorite set of wheels? A Chevy half-ton, short-box pickup from the 1947-53 era.
“I think it’s just being a normal human being,” Littlefield said. “I mean, you know, Jesus and St. Joseph, they’re carpenters. They worked with their hands. It’s just kind of a very natural thing to do.
“Our hobbies and different interests are a great way to get people who might not already be in the pews. Jesus went around all over the place doing different things, so why shouldn’t we?”
Fr. Scott Padrnos’ upbringing included a different taste of manual labor; the Duluth, Minnesota Diocese native’s parents own Gull Four Seasons Resort on Gull Lake in northern Minnesota. Padrnos grew up hauling lumber and fixing cabins at the vacation and fishing destination in northern Minnesota.
It was at the resort that Padrnos, a former college wrestler at Saint John’s University, watched the sunset one night and heard the Holy Spirit asking him to consider the seminary, he says.
“He said, ‘Scott, if you want good things from the Lord, don’t you think you should live a life pleasing to him?’” Padrnos said. “I was like, ‘Alright, Lord. I’ll give you a shot,’ and he wrecked my life in the most beautiful way.”
Now, Padrnos will serve both the locals and visitors to the place he grew up as a priest at nearby St. Francis Catholic Church in Brainerd.
Padrnos spent his final year at The Saint Paul Seminary as a deacon prefect with the newly instituted propaedeutic stage. When he wasn’t helping out with this year of “pre-seminary” formation, he could often be found playing a round of golf with fellow ordinandi Fr. John Utecht, Fr. Nathan Pacer, Fr. Zachary Schaefbauer and others.
Utecht and a few other seminarians even created their own pitching and chipping tournament on the seminary grounds during 2020 when golf courses weren’t accessible. The “Corona Classic” gave them something to do to pass the time and grow in relationship even while living in the seminary’s “COVID cloister.”
“We figured we had a decent amount of open grass, so we’d just pick a tree and use that as a ‘hole,’” Utecht said.
Other members of the ’22 class got into frisbee golf during their time in seminary.
While it’s not exactly hard labor, golf teaches lessons that are portable to the priesthood, too, Utecht said.
“I’d say patience is a big thing. It’s a long road to be able to hit the ball well, and it’s also a long road to get through seminary. So both of those things can take a while. And you just need to be able to have patience and trust.”
The same can be said for painting. Des Moines priests Fr. Rodrigo Mayorga and Fr. Nick Smith both became skilled artists during their time in the seminary.
And don’t count out the academic rigors of 128 credits’ worth of theological courses. That’s what goes into a Master of Divinity degree, which all ordained priests receive from the seminary.
Smith, Pacer and Fr. Connor McGinnis of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis all put in extra time and earned a Master of Arts in Theology on top of their “MDiv.” this year.
“[Working with your hands] to do something for other people gives you that purpose, that motivation to get out of bed in the morning. And also applying that to a priest, you know, every morning when you get up and say Mass, you’re saying that for the people … of God, you’re providing the sacraments for them.”
— Fr. Josh Bot, Diocese of New Ulm
This spring, McGinnis had to leave breakfast with Archbishop Bernard Hebda – which featured the archbishop’s official “call to orders” for McGinnis and three fellow seminarians to become priests – early so he could begin his MAT comprehensive exams.
“I’ve always loved the Church’s intellectual life,” McGinnis said. “I think a lot of it is just growing in confidence and being able to articulate it more deeply – and with that deeper grasp of it, being able to draw connections for people will hopefully be the big thing.”
It’s also a big thing for a rural diocese the size of New Ulm to receive three new priests. Hansen said his father’s childhood working in the back of Hansen Hardware in Dassel, Minnesota was instrumental in young Nathan’s education in plumbing, electrical, carpentry framing and automotive.
“What really makes me excited about being a handyman, too, is taking something that was old, not useful anymore, and repurposing it for something that’s new,” Hansen said. “[It’s] a unique way of looking at situations not from a lens of right and wrong and fixing them, but a sense of healing; there’s something here that’s good, that can be reused and remade new. So … accompanying people and taking the good that’s in them and helping them see that good and take it to a newer and deeper place is something I look forward to in the priesthood.”