“Angel in disguise’

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Community celebrates Sember’s 10 years in priesthood

Stephanie Ortiz Times Herald Correspondent

Photo by Stephanie Ortiz

The Rev. ​Joel Sember ​​speaks at Mass on Sunday about the joys of serving the community at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Oconto. Sember was honored with a celebration commemorating his first 10 years of priesthood.

Members of three parishes joined at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Oconto on Sunday to honor and celebrate the Rev. Joel Sember’s 10 years of priesthood. The afternoon included a special Mass, luncheon, “roast and toast” and several guest speakers.

After finishing nine years of seminary straight out of high school, Sember learned he was assigned to three parishes in Oconto County: St. Patrick in Stiles, Holy Trinity in Oconto and St. Anthony in Oconto Falls, which includes an elementary school.

“I remember thinking you’ve got to be joking, but it has turned out to be a tremendous blessing. I love serving you,” Sember told the packed church Sunday. “This is who I am. This is where I am supposed to be.”

The Mass included 12 servers — four from each parish, a Knights of Columbus honor guard in full regalia, choir and a couple who renewed their wedding vows after 50 years of marriage.

After Mass, the festivities continued with a meal prepared by chef J.R. Ryczkowski. Over cheeses, canapes and a buffet-style meal, guests spoke of Sember and what he has done to bring the community together.

Sember’s twin brother, Ben, told stories of him as a precocious child.

“Everyone in the family believed he would grow up to be a lawyer, because he loved discussing and debating,” he said.

Cindy Westenberg, a member of Holy Trinity, gave an emotional recollection of Sember supporting her when she discovered she had cancer. She said more families attend Mass and more children participate in church functions since Sember’s arrival.

Some spoke of Sember’s positivity and strength during the rebuilding of St. Anthony School after a fire in 2012, his creation of “Cycle for Jesus” in Oconto Falls, and his incorporation of technology in the church and elementary school. Sember also has a blog where he posts his homilies.

Each parish presented a gift to Sember. He received socks to symbolize him running from one parish to another, a small church figurine that plays “O Holy Night,” and a certificate of honor with some money he was instructed not to spend on the churches.

“Father, you are most needed and wanted,” Ryczkowski said, “You are our weapon of mass instruction.”

“He is an angel in disguise,” said Tammy Behnke, a member of St. Patrick. “I don’t know what else to say.”